June 01, 1998
When chicken dolphin own the ocean's surface, go prospecting. There may be a rich vein of big boys nearby.
Word was out. Loads of small dolphin were raiding the edge in 80 to 150 feet of water. It wasn't like there was a load of weeds or flotsam to attract them, just a healthy northbound current and a nice pronounced rip in 120 feet of water. And it was crawling with the little guys.
Of course, the way dolphin fishing goes, patterns can change in a heartbeat. Normally, you can count on a mixed crowd. A school of chickens one minute and a pack of 15-pounders or a pair of 30-pound slammers the next. Tends to keep you on your toes.
And then there are those days when you're up to your gunnels in guppies and you feel like you're robbin' the cradle.
Don't despair. The ocean's a world of eat and be eaten, so there's usually something bigger lurking below.
As we reached the reef edge just south of Fowey Light, it was apparent that the cat was out of the bag. And with the wind down dramatically from the previous day, the ocean was a mill pond. The fleet trolled the edge in force. Capt. George Mitchell brought Snake Dancer off plane and flicked on the radio. The airwaves buzzed with reports of small fish. Mitchell opted to run south a bit where we'd have a little more breathing room. As we ran, every boat we passed was whooping it up on schoolies.
Rather than dragging feathers or rigged baits--the standard drill--Mitchell deployed live pilchards on the outriggers and on two flatlines. To check out the basement, he stuck one on a downrigger to complete our vertical spread. We then slow-trolled the color change where the current galloped along at a pretty good clip.
"If they're around, we'll know soon," Mitchell claimed. Within a minute, we did know. A fish hit a flatline bait, popping the line from the copper-wire dropback loop.
Charles Rosen grabbed the rod, closed the bail, tightened up and reared back. A decent schoolie was airborne, gyrating and twisting. Rosen worked the fish--about an 8-pounder--to the boat in short order. Strangely, it was a loner. A little odd, but it does happen. A middle school dropout. But it was a little bigger than the schoolies we'd seen hooked up on other boats. Mitchell swung the dolphin into the box, rebaited Rosen's hook and we trolled on--for about 30 seconds. Three baits met their demise simultaneously. Rosen, George Weiss and I scrambled to grab a rod.
Our fish put on an air show while we maneuvered to keep our lines straight. We somehow avoided killing each other while we dipped, dodged, bobbed and weaved.
How is it that a hot school of chicken dolphin can make seasoned fishermen look like the Keystone Cops?
We had all three fish boatside in short order. This time, they brought their pals. About 20 fish milled around three feet below the boat. Weiss kept his hooked schoolie in the water while Rosen and I swung our fish over the gunnel and toward Mitchell, poised over the open fishbox like a catcher over the plate.
Mitchell tossed some cut bait into the drink, which they ate, although halfheartedly. When we tossed our livies into the fray, however, they perked up just fine. Not that you need live bait for small dolphin, mind you. But this bunch looked a little worked over.
"Probably been fished a couple times already this morning," said Mitchell. "They're a might picky for little dolphin." We managed to take two more on pilchards, and Rosen grabbed an 8-weight flyrod and nailed one on a Clouser Minnow from the bow. The rest were wary--they simply followed our streamers before turning away. Then they sounded, so we commenced slow-trolling our baits and one rod got hit right away.
Mitchell reeled the schoolie to the boat while Rosen and I grabbed flyrods in hopes that a school would follow. The fish in fact had company and they were a pound or two bigger than the ones we caught earlier. George Weiss hooked up on a pilchard and Rosen's fly was blasted once he let it sink down to the fish, about five feet under the hull. My fly rod was rigged with a floating line and a popper and although Rosen was scoring deep with a sinking line, I figured that I could coax a fish to the top.
I chugged away, and a dolphin came straight up, exploded on my popper and skied like a Polaris missile.
"Ya' think he heard it?" Rosen laughed.
"They like their food to talk to 'em sometimes, Charles!" I said.
After I swung my fish aboard, a wake caught my eye to the right of the stern. A dorsal popped up like a fence.
"Sail!" I yelled.
Before the others looked where I was pointing, the fish went down. Mitchell shot me a sly smile. Probably figured I was hallucinating. Granted, after a day's worth of peanut dolphin, a mirage wasn't totally out of the question. I was entitled. When you want to see something bad enough, you see it. Besides, I fish the flats. Wouldn't be the first time I saw something that wasn't there. Then again, sailfish are known to home in on a pack of schoolie dolphin on the feed.
"Humor me, George," I said.
"Just this once," he warned, then he cast two lines baited with pilchards in the general direction of my mirage. He handed one rod to Weiss, who barely had time to react before line began peeling off the spool.
"Think it's him?" Weiss wondered aloud.
After free-spooling a little more line, he flipped the bail, came tight and jabbed the hook home. The fish responded with a 50-yard sprint, doubled back and skyrocketed through the surface.
Sure enough, it was him.
"He was eyeballing these dolphin from the cheap seats," said Mitchell. "I was expecting a bull dolphin, but who's complaining?" he added. Weiss landed the big sail after a dogged battle. A bonus catch directly attributed to our dolphin commotion. It didn't hurt that we were fishing in 150 feet of water. Perfect sailfish country. And besides sailfish, wahoo and kings, the occasional marlin will check in while little dolphin jump on your hooks. But big dolphin will be the most common lurkers in the shadows. Right under your nose.
There are ways to target them when chickens rule the roost. The time-honored practice is to head farther offshore to find bigger dolphin, either trolling big lures or rigged baits, especially under frigate birds or substantial flotsam. That does pay off, but farther and deeper doesn't always mean bigger. Try prospecting for Goliaths around the
schoolies. Wherever you're catching them.
A school of really small dolphin is what you want. Once you find 'em, especially along a heavy weedline or under debris, toss out some cut ballyhoo or whatever you have on hand for chum, hook a few fish on light tackle, have a little fun, and make a little noise. Big dolphin are prowlers. They're always on the move, but are happy to stop in at an oasis--the school you've attracted in this case--before moving on. However, don't get preoccupied with the schoolies and then check for bigger fish later. Once the schoolies cool off and move on, so will a bigger fish that's hanging nearby.
You can go about it in a number of ways. First, cut your engine. Many veterans, Mitchell included, feel that this takes the edge off a big, solitary fish. And have a couple rigs ready for the job. Mitchell suggests 20-pound spinning gear, first because it allows you to easily cast a big bait or lure well outside the perimeter of the feeding schoolies, and also because most large spinners hold 300 yards of line and more. You'll need that line when a huge dolphin, wahoo or billfish horns in. If you prefer, a 12- to 15-pound plug outfit will do.
As far as the food goes, chuggers for the surface, whole, unweighted rigged dead baits and live baits for middle depths, and whole ballyhoo on 2- to 3-ounce single-hook jigs for deep drops make up a pretty wholesome menu. Have this variety on board, and you'll have all the bases covered.
When it comes to baits and lures, Mitchell feels that you should save your best for last.
"When that big dolphin shows," Mitchell advised, "go with a chugger. It's noise that draws a big fish to the party in the first place, so a big, cup-faced chugger will usually light its fire."
Once you spot your target, cast the plug well in front, and chug away. If the fish responds, don't change your retrieve. Keep doing what got its attention. Don't discount blind casting--you'll often call one up from below. If that fails, then feed it a livie--whatever you've got on hand. "Big blue runners and pilchards work fine, and a big pinfish is ideal because schoolies don't relish the thought of swallowing all those spines," he added.
If you don't have the time to catch or have the ability to carry live bait, a rigged ballyhoo tossed out beyond the school then allowed to sink is the next best thing. Same thing goes for going down deep. Send a jig-and-ballyhoo, or a jig with a strip or glow worm down first. That'll usually do the trick whether a dolphin, king, wahoo or sail is present. You'll know a fish is there when you get slammed. Or perhaps beforehand. "On more than one occasion," said Mitchell, "I've watched chicken dolphin follow my big jig down, then come flying back to the top, before hooking a wahoo or big dolphin."
If a fish doesn't nail your jig on the drop, employ fast-jigging pumps back to the surface. But keep in mind that a big dolphin may be a little slow to come up after the jig, so repeat the procedure before sending a livie.
While you can get away with heavy mono when sight casting to a big dolphin, to be prudent, go with No. 5 wire when sending the food deep. Or you won't wrestle with toothy customers for very long.
Throughout June, don't be surprised to find big dolphin close to the reef edge out to about 200 feet of water. Even if you fail to raise a good fish while working a bunch of schoolies in that depth, as a last resort, troll with big lures that create a lot of commotion, and run rigged ballyhoo or mullet baits from a downrigger. And wherever a weedline goes, even into water as shallow as 100 feet, stay with it for a while.
Should fishing under the schoolies or along weedlines be slow, then it's time to range out, don the binoculars and run in search of birds and boards. Frigate birds or a smattering of birds working the surface will usually follow a big pair of dolphin or a solitary giant. Big flocks usually mean tunas. And even a surprisingly small piece of floating debris casts a shadow that increases in scope the deeper it's projected, and can attract big dolphin, especially in the middle of the day.
If you choose to troll past a board or under birds, rather than running a straight course, execute what Mitchell terms an "L troll." After you pass the object, cut a sharp angle to keep your baits in the area and give the fish a chance to eat. Many anglers choose to toss live baits or rigged baits under a circling frigate or flotsam as soon as they find them.
Once you hook up to one of a pair, it's time to toss a primo bait to its mate. In this case, use your best bait first--the second fish may be a little confused by its partner's predicament. Sometimes only a livie will make it eat.
Finding and cashing in on big dolphin is gratifying when the ocean is awash with chickens. And it is by no surprise that a few anglers have a hard time resisting the urge to move on in on another's good fortune. After putting in the time to figure things out, no one appreciates being "mugged" by another boat. Should you spot a boat with an angler hooked up to a big dolphin and others casting, don't horn in on their action. Respect their space as you'd want others to respect yours. It's a big ocean out there.
So the next time dolphin in dimensions a little short for your liking take center stage, put a few big-fish tactics to work. You don't have to settle for guppies. Not when there are Goliaths in the wings.