Dolphin, aka mahimahi, have many qualities that make it a favorite among saltwater fishermen, including remarkable abundance, bullish fighting, spectacular jumps, astonishing growth, striking beauty and outstanding table fare. With liberal creel limits, dolphin can be caught in big numbers and in exciting fast-paced action.
Dolphin have a lot going for them, but Matt Willis of Charleston said there's one more great attribute of this feisty gamefish.
"The dolphin is an everyman's fish," Willis said. "By that, I mean you do not have the have an incredibly expensive boat and arsenal of tackle and lures to be successful. I fish out of a 23-foot boat, and granted, it may not be as big and fast as some, once we get offshore, we're all about equal in terms of catching dolphin if we know what to do."
One factor that levels the playing field is the dolphin's affinity to move long distances in short time periods to find food.
"It's good to have a game plan, and we get fishing reports from others or even the latest information off the internet fishing report sites," Willis said. "But dolphin move around a lot, and the fact is, they can be in 120 feet of water one day and in 300 feet the next. It's our job to find that right place; that right place will be near food."
Mike Cox of Awendaw is Willis' frequent fishing partner; the two have spent years learning the keys to catching these fish.
Cox said the basic rigging is simple, but it's essential to get it right, or the bait presentation just won't work.
"Our typical dolphin spread may consist of several different types of lures pulled behind the boat at five to seven knots," Cox said. "There are various lures that work well on dolphin, with the sea witch in the 1/2-ounce size being one of our favorites. We generally use lures rigged with ballyhoo, a baitfish you can buy frozen and place behind the lure to better attract the fish.
"Other favored lures we rig with include a Sea Striker cedar plug, Iland Mistress in 7-inch and 1 1/2-ounce head, and a C&H Alien," he said. "All these baits except the cedar plug use a ballyhoo. We also use a teaser, specifically a Boone 5 Bird Daisy Chain.
"Natural baits are great attractors, and ballyhoo or even mullet rigged with a small to medium-sized artificial lure or colored skirt will produce best, based on our experience over the years," Cox said. "Generally, dolphin tend to run in the upper part of the water column during the day, regardless of the bottom depth."
"I'm a big believer in a natural presentation of the bait and lure. It needs to be flashing to attract attention, but I believe it's essential the bait runs straight and is not flipping and wobbling. The bait should look like a natural fish."
Cox said trolling for dolphin is different from fishing for bottomfish, where live bottoms, humps or other identifiable bottom features spotted on a depth finder can lead to direct success.
"In simple language, we just have to be at the right depth of water and fish the right types of places until we locate the fish," he said. "When we do find the fish, we'll have everything rigged and ready to be as effective as we can. It's not unusual to find a lot of fish around a big weedline, and we can often catch them casting with spinning rigs, which can be a lot more efficient than trolling. Those are rigged and ready to be used at all times.
"Sometimes we'll have dolphin all around the boat," he said. "Often these are smaller fish in the 10- to 15-pound class, but with light tackle, they're great fun and fantastic in terms of eating quality.
"When this occurs, hook a cigar minnow or any type of cut bait on a spinning rig and cast it out. Usually, you'll see the fish take it immediately. It's not unusual to have several dolphin hooked at once. If the fish are not real big, I try to keep at least one fish hooked and in the water to keep the others near the boat in a frenzy. As soon as another fish is hooked, we will pull that one in and keep repeating the process. That tactic will certainly extend the action when you get into the big schools of fish."
Willis said his preferred targets are anything different that dolphin can identify, such as temperature breaks, current upwelling or rips, sargassum weed lines and anything floating.
"The ideal situation is to find a large mat of weeds that no one else is fishing," Willis said. "In a situation such as that, dolphin can be caught quickly. Sometimes the weeds will be broken into patches, which makes trolling more difficult. Also, because it's imperative that the lures run straight and are free of weeds, it can create more work by having to pull lines in and clean the trash off - but if you don't you're wasting a rig.
"As for temperature breaks, even small changes can be great, but it requires that we watch the water temperature on the graph constantly. As for floating debris, anything can be good, I've even seen a piece of floating plywood shelter scads of dolphin."
In addition to be an everyman's fish, there's more good news about the dolphin fishery as a whole.
According to Don Hammond, a marine biologist with Cooperative Science Services LLC, the overall number of dolphin is still very good off the South Carolina cost. Hammond has been conducting long-term studies of dolphin since 2002, including satellite tracking.
Before his retirement in 2006, he was the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' recognized dolphin expert. The original dolphin research program began with SCDNR in 2002, and when he retired, he continued the study through his business and expanded the study to an international basis.
"From all indications, the dolphin is one saltwater species where fish stocks are in good shape," Hammond said. "But the dolphin has more going for it than good abundance. Based on the 10 years of data we now have from research, it is still the most-important fish to the bluewater troll fisheries from North Carolina to Florida. Based on our research, April is the month when dolphin, often some of the largest caught during the entire year, will begin to show up off the South Carolina coast. The fishing stays excellent through May and into June before beginning to taper."
Cox said the best fishing usually begins about 50 miles offshore out of Charleston, but he'll frequently go as far as 60 miles or more if necessary.
"During the early season in April, we'll usually go further offshore to begin fishing," Cox said. "The distance we travel by the end of the day will simply be a factor of where we find the fish. Later in the season, dolphin will often be caught closer, sometimes as shallow as 90 feet of water.
"Our strategy often depends on recent fishing reports and weather," he said. "Sometimes we go all the way out and work back; other days we'll do the opposite. But that's only a starting point. The bottom line is, if we're not catching fish in a certain area, we'll change."
Cox said water depths of 120 to 150 feet deep are good places to being your search, "but often, they'll be found further out over much deeper water. Actually, the depth range from about 180 feet to 600 feet will often hold the best concentrations of dolphin in April. Having to go further out is not necessarily a negative. I've found that the further out I fish and the deeper the water, the better the odds of hooking a big bull dolphin."
Willis said that one of the first places dolphin begin to show up is at the very popular Georgetown Hole, northeast of Charleston.
"This is a large area and has lots of live-bottom and underwater structure such as bottom-contour changes and random, abrupt ledges," Willis said. "It seems that these unusual features on the bottom are areas where the fish tend to congregate. Even though we're fishing on the surface or very shallow, the fish will often orient to the underwater features.
"Dolphin are caught on different types of tackle," Willis said. "Anything from a medium-light saltwater rigs up to heavy rigs will yield good results. The medium-light rigs are a lot of fun, because you'll get more play out of the fish. We usually use about 30-pound-test line for the main line. For our trolling rigs, we'll typically use a 108-pound-test, stainless-steel leader, rigging wire line with an 7/0 needle-eye hook for rigging ballyhoo."
"I like to fish for dolphin on a sunny day," Willis said. "There seems to be much more consistency in the fishing. Dolphin can see the flash of the lure better on a bright day, and that enhanced view of the bait seems to draw more bites than on cloudy, overcast days."
For anglers wanting to get into dolphin fishing, Cox said it's not difficult compared to some types of offshore fishing, but several things must be considered.
"First, learn to rig baits properly," he said. "Present the baits so they have a natural look when running in the water, and you will hook more fish. Dolphin love to eat, but they will spurn a poor-running bait in a heartbeat.
"Another key is quality electronics," he said. "This needs to include as much data as you can afford. Certainly, water depth and temperature and good quality pictures of the bottom are essential.
"Third is to be ready for fast action," he said. "Many times, I will pre-rig a dozen lures with ballyhoo and ice them in a Playmate cooler the night before a trip. I learned the hard way to prepare in advance. Many times right at daylight, we'd start rigging baits, and as soon as we start trolling, we'd get fish on the one or two rigs we had out. We were having to rig when we should have been catching dolphin. Now, when we start fishing, everything is ready, and all we do it bait up and put the lines out. Later in the day when trolling, if no fish are hooked, I rig more and keep them ready in the cooler. Preparation will result in more dolphin in the box."
Fishermen are allowed to keep 10 dolphin per person, per day, with a limit of 60 per boat. All dolphin must be at least 20 inches long, measured fork-length.
HOW TO GET THERE: Charleston is centrally located for great offshore fishing for dolphin, and it is to access via I-26 from inland areas and US 17 from north or south along the coast. Charleston has numerous marinas and public boat ramps.
WHEN TO GO: April kicks off good dolphin fishing, but outstanding action occurs through June. Dolphin can be caught through September, but the average size drops as the season progresses. But bull dolphins are caught throughout the summer, but the schools of fish typically become smaller.
BEST TECHNIQUES: Trolling is the method most-often used, but specific hotspots will change on a daily basis. Floating sargassum weedlines are always potentially productive, but tidelines, water-temperature changes and any floating debris has the potential to hold bull dolphin.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES: Atlantic Game & Tackle, 675 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Mount Pleasant, 843-881-6900. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.