Few fish create the dreams of the everyday offshore angler the way dolphin do. Old salts wax poetic about marlin and tuna and sailfish, but Senior Dorado, he’s everyman’s fish. From 70-foot sport yachts to dual-outboard, trailered boats, the dolphin is more than a worthy opponent on the line and a blessing at the table.
Last year, dolphin opened the bluewater season with a bag, arriving about six weeks ahead of schedule. Steve Gaskins of Sea J’s Fishing Charters out of Mount Pleasant said he’s not aware of any groundhogs on the beach, but since the muskrat didn’t see his shadow either, he’s hoping for another early spring.
“We normally don’t see the Mahi like we saw last season until the first part of June, late part of May,” said Gaskins. “We had a phenomenon with the warmer weather coming up from Florida,” said Gaskins. “The Gulf Stream actually dipped in as close as 50 miles offshore, which is unheard for that time of year.”
Water temperature, especially a good, defined break where warmer water seams against cooler water, is the key for finding good offshore fishing anytime, but especially in the spring when water temperatures are transitioning.
“Last year, the 226 to 380 and Southwest Banks got the best water first,” he said. “We might have been on our way out to that area, but if we came across a temperature break of 74 degrees or better, I was going to start putting lines out. By late April, we might be fishing 15 miles from the 226 Hole in shallower water than the 226, but that temperature break is what makes the fish turn on and turn off.”
The downside to an early spring, at least as far as the Gulf Stream water flows, is that winds and seas are typically in flux, and that doesn’t guarantee that boats will leave the harbor every day. Gaskins’ boat, the Sea J, is a 30-foot Bertram, a good mix of size and fuel economy, but there are days when nobody leaves the harbor.
“Ideally, I’d like to have seas in the 2- to 3-foot range or in the 1- to 3-foot range,” he said. “This time of the year, you’re not normally going to get that. We were fortunate several times last year, experiencing swells that were 3- to 4-feet, but the intervals were in excess of 10 seconds, so it was just a rolling swell. It’s hard to know for sure, and sometimes it’s a 4 a.m. call at the dock.”
With the seas and temperatures in synch, the next thing a captain looks for are signs of life. One of the most obvious signs in offshore waters is commonly referred to as weeds. The majority of offshore weeds are Sargasso grass or sargassum, a type of floating brown algae that has a main stem with flattened outgrowths like leaves that contain air sacs to keep the plant afloat. The algae is coated with a sticky substance to help keep the individual plants together in heavy currents. This provides a surface mat and holds a wide variety of plant and animal life, creating an ecosystem all to itself. The mats attract baitfish by providing cover, and the predators show up to eat the bait.
“The currents will stack the weeds together in mats, which gives you a defined line to troll along,” Gaskins said. “That tracks with the temperatures and the winds and seas. Typically, you won’t see these weed lines until you’re 30, 40 miles offshore. Then you start to see your flyers — flying fish. That’s another good sign there’s going to be dolphin in the area.”
Offshore trolling is a tactic that has an appeal for many species of fish. The standard practice is to rig a number of baits ranging, from straight ballyhoo to combinations of ballyhoo and feather jigs and includes a wide variety of setups, rigging, and presentations. Outriggers are an integral part of the scenario, and Gaskins will run as many as three baits per outrigger tethered to the projecting framework on either side of the boat.
Baits are rigged to skip along the surface, creating a commotion that excite the dolphin and entice them to strike. A lot of variables come into play with trolling, whether it’s inland, inshore or offshore trolling. Not the least of those is boat speed.
“I typically like to start out at a slower troll. If we don’t see any results within the first 30 minutes of working a weed line, I’ll speed it up,” said Gaskins. “I’ve had days where we got strikes at 7, 8 knots, which is moving pretty good. It’s just a trial-and-error thing. You just have to adjust to conditions and move with it.”
A good fishing hole will attract a lot of fish, which in turn attracts fishermen. A good area may have several boats trolling in what seems to be the same fashion. Like a lot of fishing, success often comes down to the details. According to Justin Carter of DIG Charters in Mount Pleasant, having an eye for detail is often the difference between a good day on the water and a great one.
“Everybody on the boat has a role to play in offshore trolling,” Carter said. “Most of the time on a charter, those roles might rotate so everyone can take a turn catching fish. On a big sportfisher, you’ll have one or two mates who will do most of the other work, but on those ‘good ol’ boy’ trips, you have to know in advance who is going to reel, who is going to gaff and who is going to clear lines when a fish is on.”
Carter likes to show his clients what to look for when trolling, not just yell “Fish on!” when it’s time to reel in a fish. Trolling along weed lines means a lot of line fouling, so he likes to have lots of eyes on lines. He believes it adds more to the fishing experience.
“It’s a great day when you have several people and you’re working like a team,” he said. “Everyone is working to keep the lines clear. That’s a big thing, because no matter how carefully you rig your baits or if you’re trolling at the optimum speed, a fish is not going to strike a bait that’s fouled up and trailing weeds.”
Advance preparation is also important. Carter said; whether that job falls to him or one of his mates, it’s important to have baits rigged on sharp hooks, drags set to optimum pull and color selections ready to go when it’s time for lines out.
“There’s a reason we all leave at 4 in the morning,” said Carter. “A lot of these offshore forage fish come to the surface at night and go deep when the sun gets up. That first-light bite might be your best of the day, so you want to make sure you’ve got hooks sharpened, baits rigged, drags set and everything you can possibly do to get on the fish right away.”
HOW TO GET THERE — At the eastern terminus of I-26, with US 17 crossing through the city, Charleston is centrally located as far as reaching many of the best offshore spots to find dolphin and other bluewater predators. Here is a list of a several spots, with their GPS numbers:
• Winyah Scarp, 32 47.485N/78 19.378W
• Georgetown Hole, 32 34.389N/78 35.671W
• Southwest Banks, 32 29.811N/78 48.806W
• The Ledge, 32 20.770N/79 02.900W
• Royal Terrace, 32 08.321N/79 17.468W
• Ammo Dump, 32 08.320N/79 58.030W
• 380 Hole, 32 07.537N/78 56.688W
• 226 Hole, 32 00.686N/79 05.773W
• Edisto Banks, 32 03.746N/79 24.401W
WHEN TO GO — The first big push of dolphin into South Carolina’s offshore waters usually arrives sometime in April, and fishing can be great through May and into June.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Most dolphin are caught trolling live or artificial baits just below the surface over deep water. Look for areas with sharp breaks in water temperature that may push floating grass and baitfish into relatively small areas. Dolphin will orient to floating grasslines and other structure, and around temperature breaks and changes in bottom topography. Pay attention when a fish is hooked to see if other dolphin follow it to the boat. When multiple fish are sighted, chum with cut fish or squid, take the boat out of gear and cast chunks of bait to the fish. Dolphin are attracted to the commotion of a hooked fish, and multiple fish can often be caught in a short period of time using this technique, known as “bailing.”
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Steve Gaskins, Sea J’s Sport Fishing, 843-624-1740, www.seajssportfishing.com; Justin Carter, DIG Charters, 843-725-8784, www.charlestoninshoreoffshorefishingcharters.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Best Western Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, 843-971-7070; Town and Country Inn and Conference Center, Charleston, 800-334-6660; LaQuinta Inn & Suites, Charleston, 843-556-5200.
MAPS — Capt. Seagull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainseagullcharts.com.