Their vibration and sound combined with the fixation on the trailing spread of baits lulled those in the cockpit to a stupor. When the action is slow, trolling can be as exciting as watching the grass grow. But there's the other end of the spectrum, something this bunch of lethargic anglers was about to experience.
With the unexpectedness of an alarm clock, a reel on one of the trolling rods began to squeal, the drag clicking thousands of time per second as it restrained the fight on the other end. The cockpit came to life, and the next-in-line angler grabbed the rod and began the fight.
Feeling resistance, the fish took action. Two hundred feet behind the sportfishing boat's hissing wake and just off the starboard side, a dolphin more iridescent than a 20-year-old's engagement ring shot into the air and belly-flopped back into the ocean. Everyone in the cockpit celebrated boisterously at the dolphin's antics.
Jump after jump the fish tried to free itself, but the dolphin was near the gaff within a few minutes. With everyone looking overboard at the fish, admiring its brilliant colors, no one was prepared when two more rods began to sing that sweet offshore song.
In a repeat performance, a pair of dolphins set off in opposite directions while the mate slung the first dolphin into the box. Everyone was now splitting attention between two hooked fish as each angler worked the rods up and down.
Flashing luminous yellows, greens and blues, the dolphins came simultaneously to the gunwales. With these fish in the box, happy anglers exchanged high-fives and took congratulatory sips of cold beverages.
Small talk between anglers recounted the action as the mate prepared the three used rods for battle again. Each angler kept sneaking a peek aft to try to see when the next fish would hit.
It didn't take long.
Fishing for dolphin off of Charleston during May is like this. Action (non-action) can go along quietly, then suddenly the boat is in the midst of hours of pandemonious fun. Other times captains find the fish right away, leaving them still ready to bite once the fishbox is full.
"When fishing for dolphin begins depends on the edge of the Gulf Stream," said Capt. Jay Weaver of the Ali L, a 53-foot Ocean Yacht docked at Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. "Once a good edge forms and moves in around the 100-fathom range things start picking up for dolphin."
Like most boats out of the Charleston area, the Ali L concentrates on tuna early in the year then splits time with dolphin when they arrive.
"We're fishing for tuna mostly near the Georgetown Hole in the early spring," Weaver said. "When the good water moves over the 380 Hole, it's time for dolphin as well. Then the trips will be a mixture of tuna and dolphin until the tuna continue moving north out of the area."
Weaver's records indicate by the time turkey season ends in the Lowcountry, dolphin usually arrive en masse.
"In 2004 we hit our first big bite of dolphin April 25 when we got 17," he said. "Four days later the bite had increased substantially. Our first good bite in 2005 was May 8.
"While you can pick up some scattered dolphin while tuna fishing in April, you can figure on around May 1 when the large numbers of fish arrive."
Weaver said there is a tendency for the size of dolphins to vary by the calendar.
"The first fish to arrive are the average-size dolphin," Weaver said. "These fish weigh about 18 to 22 pounds. Towards the middle and end of May right through June is when we pick up bigger fish. It's not uncommon to see dolphins ranging from 30 to 40 pounds then.
"We get very few over 40 pounds, maybe one or two out of every five trips."
Hot weather and warmer water temperatures arrive at the end of June. Weaver said with that comes the "peanut" dolphin, fish averaging about 6 to 10 pounds. These munchkins are usually present through August.
There are not a lot of factors, each with their own idiosyncrasies, that go into finding dolphins. Unlike some species of fish where combinations of tide, moon and wind, for example, have to be aligned correctly, locating dolphin boils down to finding a good edge, which entails several considerations, especially if anglers want to locate those conditions again.
"I have never really found any rhyme or reason in regards to the moon and dolphin," Weaver said. "You do want the tide to be moving or have some current. That seems important.
"I believe what is most important is to find a good edge."
What Weaver described as a good edge is where you have a good contrast in the color of the water. He said he prefers to find a hard edge between the cobalt blue water of the Gulf Stream and greener water closer to shore.
"The fish will concentrate along these edges," Weaver said. "Usually on these edges, weed lines and any other structure that's floating on the ocean will be along these breaks as well. Dolphins like to be associated with structure."
Once a captain finds an edge he must consider several factors when fishing for dolphins.
"You'll want to try both sides of any edge you find," Weaver said. "You might go up one side and get two or three bites and think that's great. However, the other side might have even more bites. Also, one side of the edge might be better first thing in the morning while the opposite side is more productive once the sun gets higher.
"Once you are on an edge that's producing fish, you want to pay attention to your track on your GPS. The reason is you want to determine which way the edge is drifting. When you troll back and forth, leave your GPS on track and stay about the same distance off of the edge. The edge is always moving, and I guarantee your lines won't overlap."
The reason that's important is Weaver wants to find the same edge if possible the next day because that same pod of dolphin probably will be associated with it 24 hours later.
"I take the information from which direction the edge was drifting and combine it with the wind direction from during the day and overnight," he said. "Then I try to calculate where that edge might be the next morning.
"If the weather has been clear I try to combine this information with satellite pictures of sea surface temperatures. I might look at the pictures two or three times from the time I'm home until I leave again the next morning. The last thing I do before I leave the house at 3:15 a.m. is take a look at the most-recent photo."
Weaver cautioned that it is imperative you find the right edge.
"You don't want to stop on a false edge," he said. "Most people stop at the first edge they come to thinking it's a good one. Usually it's in only 150 feet of water. You have to have the nerve to continue on to find the right one."
Weaver stresses this because large schools of dolphin are usually found farther offshore.
"You might catch a dolphin or two closer in, but the big numbers of fish are usually between 600 to 1,200 feet of water," he said. "At about the 100-fathom line, there's a lot of underwater structure that creates lots of upwellings. This is what the fish are really attracted to. Farther out, there are fewer structures and upwellings in the deeper water, and the bite usually doesn't last as long."
Weaver generally trolls 10 rods from the Ali L, with four running off the bridge and the remainder in the cockpit.
"There are a couple of things you want to do differently when fishing for dolphin than when targeting tuna," Weaver said. "Your trolling speed for dolphin will be about a knot faster, roughly 6 1/2 knots.
"Your out-rigger clips should be looser than what you'd normally use for tuna. With tuna the clips are tight because they do the hooking. Dolphins, on the other hand, are used to hitting baits and having them fall when they grab it. If the out-rigger clip is tight, the bait will be snatched out of a dolphin's mouth and continued to be pulled by the boat. If the bait does that rather than falling limp when a fish hits it, the fish will probably be spooked."
The last difference Weaver mentioned was the spread will be dragged closer to the boat than for tuna.
"The two longest lines, which are from the bridge, are only back 300 feet, which are the closest lines when tuna fishing," Weaver said. "The closest line, the short center, will run right where the white water of the wake starts to clear up. Everything else is dragged in between."
Rods are usually matched with TLD 25 reels. The main line is 80-pound Diamond monofilament line that's run to a 150-pound S Pro barrel swivel. Off the barrel swivel comes a 130-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. Hook size's a No. 9/0 Mustad 7966 hook. It's attached along with a 3/4-ounce egg sinker, referred to as a chin weight, with a 1.6 double-barrel sleeve or crimp.
Baits are small to medium ballyhoo normally rigged with Sea Witches.
"Dolphin don't seem to be picky about colors," Weaver said. "We fish a lot of bright colors, such as blue/black, crystal with blue or green heads, blue/white, yellow white, and pink/white, on the Sea Witches. There will be naked baits in the spread too.
"Don't hesitate to vary the bait size either. Sometimes, if you're not getting a bite, it might be the size of the bait and not the color of the skirt."
Mixed in with the spread is an Ilander or something lure. Weaver said this targets billfish commonly found in association with schools of dolphin.
Two daisy-chain teasers add action to the spread. They consist of seven green 9-inch Moldcraft squids in a row. Five feet behind them will be an Eyecatcher Agitator rigged with a ballyhoo and no hook.
"When we really find the fish, it can be a lot of fun targeting dolphin that are focused on the teasers," Weaver said. "We'll pull the teasers in real close, and fish two naked baits right behind each one. It's great fun for the anglers to watch the dolphin come up, pitch the bait to them, and see them take it only 20 feet behind the boat."
Because dolphin might not always be on the surface and taking baits when Weaver arrives at an edge, he includes a planer rod to complete his spread.
"There's a good chance if you find a nice edge, there are fish on it," he said. "They might be down deep, and that's what the planer rod's for.
"Typically, bigger fish hit the planer rod. When you bring that fish to the surface others will follow it and see the spread. The planer rod accounts for more than one fish in the end."
Weaver's planer rod is a bent-butt 80-pound rod with a 10/0 Senator reel and 200-pound test Power Pro line. A No. 6 planer is attached with a snap swivel. Weaver said he uses sizes between a No. 4 and 6. Behind the planer will be 60 to 100 feet of 200- to 250-pound monofilament that serves as a shock cord. A 150-pound S Pro barrel swivel attaches the 130-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament leader to the shock cord. A blue/black or pink Sea Witch and ballyhoo complete the spread.
"To hold that size planer, your drag will need to be at 40 pounds," Weaver said. "As soon as a fish hits, you'll have to immediately back off the drag to keep from ripping the bait from the fish or breaking the rig. All of the other rods should be at 12 pounds of drag at strike."
If you had to pick a month to offshore fish in the Lowcountry, May would have to be the best. Tuna are still around, billfish are striking and in recent years, the ocean seems to be overflowing with dolphin.
Try these tactics to help put a dolphin fillet on your grill this spring.