When considering South Carolina's bluewater fishery, the dolphin is one of the more popular and frequently caught species.

It has many qualities that make it a favorite among saltwater fishermen:

* It grows to an excellent average size;

* Its growth rate is very fast;

* Creel limits are liberal;

*It provides exciting, fast-paced action;

* As table fare, it ranks near the top of the list.

But according to at least one dolphin expert there's even more.

Don Hammond is a marine fisheries biologist with Cooperative Science Services LLC, where he has been conducing long-term studies on dolphin that have included satellite tracking. He was also recognized as the dolphin expert for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) before his retirement.

"From all indications, the dolphin is one of the few saltwater species where fish stocks are in good shape," Hammond said. "But the dolphin has more going for it than abundance. Based on the data we have from research, it is the most important fish to the bluewater trolling fisheries from North Carolina to Florida."

Hammond said studies show that on 80 percent of offshore trolling trips, dolphin are the only fish in the box at the end of the day.

"Most fishermen are correct in figuring the primary dolphin fish-catching season is the April-to-September time frame," Hammond said. "However, dolphins have been caught off the South Carolina coast all 12 months of the year."

Hammond said that the abundance of dolphin and their aggressive nature make them a highly popular and frequently caught species.

One fisherman who focuses much of his effort on dolphin is Bruce Olsen, who lives in Awendaw and does most of his fishing is in the waters offshore from Charleston. He fishes from a 29-foot Mako powered by twin 300-hp Yamaha outboards. That rig gets him quickly to the dolphin grounds.

"The dolphin is my fish of choice, especially during the early spring and summer" said Olsen. "I love to fish for about anything that swims in saltwater, but my passion is for the dolphin."

Olsen, 37, has fished almost his entire life, his younger years being focused on freshwater.

"Fishing in freshwater gave me a good basic foundation to learn about saltwater fishing," he said. "When we moved to the coast, I began saltwater fishing exclusively. That's all I've done for 13 years."

Olsen said that the fishing usually begins to perk up in April.

"With warm weather in the early spring, I have seen late-March produce some good dolphin fishing," he said. "While I make some very good catches of dolphin during April, the May and June time period is actually the peak of the season.

"But once they begin to show up in our area, they are usually here in good numbers. When the water temperature gets to about 72 degrees, we'll start catching dolphin."

One reason Olsen likes his fast rig is that when sea condition allow, he can get to potential dolphin hotspots quickly.

"Regardless of specifically where I fish for dolphin, I do like to be at the spot I intend to fish by first light, so I can get in on the early bite," Olsen said. "This started as a throwback to my freshwater largemouth bass fishing days. I'd always get there early for the shallow topwater bite.

"Experience has taught me that I need to be underway by about 4 a.m. most mornings," he said. "The result in terms of fish caught is usually worth it. If there is a time of day that seems to be the best in terms of fishing, I think it's the early morning. However there are days when I'll catch dolphin throughout the day. Sometimes, the bite slows a lot by early afternoon, and I'll head in."

Hammond also notes a very interesting correlation to Olsen's early-morning bite pattern.

"Our studies show that at night, dolphin will often repeatedly dive deep," he said. "Since they repeatedly dive to the same basic depths on given nights, it's likely they are feeding. However, the fish pop to the surface right at first light - not at sunrise, but at first light. Every one of the tagged fish does this every day. That's likely why dolphin fishermen often have great success at this time."

Olsen said he does not limit his fishing to the early morning, even if he hits a dolphin-feeding frenzy.

"I'll fish on through the morning and sometimes the entire day," he said. "If the action is good, I may stay and fish the late-evening bite. This may put me getting back well after dark, but considering the fun, excitement and eating qualities dolphin offer, that's no problem.

"One great thing about dolphin fishing is that it's not all that hard for fishermen to learn how to be successful," Olsen said. "Before I got my own boat, I booked a couple of charters to learn. I watched and learned, and I figured I could be successful dolphin fishing. I got a boat and started chasing dolphin, and sure enough, I figured it out."

Olsen said that there are some very specific features and patterns that anglers need to know to find and catch dolphin consistently.

"Being vigilant is a key to dolphin fishing success," he said. "While there are general areas that will be consistently productive, each trip is different in terms of where you'll find fish.

"The keys to success are not difficult to learn, but if you're not paying attention, you'll miss them. I look for specific things that will attract dolphin. For example, temperature variables can be a prime spot for dolphin to congregate. This is a quick change in surface temperature. Even a water temperature change from 80 to 83 degrees in a short distance will be enough to hold fish. But you've got to be watching the graph, looking for information."

"Also, I'll key in on other features as well," he said. "Other common examples are spotting a good tideline, birds feedings on bait and schools of bait that I visually spot near the surface."

Olsen said that floating patches of grass are prime spots. Also, any debris - floating lumber, a sheet of plywood or a piece of styrofoam from a dock - are dolphin attractors. Essentially, anything floating has the potential to attract and hold dolphin.

He said that the best fishing usually begins about 40 miles offshore, but he'll frequently go out as far as 60 miles.

"The distance will simply be a factor of where we find the fish," Olsen said. "About 40 miles out is the ledge, and the water there is about 120 to 150 feet deep. That's a good place to begin. But often, they'll be found farther out, over much deeper water. Actually, the depth range from about 180 to 600 feet deep will often hold the best concentrations of dolphin. But 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."

Olsen said that one of the first places dolphins begin to show up is at the very popular "Georgetown Hole," located northeast of Charleston.

"This is a rather large area and has lots of livebottom and underwater structure such as contour changes and random, abrupt ledges," Olsen 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."

Like most fishermen, Olsen trolls for dolphin.

"Dolphins tend to run in the upper water column," he said. "I like to keep my baits and lures skittering on the surface. I prefer artificial lures or natural baits rigged with colored skirts. My preference as a bait is ballyhoo, but other natural baits such as mullet will work fine in conjunction with lures or skirts. I seldom use naked ballyhoo as bait. When trolling, I keep my boat speed at around five to seven knots."

Olsen said the rig is rather simple and the fishing pattern not sophisticated, but again, success will often be related to attention to detail.

"I'm a big believer in a natural presentation of the bait and lure," he said. "It needs to be flashing to attract attention, but I feel it's important that the bait be running straight and not flipping and wobbling around. The bait should look like a natural fish presentation. However, there are times when the ugliest rig behind the boat will hook up with a big dolphin."

Olsen also keeps his fishing rigs fairly simple.

"Dolphin are not very particular about the tackle you use to catch them," Olsen said. "I've found I can successfully use anything from a medium-light saltwater rig up to heavy rigs with good results. The medium-light rigs are a lot of fun, because you'll get more play out of the fish."

Olsen said he will typically troll from six to 10 rigs behind the boat. The determining factor will be the prevailing weather and sea conditions and the action on the fish. When the fishing action is really good, you need fewer rigs in the water.

Olsen also keeps other rigs ready in case he gets into a school of fish that might literally surround the boat.

"Sometimes we'll get on a spot, and fish will be 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, a fish will 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'll 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.

"However, if we hook a big fish, we don't worry about that part," Olsen said. "We get the bull dolphin in the boat as soon as we can. Hopefully, the action will continue, but I don't recommend leaving a big dolphin in the water any longer that you have to, unless you plan to release it."

In addition to getting there early, Olsen has learned another factor that seems important to consistent success.

"I like to fish for dolphin on a sunny day," he 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."

But Olsen said that, like most fishermen who work for a living, he'll go fishing for dolphin when he can.

Olsen said that the average size of the fish is excellent during the April-to-June time frame with many fish 20 pounds and larger showing up.

"I refer to a bull dolphin as a male dolphin that weighs 40 pounds or more," he said. "There are a lot of bull dolphin taken in the waters we fish."

Olsen noted that the biggest fish caught on his boat was just shy of 60 pounds.

According to SCDNR information, the current state record is a 74-pound, 6-ounce fish caught out of Mt. Pleasant in 1994 by E.C. Etheredge of Columbia.

Hammond said that the a dolphin's growth rate is extraordinary, especially considering the size they reach.

"Dolphin generally live no more than three years," Hammond said. "In this time, they growth to huge sizes. Food is everything to a dolphin; it is their life."

For fishermen wanting to get into dolphin fishing, Olsen has three main points to consider.

"First, learn to rig baits properly," he said. "Give them a natural look when running in the water, and you will hook more fish.

"Second is to get quality electronics," he said. "This needs to include as much data as you can afford. Certainly water depth, water temperature, air temperature and good quality pictures of the bottom are essential.

"Third is to focus on your surroundings," he said. "Stay focused throughout the day. Sometimes a small change in water temperature, a tideline, weedline or floating debris can mean a big bull dolphin that otherwise may be missed."

Creel limits on dolphin are quite liberal. The daily limit is 10 per person or 60 per boat. There is no size limit and no closed season.

Olsen noted that as table fare, dolphin are among his favorite fish of all to eat.

"I do not think there's a wrong way to prepare dolphin," he said. "The texture of the meat is ideal for grilling, which is a big plus for a lot of outdoorsmen. But it excellent baked, fried, blackened or any creative way a person wants to fix it. Plus, the fish is easy to clean. For me, it's just about the perfect fish all the way around."

Olsen's advice is to start early in the year and early in the day for dolphin. And then just keep on fishing.