It's the real beginning of another offshore season for Capt. Dick Vance of Hot Shot Charters in Charleston.
"My 30 years of records say that the first dolphin will show up about the third week in April," Vance said. "The wind howls in March, and it's hard to schedule many charters, but as the wind lays down in April, the water begins to warm up ever so slightly.
"It used to be the first fish we would catch was a yellowfin tuna, but they have become a scarce commodity; in 2009 we caught two, and in 2008 we caught none.
"The dolphin migration is what everybody waits on because both charter trips and fun fishermen just want to bend a rod."
Once baitfish move into an area, they attract pelagic predators like dolphin, wahoo and billfish, and spring fever can turn into offshore addiction with that first reel screams.
When the dolphin arrive in April, just about anything is possible, including catching a blue marlin. Vance's boat dealt with five blue marlin in May 2009, and the dolphin-marlin connection lasts through mid-June when dolphin numbers start to taper off. Wahoo show up in May to pick up where the dolphin leave off, and sailfish begin to make their presence known. A good day's catch of dolphin in April might be 20, but by June, a half-dozen per day is the average.
"Based on recent years, it looks like 2010 will not be good for yellowfin tuna, but dolphin, wahoo, sailfish and blackfin tuna trends look promising," Vance said.
Fishing for dolphin in April begins with looking for weedlines in 300 feet of water or deeper, according to Vance. If weedlines are found closer in, it's a good chance they won't hold fish because the warmer water is deeper and associated with the Gulf Stream current.
"Look under the weedlines to mark bait, because if there is no bait, it's too cold there," Vance said. "We also look up top for flying fish and use sonar to spot squid and tinker mackerel."
Although the daily limit for a 6-man charter is 60 dolphin, Vance never brings that many back to the dock. For one thing, a few dolphin per angler is a gracious plenty, and Vance won't keep any small dolphin, fish under 10 pounds commonly referred to as "bailers," "chicken," or "shingle" dolphin. He wants to bring back only the bigger "gaffer" dolphin.
The Hot Shot is a 43-foot custom-built Carolina boat that's docked at the Ripley Light Yacht Club. Capt. Bobby Krivohlavek runs the Day Maker, a 48-foot Ocean yacht that is docked next to Vance's boat. The two captains share knowledge readily, knowing that teamwork will produce better fishing for everyone.
"We don't keep (our) information secret, because we're all out there trying to have a good time, and things change a good bit from day to day," Vance said. "When on the fishing grounds, listen up on the radio, because we are all working together to cover a particular area. We use LORAN numbers because they are easier to call out than (latitude/longitude numbers) associated with a GPS, so map/grid knowledge is key."
Krivohlavek said sharing knowledge is a key, even when fishing is good.
"We dock right next to Hot Shot and Overrun, and you bet we all talk among ourselves," he said. "It's all about putting customers on some fish, and we all have more fun when we are on fish, so it just makes sense to share location information."
Looking at temperature charts is a great way to cut down the time you spend looking for fish, Krivolhlavek said.
"Any time you can get a look at some thermal imaging of the ocean, it helps to finds the warmer waters," he said. "At different times, fingers of warmer water will break off from the Gulf Stream, and these pockets can hold lots of fish. Remember that any edge of a current, often seen as a color-change, can also hold baitfish and could be very productive."
Vance likes to troll at seven knots, but he says to take into account that the Gulf Stream current can run as much as five knots, so adjustment is necessary depending on the heading you're trolling. Vance puts out 10 lines: three off each outrigger, two flat lines (short and long down the center), a shotgun line (fished way back), and a mousetrap line (fished right behind the boat), plus two teasers. If a dolphin is on a teaser, the mate will reel in a short rigger or toss him a pitch bait.
Tackle is a key. Vance spools 850 yards of 50-pound Momoi Blue Diamond line on a Penn International 50TW. He likes 7692DT Mustad 8/0 hooks in galvanized steel rather than stainless because they sharpen better, are cheaper and rust out more quickly if a fish takes one with him. He uses Bionic Baits' ballyhoo and brines them overnight. "(That) gives them a tougher skin, which allows me to drag them longer," he said. "Bait is running about one dollar per ballyhoo now, so getting more use out of one helps with costs."
Tied to the hook is a 6-foot section of leader and quarter-ounce weight with a rubber band to hold the ballyhoo's head to the shank of the hook - important to keep the bait from spinning.
"There is nothing in the ocean that spins while it swims, and we are trying to mimic the real thing," Vance said. "We use three different size of ballyhoo according to what the dolphin are eating. When dolphin are gaffed, they tend to spit up onto the deck, so if we see glass minnows come out, then we downsize our baits."
"When we get a dolphin hook-up, we don't stop the boat right away. (It's) kind of a trade secret is to keep the baits moving because chances are, a school of dolphin are looking at them. Remember, a dolphin is always ready to eat, so you just have to present the bait in the correct way to make them strike.
"I bump the boat in and out of gear, and we might have to clear the lines on the side of the boat where the dolphin is being fought, but catching multiple fish during a hook-up can be the difference between dinner for everyone or an expensive boat ride.
"We tell anglers not to set the hook, because we keep our drags set finger-tight to let the fish eat. We gradually tighten the drag, and the fish becomes hooked up."
Vance likes to dress up his ballyhoo baits with lures like Hawaiian Ilanders in blue-white, or an Ilander Sailure with a concave head, which makes a bubble trail similar to a flying fish.
"If we have had a good day on dolphin fishing, giving us some extra time at sea, we'll break out the planers to target wahoo, or pull big lures for marlin," he said.
Vance said blackfin tuna like to take smaller baits fished well behind the boat, with 200 yards back not being too far. He'll fish a cedar plug, and while he can often catch quite a few blackfin, they only average 15 to 20 pounds.