The feeding frenzy is inevitable; it's peak season.
An outrigger line pops free, and the reel's clicker screams. Crew members push the new guy into the fighting chair as they frantically but methodically reel in the other lines and take their stations.
Ritt Ritter, owner of the 37-foot Prowess sportfisher, sets the tone. "You're bringing in every fish today," he tells the guy in the chair.
The rod butt is locked into the holder, and the tango with a 20-pound dolphin begins, the fish putting intense pressure on the sturdy rod. The fish wildly leaps, thrashing, shaking and stressing the 60-pound line. Then, another line is hit. Crew member Austin Crosby grabs the rod, and another wrestling match ensues.
After a 5- to- 10-minute fight, the first dolphin is at the gunwale, and Ritter gaffs it and puts it in the cooler in one fluid, experienced motion. A few minutes later, Crosby's dolphin in boat-side, and Ritter grabs the leader with a gloved hand and flips the smaller, "peanut" dolphin on the deck.
Fran Gulski, another crew member and award-winning angler in the S.C. Saltwater Sportsfishing Association, hurriedly hands Ritter and Crosby a tag to stick in the fish for the Dolphinfish Research Program. Carefully handling the fish with a rag, they tag and release it within 30 seconds.
Ten more dolphin come over the gunwale into the early afternoon, sandwiched around a barracuda and an inquisitive blue marlin that checks out the bait spread. Five of the dolphin are tagged and released.
Ritter and Crosby consider the action-packed day average. They say they have had much busier days, often landing more than 20 or 30 fish.
Dolphin are South Carolina's most-popular offshore game species, and they're a common stepping-stone to larger and more challenging gamefish. Pound for pound, dolphin, aka mahi mahi, are a worthy adversary for beginning and experienced offshore anglers. They average 15 pounds, but the South Carolina state-record fish weighed 77 pounds, and the world record weighed 87 pounds.
The other heavyweights are liable to show up: marlin, wahoo, sailfish and tuna - yellowfin or blackfin - making appearances as the spring temperatures warm.
Ritter has fished in Costa Rica, Florida and North Carolina, and South Carolina's coast, he says, is just as productive as anywhere else.
"I think our fishery off South Carolina is as good as any other place I have fished," Ritter said. "Techniques used here in South Carolina have worked just as well as in other places."
Line-burning species that show up off the South Carolina coast are also targeted worldwide, and seasonally warm temperatures create ideal feeding conditions. Their northward migration, up from Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, brings them in droves, beginning in April.
Prowess joins the parade that marches offshore to round up dolphin and other species that are seeking warmer, bait-rich waters in the spring.
"The bigger fish come through early, and the fish seem to get smaller as the water heats up," Ritter says. "Another thing is the unknown factor that large single fish are sometimes caught when you don't expect it; it's always a pleasant surprise."
The peak season ranges from early April through mid-July, but offshore water temperatures remain over 70 degrees through early fall, and the bite stays on.
Ed Keelin, a veteran captain who runs the 57-foot Full Pull out of Georgetown, admits he likes chasing dolphin, but he also enjoys the other heavy line-hitters.
"I think my favorite species is the tuna," Keelin said. "Although the last few years have been slow for the yellowfins, the blackfin tuna fishing has been good. The tunas pull hard for the anglers, eat great, and I feel they are more challenging than some other species."
Keelin and the Full Pull crew looks for at least 150 feet of water before dropping lines early in the season off Georgetown.
"Usually, we fish the break this time of year, between 150 and 180 feet, typically 42 to 46 miles from the Georgetown jetties," Keelin said.
Keelin likes to avoid the crowd that often shows up on some of the more popular bluewater spots.
"Just because everybody fishes in the Georgetown Hole area, don't stop and fish there if conditions don't look good - they probably aren't," he said.
Mother nature also presents obstacles. Ritter, who has been dragging lines offshore for about 20 years, finds the moon phase is an important factor in how fish bite.
"I don't like to fish on a full moon," Ritter says. "I think the moon provides enough light that the fish feed all night and don't get active again until afternoon."
Dolphin live high-octane lives. They are known to grow as quickly as one to three inches a week and up to four feet and 40 pounds in less than a year, according to the Dolphinfish Research Program.
Their appetite is as voracious as their fight, so it's important to locate their food source, which is often lingering in the shade under weedlines or any floating debris. The other gamefish are there, too.
Keelin finds the most success along sargassum weedlines where small jacks, triggerfish, crabs and other bait congregate. He also looks above the waterline.
"I like to start just inside of the break if the water looks good," Keelin says. "If I am seeing flyers - bait or birds - I will start one or two miles inshore of the break."
Don Quattlebaum, captain of 55-foot Just One More out of Murrells Inlet, pushes east 57 to 63 miles offshore, frequenting the Winyah Scarp, north of Georgetown, and toward North Carolina's "Black Jack Hole" and "Steeples."
"You won't find any of these fish, except late summer, until you get to the ledge - which is where it drops from about 140 down to 180 feet - and further out," said Quattlebaum, who also favors yellowfin tuna. "It's not quite as far from the jetties in Georgetown, but there is also the run from Georgetown out to the jetties, so the total is about the same."
Before heading out, do some homework and keep your options open.
"Look up water temperatures on the internet and look for breaks; fish will be there," he said. "When you are cruising out, look for rips in the water, weedlines and fish working. Don't just stubbornly go to a spot you have picked out."
"Preparation and research before you even leave the dock will go a long way," he said.
Then, there's an art to dragging your spread.
"Ideal trolling speed for my boat is between 5.8 and 6.2 knots," Ritter said. "This is a speed that keeps the prop wash at a minimum and leaves clean water behind the boat."
Adjustments should be made at times, Ritter said, depending on down-sea travel, along with rough and windy days.
When dolphin are schooled tight, take the boat out of gear.
"Another aspect of dolphin fishing is locating a school by some floating debris, and being able to stop by the debris and catch the fish on light-tackle spinning reels," Ritter said. "The fish are very acrobatic when caught this way, and even the small fish will jump multiple times."
Although light spinning tackle gives anglers a wild ride when a school of dolphin or smaller fish is located, heavier tackle is more commonly employed while the boat's in motion.
"I usually fish two flat lines off the transom, two short-outrigger lines, two long-outrigger lines and one long line out of a center outrigger," Ritter says. "If it's a slow day, I'll add one more line between the flat lines."
You might also drag two or three teasers, and Quattlebaum said not to be afraid to drop one line down in the water column.
"We always have a planer rod with a deep bait," he says. "It has saved the day more than once. We use lots of daisy-chain teasers, and when it's slow, we'll use a dredge."
It's important to be creative when running spreads behind center consoles, Keelin says.
"Everyone has to adjust their spread to their boat," he says. "A center console can't expect to pull the same spread as a 60-foot sportfisher. You have to pick and choose what works for you and your boat. Don't be afraid to experiment."
Ballyhoo, a popular trolling bait, is tantalizing for most species. The simple go-to rig is a lure dragged ahead of a naked ballyhoo, rigged with No. 7/0 or 8/0 J-hooks.
Ritter prefers to use Shimano or Penn 50-class reels with 60-pound line. He sets the drag on each reel to 15 pounds.
With lines out, it's time to play the waiting game, and when lines start screaming, Ritter and his crew have their own protocol.
"When a strike occurs, one of the crew will set the hook and pass the rod ... or just begin reeling the fish in," he said.
Keep the rod tip raised when the dolphin makes a run. Angle the rod down and quickly reel when slack is in the line. Repeat until the fish fatigues and is to the boat side.
"We take a lot of people with limited fishing and experience, and once they see the routine of putting lines out, hooking and gaffing fish, they can participate as little or as much as they want to."