Cover the Cape – Dolphin headline a tremendous month of offshore fishing out of North Carolina’s Hatteras village

Jutting into the ocean, close to the Gulf Stream, Cape Hatteras offers bluewater fishermen a unique opportunity this month.

Cape Hatteras has gained the reputation as the billfish capital of the east coast, largely because it juts far enough into the Atlantic Ocean that the Gulf Stream passes by not too many miles offshore, bringing with it loads of blue and white marlin, spearfish, swordfish and sailfish.

While billfish provide thrills for many angler, it’s the gamefish that fill the fish boxes of charterboats and private boats day-in and day-out, bringing thousands of vacationing fishermen and their families to the tiny strip of land that is Hatteras Island.  Gamefish caught off Cape Hatteras include wahoo, dolphin and several species of tuna, and all have their prime times. Pound for pound and across the seasons, more fishermen leave Hatteras marinas with coolers stuffed with dolphin fillets than any other species.

Capt. Steve “Creature” Coulter is a charter captain who keeps the excellent reputation of Hatteras fishermen alive and well aboard his boat, the Sea Creature. He cranks up his year in March and April with tuna, but by May, dolphin are well on their way to becoming the dominant offshore fish.

“We are fortunate with our location near the Gulf Stream,” Coulter said. “We are close enough to make the trip on many days (when) it is just too far from other ports. We are also close enough to multiple spots to make a trip successful when the fishing conditions aren’t necessarily the best.”

Dolphin are among the fastest, most-aggressive, most-colorful, most-available fish swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, which makes them a favorite of fishermen.

The warm eddies in the Gulf Stream may hold a few dolphin at any time, but they become more prevalent in the catch from mid-April into the summer. Coulter said they become the primary target of charter captains sometime, while tuna and wahoo become welcome extras. He believes that the photoperiod — the amount of daylight during a 24-hour cycle — might well explain why fish show up at roughly the same time each year, even if the spring is colder or warmer than usual.

“I do my homework every day before leaving the dock,” Coulter said. “Hatteras is a close community, and the captains share where they found fish the day before, but that isn’t always enough. The ocean is constantly changing, and the water in an area may cool or warm enough overnight to move fish away or bring them in. I check the seawater thermal charts every evening and morning to stay up with the movement of the Gulf Stream and eddies.”

Coulter said the basic ingredient for good dolphin fishing is warm, clear bluewater. He looks for places where colder currents are upwelling and splitting the warm water to create a hard temperature edge. He said the upwelling brings nutrients and bait to the surface, and predator fish working their way along the rips and temperature breaks will find these areas.

Yellowfin tuna are a welcome guest on any bluewater trip out of Hatteras in May, but their numbers have been off in recent years, especially south of Outer Banks.

Coulter likes to troll the edges of changes in the ocean’s surface that include temperature breaks, color changes, hard rips and weed lines. All of these places tend to concentrate bait, and with their fast growth rates, dolphin are almost constantly eating, so they are always looking for food.

“When the conditions are right, sometimes the hunter becomes the hunted,” Coulter said. “Marlin usually arrive with gaffer dolphin, and dolphin make a nice snack for them. That’s why we fish 50-pound class tackle rather than lighter stuff. Sometimes a marlin busts a bait you intended for a dolphin or even eats a hooked dolphin. We’ve got a pretty good chance of landing him on one of our 50 outfits, but the odds wouldn’t be near as good if we’re fishing 30s.”

Coulter uses Alutecnos 50 class reels that are spooled with 100-pound test Jerry Brown Line One hollow braid and a 100- to 150-yard topshot of monofilament that is spliced into the braid so there aren’t any knots until the one attaching the swivel to which the leader is attached. He said with the smaller diameter of the braid, these reels hold approximately 1,000 yards of line, and that should be enough to handle a large fish. The mono topshot gives a little stretch to help with the shock of the strike and sudden lunges when the fish nears the boat.

Coulter trolls for dolphin and tuna with what he describes as a typical charterboat spread, except for using heavier leaders to be able to control fish as they get near the boat. The spread includes eight fishing lines and two teasers: a long outrigger line on each side, short outrigger lines on each side, a pair of flat lines, one on each side, and long and short shotgun lines run from the bridge. Teasers on each side complete the spread.

Mark Melnyk, host of the World Fishing Network’s “Guided”, landed his first-ever dolphin on a 2009 trip out of Hatteras.

Coulter said dolphin feed in the top section of the water column and several baits are set up to skip and help draw them in. His lure selection begins with medium ballyhoo rigged into Sea Witches. He likes to run a dink bait on a flat line tight behind the teaser on one side and a nylon bait on the other flat line. The spread will include a couple of larger lure-and-bait combos, like a Hawaiian Eye or Sea Star with a large ballyhoo, in case a marlin or another large predator sees the action and comes to check it out. Color matters and Coulter likes blues and reds, but he includes other colors to see if fish have a preference on any given day.


HOW TO GET THERE — Hatteras is at the extreme southern tip of Hatteras Island in Dare County. NC 12 is the primary route from Nags Head south along the Outer Banks. US 158 and US 64 will deliver most visitors to the Nags Head area. Hatteras is also accessible via ferry through Ocracoke, Cedar Island and Swanquarter.  Two fee ramps serve visitors to the village, at Teach’s Lair Marina and Hatteras Harbor Marina.

WHEN TO GO — Offshore fishing kicks off in late winter with a run  of bluefin tuna. Other tuna — yellowfin, blackfin and bigeye — typically show up in late March and April, with dolphin and billfish grabbing center stage in May. Because of the mixture of gamefish and billfish, many anglers consider May and June the best months to fish offshore out of Hatteras.

BEST TECHNIQUES — Offshore trolling tackle in the 30- to 50-pound classes are the norm. Captains often prefer 50-pound rods and reels because of the possibility of extremely large fish showing up. Stand-up rods are popular, especially on smaller boats that don’t have fighting chairs. A combination of braided line, with a mono topshot of 100 to 150 yards, has become standard rigging, but some fishermen still use only monofilament. Medium-sized ballyhoo rigged into Sea Witches, hair lures and soft-plastic lures are standard baits. Some hair and feather lures are often used by themselves.

REGULATIONS — A NOAA Highly Migratory Species (HMS) permit is required to possess bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna, but not blackfins, Atlantic bonito or false albacore. HMS permits are available at Dolphin are managed with a 10-fish daily creel limit, with a 60-fish limit on charterboats. Yellowfin tuna are managed with a three-fish limit and a 27-inch minimum size (curved fork length) There is no creel or size limit on blackfins.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. Steve Coulter, Sea Creature Sportfishing, 252-995-4832,; Hatteras Landing Marina, 252-986-2077,, Hatteras Harbor Marina, 252-986-2166,;  Teach’s Lair Marina, 252-986-2460,;  Oden’s Dock, 252-986-2555. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — The Breakwater Inn, Hatteras, 877-986-2565; Village Marina Motel, Hatteras, 252-986-2522;  The Villas of Hatteras Landing, 252- 986-1110; Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, 800-627-3160,

MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855,; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185,; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923,; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567,

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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