Dolphin fishing breaking loose off the Carolinas

May brings a big push of dolphin into the bluewater off the Carolinas, and anglers who know their habits can fill a fish box in a hurry.

Bluewater aficionados covet the spring dolphin run, even though the offshore trek to reach these blue-green prizes takes nearly half a day.

May marks the beginning of the best dolphin fishing. Their northward migration brings them off the Carolina coastline. For anglers wanting to experience double-digit catches of these beautiful and tasty fish, right now is the time.

Dolphin, aka Mahi mahi, are one of the fastest-growing fishes in the ocean, owners of a king-sized metabolism. They travel the eastern seaboard from New England to the tropics. They must eat massive quantities of forage to sustain their growth and fuel their metabolism during these long, migratory behaviors. So their travels take them to many places where forage fish are most abundant.

Dolphin travel in large schools and can be found in places that offer the best opportunity to feed without expending excess energy reserves. Their travels begin during the early spring. And they start to trickle within reach of Carolina anglers in April. But it’s not until May that the largest groups of fish show up.

A bull dolphin that hit a trolled lure is gaffed and headed to the fish box.
A bull dolphin that hit a trolled lure is gaffed and headed to the fish box.

Kevin Sneed of Rigged and Ready Charters out of Holden Beach, N.C., anticipates the dolphin run annually. And for him, it’s like clockwork.

Water temperature is most important factor for dolphins

“We start picking at them in April, a few fish on every trip,” said Sneed (910-448-3474). “During the first part of May, they are here thick, and we catch them real good.”

For a fish that travels more than 5,000 miles a year from New England to the Bahamas and back, it can be a little tricky to know where they may be on any given day off the Carolina coast.

Sneed has more than two decades of experience fishing offshore. He believes the fish gravitate toward specific areas along the Gulf Stream.

“Dolphin are real sensitive to temperature, and water temperature is the most-important factor for finding dolphin this time of year,” he said. “We find them along a hard temperature break. I like to find a least a 3-degree break within a mile or less. It may go from 68 to 71 or 68 to 73. And if we find it along a structure, the bait will be thick in these areas. So the dolphin and tuna will be all over these places. The dolphin are generally feeding on the warmer side of the break.”

Sneed will usually start in places near the Winyah Scarp or the 100/400. But dolphin may be more concentrated in other places with better temperature breaks. He prefers to find good temperature breaks, and knowing exactly where they are may not be the easiest task without any assistance from remote-imagery sources.

Dolphin are feeding almost non-stop along their northern migration, so they’re not hard to tempt with a variety of baits and lures.
Dolphin are feeding almost non-stop along their northern migration, so they’re not hard to tempt with a variety of baits and lures.

Finding those temperature breaks is the key

When the ride from port to the fishing grounds is already a 2-hour trip, riding for hours looking for a temperature break may not be the best way to utilize the day. Sneed uses an online sea-surface temperature service, Hilton’s Offshore ( to provide a map and location of the best temperature breaks available.

“It allows us to increase our time with lines in the water,” he said. “Without this type of imagery, we would waste a lot of time and fuel looking at our temperature gauges.”

One of Sneed’s tactics is to nearly eliminate the typical sea witch-ballyhoo rig on his spring trips. Dolphin are very eager to eat, and it isn’t necessary to rely on rigged ballyhoo this time of year.

“I troll a wide assortment of lures — and not many ballyhoo — that time of year,” he said. “Dolphin are known for short strikes, and you will not know you are pulling a ballyhoo rig without a tail. A spread of lures is easier to manage and provide a better opportunity to land more fish.”

Since flying fish rank at the top of dolphins’ dietary wish list, lures that imitate flying fish are real winners. Sneed prefers lures built with flashy, bright materials.

“Sea Vixen makes a flying fish in blue and white that is one of my favorite ones to use,” he said. “Also, anything that is pink/white, pink/blue, or a lure with mylar built in is almost always going to be a big hit.”

Sneed also pulls a Rapala Magnum lure that will dive down 40 feet. He will toss it over the side and put it in the prop wash.

“The Rapala is an easy lure to put out quick to test out the area, and if we get bit right away, I will put out entire spread,” he said.

By primarily using artificial gear, bait malfunctions are avoided, the greater fishing time produces greater rewards in the fish box.

Two deadly dolphin tricks

Dolphin fishing is one of the greatest draws to the Gulf Stream, because not only are dolphin highly coveted for their tasty flesh, they are exhilarating to catch.

Some key tactics can make the action a little more consistent.

Having pitch rods and baits at hand allows dolphin fishermen to load up when a school is located.
Having pitch rods and baits at hand allows dolphin fishermen to load up when a school is located.

Kevin Sneed of Rigged and Ready Fishing Charters  out of Holden Beach, N.C., loves catching dolphin, and he will do a few things a little different than on the typical offshore wahoo or tuna trip.

Sneed will have a handful of spinning rods rigged with 65-pound braid, 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders and 6/0 live-bait hooks.

“I like having several pitch rods ready, because when you get up close and personal with a school of dolphin, you can spoon-feed them with a chunk of squid, half a ballyhoo, bucktail or any other artificial lure. One day, I tore them up with Gotcha plugs,” Sneed said. “I take a handful of the squid or cut-up ballyhoo and toss it in to chum them up some.”

Catching dolphin while trolling can be fun, but it’s not nearly as exciting as pitching baits and lures to feeding fish, the latter being the fastest way to fill a 10-fish limit for everyone in the boat.

Anglers can also take advantage of a dolphin’s natural instincts. They travel and feed in large groups, and a feeding fish will attract other fish to investigate and join in the festivities.

“Typically, when we do hook one, we will leave one hooked up beside the boat to attract other fish. And it works very well,” he said.

About Jeff Burleson 1312 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.