A veteran Crystal Coast captain’s family has tracked dolphin and tuna during May for three decades.
Something inside Tar Heels draws us to the sea.
For most of us, this fascination began during a long-ago summer when mom and dad filled the family chariot with suitcases, inner-tubes for riding the waves, cardboard boxes containing sunscreen, Nehi soft drinks, “Nabs” and moon pies, crammed the kids in the backseat and hit the blacktop for the beach.Who can forget the “how-much-longer-’til-we-get-there” cry 20 miles from home, as if the final destination were a combination of Walt Disney World and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory?
Others visited the coast during different seasons and fell in love with the crashing surf, the solitude at daybreak, the salt-caked air, the mingled aromas of tar and marshes, the sounds of gulls and terns — and decided to make this region home.
Still others found themselves riding a wide-beamed, Detroit-diesel-driven sportfishing boat, 40 miles out to sea with a competent captain at the controls, trolling for big-shouldered fish that evaporated thoughts of bass, mountain trout, bluegills and crappies.
No one who has tangled with a 500-pound marlin, a tail-walking sailfish, a speedy 30-pound king mackerel, a bulldog 50-pound yellowfin tuna or a 30-pound dolphin would compare that experience to a tussle with a catfish. And who would claim a crappie’s taste is superior to grilled tuna or dolphin?
The “beach” is a dream factory where wishes sometimes come true. And the seeds of those dreams sometimes are planted when people make their first offshore fishing trips. It’s often a life-changing experience.
Allen Downey of Raleigh had moved to Morehead City in his mind long before he made the actual transition about six months ago. He had plenty of indoctrination the previous three decades.
“The family has had a place (at Morehead City) since the early ’40s,” said Downey, who, in addition to working with his father at L.A. Downey & Son General Contractors, is a charter captain. “My great-grandfather started the business, so I’m fourth generation. We build anything, commercial or residential.”
But Downey has been a saltwater fisherman much longer than a builder.
“I’m 34, and I’ve been coming down here fishing with my family — my grandfather and father — since I was four years old,” said Downey, who couldn’t remember the number of boats the family has bought, traded or sold during 30 years of offshore fishing at the Crystal Coast.
Spring is one of his favorite times. Currently owner of a 48-foot Ocean Yacht, he moors the C Escape off the Atlantic Beach Causeway behind Harborside Storage.
“In May you can catch anything — yellowfin tuna, dolphin, white marlin, sailfish, kings (mackerel), even an occasional blue marlin late in the month,” he said.
“We start taking clients offshore at the end of March, but mostly on weekends and on the side (when construction business slows).”
Downey said although yellowfins apparently remain offshore during May, in the past many people thought tuna left the area after April. However, Downey said a new fishing technique — kites that skip flying-fish lures on the surface (featured in last month’s North Carolina Sportsman) — is starting to become more popular, and boats are bringing back good numbers of yellowfins during May.
“I think people believed (yellowfins) were gone in May,” Downey said. “But I think what was happening was (the fish) were just not hitting what they were pulling. Now people are using kites to catch tunas.”
These tuna aren’t huge, but they provide plenty of fillets for delicious main-course meals.
“Normally, they run about the same sizes — 20 to 50 pounds (during spring),” Downey said. “You also start seeing blackfins (tuna) from 20 to 30 pounds. The blackfins are here all the time, but you catch more of them in the summer. From late winter to mid spring, you can catch a mix of them, but the blackfins don’t hit kite lures. They’re partial to regular trolled lures.”
Dolphins are the other popular late-spring-to-early-summer saltwater target of most Crystal Coast offshore captains, Downey said.
It’s a good thing dolphin are so prolific and fast-growing, because sportfishing boats put a lot of pressure on them.
Even though it takes less than two days for a fertilized dolphin egg to become a swimming larvae, and dolphins reach sexual maturity after a couple of months, may spawn two or three times in their first year, and can grow to 35 pounds during their first eight months, fishery managers have concerns for their numbers — mostly because increased restrictions on other commercial species may focus long-liners on dolphin.
During Jan. 2004, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a dolphin/wahoo management plan. Now recreational anglers may keep only 10 dolphin per trip, and charter vessels are restricted to 60 dolphin per trip. But there’s still no minimum-size limit.
Anglers may keep two wahoo per day.
“The last couple years dolphin (catches) seem to have dropped some,” Downey said. “In fact, I’ve seen a drop in all species. A lot of charter guys once came back (to shore) with 50 dolphin per trip, but you don’t see that much anymore.
“You used to see boats come back with 50 fish and 10 or 15 would weigh 20 pounds or more. Now you might see a total of 10 or 15 dolphins and two 20-pounders.”
Downey said the biggest dolphins are caught during spring. Once summer begins, average sizes seem to decrease.
“If people stop to ‘bail’ ’em, they’re bailing small dolphins,” he said.
But Downey, who said his best dolphin was a 58-pounder caught eight years ago before June’s Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, said each year mates usually toss one or two 60-pound “bull” dolphin on the Crystal Coast docks.
His best yellowfin weighed “65 or 70 pounds,” he said.
“Bailing” dolphin is a technique where an offshore boat stops after finding a stretch of sargassum (seaweed) or floating boards or planks that hold dolphins. Often a captain at the flying bridge will spot dolphins underneath flotsam — they’ll dart out to hit a trolled bait. Then he stops the boat, the mate throws ‘chum’ over the side to get the fish excited, and the anglers cast cut bait or simply drop cut bait over the side.
“When we’re bailing, we chum with some small chunk bait,” Downey said. “We usually get a box of squid and drop some squid chunks over the side, and that gets (the dolphin) in a frenzy. Then you just hook a piece of a squid and cast it or drop it over the side.”
Sometimes anglers use fly rods and cast Clouser flies to ‘bail’ dolphin, but that’s done more by private-boat anglers.
The charter guys usually stick to trolling.
“We use the same rigs for dolphins as we use for yellowfin tuna,” Downey said. “For dolphins we pull a Hawaiian Eye with a ballyhoo. For tuna we do the same thing, but we pull tuna baits a little farther back. Guys who use kites use Yummies (a plastic replica of a flying fish) for baits.”
Downey trolls the same number of lures for dolphins and yellowfins.
“We pull seven lines; the only difference is the tuna lines are a little farther from the boat,” he said.
Downey uses 6-foot-long Barefoot Rods & Tackle (Wilmington, N.C.) stand-up rods fitted with Shimano 50 LRS or TLD 25 reels.
“We also have an 80-wide reel on a Fenwick bent-butt rod,” he said. His monofilament choice is 80-pound-test Diamond Momoi.
“I use flourocarbon leaders for yellowfins but not for dolphin,” he said.
Dolphin are much more aggressive at striking trolled ballyhoo or squid while yellowfins seem to be a little skittish of heavy-duty leaders. That may be because they have better vision than dolphins (their eyes are much larger than dolphins’ eyes).
“(The wariness of shorter leaders by yellowfins) may be because the swivel is closer to the bait,” Downey said, “but I don’t really know. Long flourocarbon leaders just seem to work better for us.
“We use 200-pound-test monofilament leaders for everyday dolphin fishing. If we’re fishing for tuna, we prefer flourocarbon cable.”
For dolphin, he pulls 8 to10 feet of leader but nearly doubles that for yellowfins, using 15 to 16 feet.
Like most Crystal Coast (and other N.C. captains at Atlantic coast ports), Downey heads for temperature “breaks” when targeting dolphins and yellowfins. These “breaks” are regions where the water temperature may vary by 1 to 4 degrees. That doesn’t seem possible in a huge ocean, but breaks are created by wind and undersea currents that push, shape and shift the warm waters of the Gulf Stream into fingers that may stretch for miles on either side of the main current. Charter captains have electronic equipment that detects water temperature changes, i.e., breaks.
“Sometimes you can see a break because the water will be different in color — it might be green on one side and blue on the other,” Downey said.
So what’s the attraction of “breaks” to gamefish and to anglers?
“They’ll usually create an eddy or a difference in current, and that’s where you’ll usually find a weed line,” he said.
By “weeds” Downey meant sargassum (sea weed), which appears as clumps of floating yellow, orange or red clumps of vegetation.
“(Offshore) this time of year (April or May) if you find 65-degree water, that’s good,” he said. “During the summer we look for breaks in the 72-degree range. You’re looking for breaks of 71 to 74 degrees in the summer. Sometimes you can find a weed line that has a temperature break on either side of it all day long. That’s really good.”
However, temperature breaks by themselves aren’t the keys; it’s that they form the “weed” (sargassum) lines that hold baitfish.
“If you find a weed line with a good temperature break, that’s where the baitfish will be hanging out, and that’s where you’ll find dolphin and yellowfins,” Downey said.
What types of baitfish will be congregated at weed lines?
“Mostly you’ll see these little yellow butterfish,” Downey said. “But there’s all kinds of small baitfish that will be near weed lines. You also get all kinds of flying fish, from little ones 2-inches long to normal-size flying fish that grow to 12 inches.
“If you find flying fish, you’ll have a really good shot at some dolphins. You might even get a chance at a (blue) marlin.”
Sometimes inexperienced captains who troll squid or ballyhoo and run their boats parallel to weed lines will stop when a gamefish jumps a bait, but Downey keeps his engine in gear.
With seven lines in the water, there’s always a chance of getting multiple strikes if baits continue to move, even after a hookup. The trick is to make sure to put the hooked fish into the boat while allowing other anglers and the mate to work out problems (crossed lines) that may be caused by more than one hookup — if possible.
“Normally, we’ll continue to troll if we get a hit,” he said. “I’ll troll the same speed for 25 or 30 seconds to see if we get a second hit. If nothing happens, I’ll slow down, and we’ll clear short lines, but we leave two long lines out there. We’ve had tuna hit baits while sitting dead in the water.
“You just try to leave your baits in the water as long as you can.”
So where to go for dolphins and yellowfins if leaving a Crystal Coast port?
“A lot of guys like the Big Rock (about 44 miles offshore) and south of the Big Rock this time of year,” Downey said. “It’s pretty good for tuna now. On into the summer, boats go north of the Big Rock.”
Even if the dolphin and tuna aren’t cooperating, there’s always the chance for other hookups.
“This time of year we catch blue marlin, whites, sailfish,” Downey said. “You have a chance for any kind of billfish, with probably the biggest chance a white (marlin) or sailfish in May. The (blue) marlin usually show up at the end of the month, the first of June. June seems like the hottest month for blue marlin.”
Downey said after he slows down — which shouldn’t be for a while — another Downey will be in line to take up offshore fishing.
“I’ve already got my son, Davis, involved,” he said. “He’s four years old and caught a white marlin at the (Morehead City) Tred Barta Tournament last year.”
Which means the Downey family will be doing its part to make sure the Crystal Coast offshore-fishing beat continues for at least another generation.