How to Catch a Dolphin in the Mid Atlantic


Anglers in North Carolina start seeing bigger dolphinfish arriving in April; fish come up the coast from mid-summer to early fall.
Doug Olander

30 miles off Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, trolling on a weed line in a 50-foot sportfish, we ambushed a pack of large dolphins. The fish attacked our spread, jumping out of the water, cutting behind a hopping bait, greyhound from side to side of the spread.

With outrigger pins popping, rods leaning and lines tightening, mate William Howell called anglers out of the cabin while Captain Jason Snead put on the teal green dream girl in a tight turn.

Once all the rods were loaded with big fish and the reels were losing line, Howell had the anglers grab a gimbal belt and a fishing rod. Snead moved the boat forward in slow motion as the anglers steered their fish towards the boat.

Bottlenose dolphins do not come easily. The large green and blue fish stretched from side to side and leapt into the air, frantic to escape. The fishermen worked on their reels while the captain and his mate orchestrated a line dance with the fishermen who hung around the cockpit to stay untangled.

Before long, Howell was placing each mahi by hand near the boat, gaffing it and tossing it into the fish box. As the anglers shared high-fives and pats on the back, Howell deployed the lines and Snead brought the boat back up to trolling speed. dream girl lurched and rolled over waves and dips and all eyes searched the sea to find the next line of weeds.

Mahi on the goof
Captain William Howell hunts bottlenose dolphins using sea surface temperature maps to define potential hot spots anywhere from 20 fathoms down to the edge of the continental shelf.
Eric Burnley

Dolphin season

This scene took place a few years ago. Today, Howell steers his own boat, Vagabond. I caught up with him in late spring as he prepared for another season of dolphin fishing.

Howell expects larger fish to appear off Oregon Inlet in April and hang around all summer. From mid-summer to early fall, the bulls move north. Between June and September, anglers from Virginia to New Jersey see their best big dolphin action.

At least that’s how it should be. In recent years, anglers have seen fewer large dolphins in early summer. So when the sargassum lines up and the dolphins are on the prowl, anglers should be prepared to make the most of the opportunity.

Bottlenose dolphin on the boat
Keep your drag lines limited to four to reduce tangles when branching multiple times.
Eric Burnley

Find Mahi

Howell generally hunts dolphin from 20 fathoms to the edge of the continental shelf. But to find big fish, Howell depends on sea surface temperature maps. “Water temperature is more important than depth,” he says. It looks for a substantial change in the temperature and color of the water.

After the boat passes through the change, Howell searches for floating sargassum which serves as an oasis for the dolphins. According to Howell, ideal conditions include a southwest wind blowing the weed against the edge of the Gulf Stream current.

Farther up the coast, anglers fishing off the mid-Atlantic states lack the reliable Gulf Stream current found off Hatteras. Instead, they look for smaller changes in water temperature, clarity, altimetry, and plankton levels that help amass sargassum and floating wreckage, which hold dolphins back.

Once Howell finds the weed line, he slows the boat to 6 knots and pulls out four rods. “I limit the spread to four rods to reduce tangles and keep the fish focused,” he says.

Bottlenose dolphins play like puppies in a dog park. Less bait in the water keeps the dolphin on target and improves the chances of a good bite. If a dolphin hits a lure and misses, pull the ravaged hook out of the water and lay down fresh bait.

Rigging a bare, unweighted jumping ballyhoo only takes a few minutes. In this video, the author walks you through the basic procedure.

Tackle and Rig

Howell targets bulls with a quiver of 20-pound trolling rods paired with lever-trigger reels wound with 30-pound monofilament. At the end of the line, he ties a Bimini connection to an unnamed knot to tie off a 24-foot length of 80-pound mono and attaches a 250-pound snap swivel to the end. For the leader, he ties a surgeon’s loop to the end of a 5-foot piece of 50-pound monofilament and finishes it off with a 7/0, short-shank, fine-thread J-hook. Slide the surgeon’s loop through the snap swivel to complete the assembly.

To add the bait, select a small ballyhoo, thaw it in salt water and remove the eyes. Squeeze the bait and break his back. Take a 12 inch piece of copper rigging wire and thread one inch through the eyelet of the hook. Wrap this short end around the hook shank, leaving the remaining 11 inches of yarn as the long end.

Hold the ballyhoo upside down and insert the tip of the hook into the base of the gills. Thread the ballyhoo onto the hook as if threading a soft plastic artificial onto a jig head. The tip of the hook comes out of the belly and the eye of the hook goes under the eye of the ballyhoo.

Pass the long end of the rigging wire tag twice through the eye socket of the ballyhoo. Push the end of the wire up through the base of the ballyhoo’s beak, then wrap the wire around 1/2 inch from the beak. Break the rest of the bill.

Howell rigs some of the ballyhoos with chin weights so they submerge slightly, but he prefers jumping unweighted baits along the surface.

ballyhoo for rig
Howell weighs in some ballyhoo to vary the spread.

Captain’s advice

To deploy his four baits, he uses a mix of short rigger, long rigger and flatline positions. He keeps four other rods rigged and ready to cast to the dolphin in the spread. “I wouldn’t want more than six dolphins at a time,” he laughs, imagining the chaos that would create.

It lets bait fall back into the spread until it jumps through the water or swims just below the surface without spending more than a few seconds in the water or in the air.

When a pod of dolphins attacks, Howell keeps the boat trolling until all the rods are welcoming fish. If a dolphin strikes short, it picks up the rod and shakes it, then drops the tip of the rod to squirt what’s left of the bait through the water and fall back onto the fish. If that doesn’t cause another bite, he asks the angler to pull the bait while another angler drops a new ballyhoo into the spread.

Once a fish is hooked, it slowly moves the boat forward as the angler turns. “The key is to keep the fish behind the boat and the lines untangled,” he says.

When the fish is within 20 feet of the boat, Howell puts the 6-foot gaff within reach and takes the line lightly in his hands. Carefully, he guides the fish, holding the line low in the water to keep the fish’s head submerged. If the dolphin sticks its head out of the water, it jumps up and most likely throws the hook.

Read more : Mahi Fishing Tips

Mahi went back to the boat
If you plan on keeping a mahi, blunder quickly and pocket the fish before it turns into a mess on deck.
Chris Woodward / Sport Fishing

Once the dolphin is gaffable, Howell strokes it on the back just behind the head. Then, in one motion, he lifts the fish out of the water and tosses it into the fish box – where it often explodes in a frenzy of tail slapping and rod-shattering energy.

When the bottlenose dolphin rises behind the boat or Howell finds a pack of fish on a float, he slows the boat and unleashes a rigged ballyhoo at the dolphin. He wiggles the bait back and forth to get the fish’s attention. When he goes into a feeding frenzy, Howell can catch large dolphins one after another. “Dolphin fishing is one of the coolest things we have to do,” he says. Fast-paced action, aggressive fish, and explosive combat make Dolphin a fan favorite. “People like to catch them.”


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