My buddy Lee and I were drifting over a shipwreck 30 miles off Virginia Beach, Virginia. From the back of my center console, we dropped jigs to the bottom and pulled up sea bass and flounder. Suddenly, the sylvan ocean surface was disrupted by a 10-pound mahi-mahi jumping toward the clear blue sky.
Lee and I stood dumbfounded, processing the image of that gold and green fish near a mid-shore wreck. “Was that a dolphin?” I asked Lee. He broke his silence, “Yeah, a nice one.”
In unison, we quickly cranked in our jigs and stowed the rods. I put the boat in gear and made a wide circle heading back toward the wreck. Lee grabbed the trolling rods and snapped a pre-rigged ballyhoo on each. By the time the wreck appeared in my fish finder, the baits were skipping in the boat wake. “Here we go,” I said. Lee crossed his fingers and chuckled. We watched the baits splash on the surface.
The first dolphin hit with a pop. One rod bent heavily as drag pulled from the reel. The next dolphin greyhounded three times and attacked a second bait. I kept the boat moving forward until all four rods were bucking. We cranked madly as the mahi, called dolphin in my neighborhood, crossed our lines, darted under the boat, tangled in the motor and beat us with our own fishing rods.
After a lot of cursing and laughing, Lee and I had four dolphin flopping and sliding around the deck. We wrestled the fish into the cooler and shut the lid. “Whew!” I exhaled. Lee sat on the cooler, breathing heavily. We took a second to recover. But only a second. With my heartbeat still above baseline, I put the boat in gear and Lee clipped fresh baits to the trolling rods. In a few minutes, the baits were skipping over the wreck and dolphin were mounting another assault. We repeated the song and dance two more times before the bite died, going from chaos to calm in less than an hour.
For anglers targeting dolphin in the mid-Atlantic, the key to loading the fishbox is to react quickly and move fast. It’s a lesson I’ve learned over the years, having traveled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to target dolphin with some of the best charter captains on the weed line. From May through September, skippers fishing out of Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Village find reliable dolphin fishing on the grass lines that form along the edge of the Gulf Stream. I bring their tactics and techniques back to my home waters in the mid-Atlantic, where the fish are not as common. I never know when I might run into dolphin, but after fishing with the pros, I know I’m ready.
Dolphin range from 2 to 50 pounds. The brightly colored fish grow fast, too. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this species can grow to 7-feet long in less than five years. They can spawn at just four months old and reproduce every two to three days. As a result, NOAA labels the fishery as healthy, not overfished. Dolphin can be found in temperate waters around the world. On the East Coast, they are prevalent along the Gulf Stream from Florida to North Carolina. In the Northeast, the fish move inshore with warm, summer water from June to September with the best fishing later in the season.
The best place to find dolphin is under a mat of sargassum grass. The floating seaweed forms huge yellow fields along temperature and current changes. North of the Gulf Stream, these conditions most often form east of 100 fathoms. Inshore anglers will most often find dolphin on wrecks, sea mounts, buoys and any sea junk floating on the surface.
I rigged my 20-foot Jones Brothers Marine center console with outriggers sporting long and short-rigger clips. The outriggers allow me to run six rods from the small boat, and they spread the lures out from the propwash to the clear water beyond the boat’s wake. The riggers also keep the baits splashing on the surface, where the dolphin look for a meal.
I carry six medium-heavy Penn Carnage conventional rods matched to Penn Fathom 30 lever drag reels. The reels are spooled with 50-pound Berkley ProSpec braided line connected to a 50-yard top shot of 25-pound Berkley ProSpec high-vis monofilament. For abrasion resistance, and to give me something to grab when the fish is close to the boat, I add 20 feet of 50-pound Momoi Hi-Catch leader with a Bimini twist to no-name knot connection.
At the end of the 50-pound leader, I tie on a 150-pound test snap swivel that makes rigging a snap. I tie a 6/0 dink-bait hook to an arm’s length of 50-pound leader. Then, I slide a ¼- to ⅛-ounce sinker over the line and twist an 18-inch piece of copper rigging wire to the hook eye. I make a surgeon’s loop in the other end of the leader to clip to the snap swivel. When I land a fish, I simply unclip the leader from the snap swivel and attach a fresh rig. Later, I’ll go back and dig my hooks out of the fish.
Dolphin fish will respond to a variety of lures and baits. My go-to trolling spread consists of small ballyhoo rigged on the dink-bait hook. I rig half my lures to swim and the other half to skip. If the sky is cloudy or the water is murky, I’ll add a rubber skirt to the bait. I troll at 6 knots, dragging naked ballyhoo from the long riggers about 75 feet behind the boat and the flat lines in the prop wash. From the short riggers, about 40 feet behind the boat, I like to use a daisy chain of 3-inch rubber squid punctuated with a small, skirted ballyhoo.
But trolling isn’t the only way to catch dolphinfish. This species grows fast and lives fast. To fuel their high-speed lifestyle, they are aggressive feeders. Many times, we’ve encountered a school of dolphin swirling under a buoy or piece of flotsam. To shift into high gear, we pull in the trolling baits and replace them with bailing rigs.
A bailing rig consists of a 5/0 baitholder hook tied to 5-feet of 50-pound leader. I attach a 150-pound snap swivel to the other end of the leader and clip on a one-ounce inline sinker. Then, the sinker is clipped to the snap swivel on my mainline.
When the dolphin put on a show behind the boat, we drop the bailing rigs and drop chunks of bait to fish that are holding in one place. The fish are so competitive, they’ll fight each other for the bait. We always leave one fish hooked and swimming just behind the boat to keep the school’s attention.
Then, it’s a matter of bailing dolphin like a well-oiled machine. Working as a team, the anglers bring the dolphin to the boat while one person lands the fish and uses a dehooker to drop it in the fishbox. That person then baits the hook and sends it back into the school. Dolphin can lose interest fast, so keep the action moving to keep the fish engaged.
The key to catching dolphin is to make hay while the sun shines. Anglers fishing in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic never know when dolphin will appear behind the boat, so quick action will pay off.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.