Chicken dolphin are a dime a dozen on the rips off Louisiana’s coast, but getting bulls on the end of your line is a different ball game altogether.

James Peters was leaned out the side of the tuna tower, peering intently into the waters along the blue-green rip covered with sargassum grass.

Behind Peters’ Osprey was a skirted ballyhoo and a blue/white Ilander, and hanging within a quick arm’s length of the captain was a naked ballyhoo on a spinning rig

The boat was chugging along at a good clip, about 7 knots, when Peters suddenly threw the throttles into neutral and snatched the spinning rod out of its holder.

“There’s a big bull right there,” he said, as he shot the ballyhoo in a slight arc to a spot in front of the swimming fish.

The blue/green torpedo never even flinched as it continued on whatever errand had begun the fish’s journey.

Peters throttled up the boat again, keeping it within 30 yards of the grassline.

Ten minutes later, the drill was performed again when another bull swam into sight.

The effect was the same, however.

“I don’t understand it,” said Peters, who owns Osprey Charters out of Venice. “They usually blast right to anything that hits the water.”

It turned out that pitching the ballyhoo wasn’t necessary to put the first bull of the day onboard.

Peters was scanning the rip from his perch, when the drag of the Ilander rig began screaming, signalling a fish on.

I grabbed the rod, seated it in a fighting belt and began reeling like mad as Peters backed off the power to the big diesels.

“It’s a dolphin!” the captain yelled from the tower. “A nice bull.”

As the words left Peters’ mouth, the fish violently split the surface of the water, shaking its head in an attempt to get the sharp hook out of its mouth.

Peters kept the boat’s forward movement, but just barely.

I hardly noticed, fixated on the aerial performance of the now-glowing creature at the terminal end of the line.

Finally exhausted, the dolphin swam to the port side of the boat to await the inevitable.

Peters’ brother and fellow charter captain Thomas obliged, sinking a gaff into the midsection of the 20-pound fish and yanking it over the gunwale.

I shared high-fives with Thomas as the Osprey roared and James began his watch once more.

This is the life of a dolphin hunter.

A day is often spent on the rip, dragging baits and looking for that big fish to appear.

Although it can at times be monotonous, the Peters brothers aren’t bothered — they love the hunt.

They know it’s just a matter of time before they figure out how to put bulls in the fish box.

Some anglers might think hauling dolphin into a boat is a breeze, and they’d be right — if the topic was catching chickens.

Success on the bulls — the older and thusly more wise specimen of the species — isn’t so easy, however.

The first key is to actually know there are bulls in the area.

That’s why James spends his time in the tuna tower.

“You can see so much better up there,” he explained. “I can see when one is on the grass line, and I can pitch a bait to him.”

The brothers swear by this method.

“We catch about 90 percent of our bulls casting from the tower,” Thomas said. “We’ve had bad days trolling a rip when we’ve caught five or six bulls and nothing else, and all those dolphins came from the tower.”

This is how James prefers it.

“To me, it’s all about seeing the fish hit the bait,” he explained. “I just love that.”

Thomas said the key is to snap a bait out as soon as a fish is sighted.

“If you get that baby within 20 feet of a dolphin, it will usually turn on a dime,” he said.

James said there’s really no hard-and-fast rule on how to work the bait once it’s in the water.

“It’s really a feel thing,” he said.

The key is to watch the dolphin and see how it reacts to the bait.

“If you pull it too fast, you might pull it away from the fish and it might lose interest,” James said. “If you don’t move it, the fish might turn away.”

So if dropping the bait in the water makes a fish turn, James might leave it a second and see if the dolphin grabs it.

If the fish begins to turn away, however, the captain will twitch it to make it look like a wounded fish.

Although James prefers ballyhoo, he said dead mullet is a great replacement bait if the former isn’t available.

“Used to, that’s all we could get,” he said. “They really didn’t get any ballyhoo down here (in Venice) until about 10 years ago.”

To maximize their effectiveness, however, James recommended splitting mullets’ tails.

“That lets it work better and have more action,” he said.

Although a naked ballyhoo or mullet usually is readily snagged by such a fish, the Peters brothers said a quick hookset could produce nothing but disappointment.

“You have to let them take the bait,” Thomas said. “When you think you’ve got the fish and you set the hook, it’ll just pop out.

“You’ve got to let him chew on it.”

Although this tactic usually works, there are times when the bulls can’t be spotted.

That’s where the dragged baits come in handy.

“We catch a lot of fish on that Ilander,” James said. “I don’t know what it is about it, but they seem to love it.”

It’s pulled just like the captains were billfishing.

“There’s really nothing different. You just pull it behind the boat,” he said.

The skirted ballyhoo is placed out as an additional offering, but Thomas said the dead fish can be a curse as well as an advantage.

“You’ve got to watch that ballyhoo,” he said. “A dolphin will come up and hit it and take the back of that ballyhoo, and you don’t know you’re only dragging half of the bait.”

To help minimize that problem, Thomas takes precautions when wiring his ballyhoo.

“I try to get the hook as far back as possible,” he said.

He also pulls in the lure every so often to check it.

In the few cases when dead bait doesn’t work, the Peters will even turn to live hardtails.

These hardy baitfish can be slow-trolled as they are for tuna, or they can be pitched by the captain or an angler on the deck the same as a dead baitfish.

Using live bait to pitch, however, can be tricky.

“If you don’t cast it far enough, it’s going to come burning back to the boat,” James said. “It’s hilarious.”

But the right cast is almost certain to result in a hookup.

“If you make the right cast, the dolphin will usually come right up behind it,” James said.

Obviously, live bait means the fish has to be hooked and left in a livewell.

If pitching or dragging baits fails to put fish in the boat, the Peters brothers won’t give up — they simply change their tactics.

An effective way to pull dolphin out of the grass line is by chumming.

“We chum up a lot of dolphin,” James said. “We use small, chopped-up chunks of squid.”

Once there are a number of dolphin in the chum line, James said they’re usually pretty easy to catch.

“All you have to do is take a little hook and bury it in a chunk of squid and run it out,” he explained.

Often, the baited hook is sent out weightless, but there are other times when weight is necessary.

“If they’re up on top, I won’t use a weight,” James said. “If they’re below (the water’s surface), I will.

“It also makes it easier to cast.”

Casting often isn’t necessary, however.

“Half the time, they’ll be right behind the boat,” James said.

The down side to chumming is that small dolphin will swarm the chum line.

That’s OK with James, however, because he knows that bulls will also slip in to feed.

“The bigger dolphin will usually be under the chickens,” he said.

That sometimes makes it a challenge to hook a bull, since anything in the water generally gets attacked immediately by ravenous chicken dolphin.

But James said that’s not always the case.

“Usually, if a bull comes up and he’s hungry, he’s going to run the show,” he explained.

To maximize the chances of success, however, James climbs back into his tuna tower so he can more easily spot bulls moving around on the edge of the massed dolphin.

“You get a big bird’s eye view, and the second one turns off the back, you can spot-cast to it,” James said.

But whether pitching dead bait, live hardtail or squid, the fish can sometimes be ornery.

That’s when James will make repeated casts and pull his bait quickly away from the fish.

“You can aggravate it, and the next time he comes around, he’s going to inhale it,” he said. “I guess they’re just such masters of catching fish that they feel challenged.”

If all else fails, slow-trolling live hardtails can save a trip.

The efficacy of slow-trolled hardtails was shown later in the day, after the Osprey was driven off the rip by a huge thunderstorm that broke the rip up.

James had turned the boat toward a new floating platform located about 20 miles southeast of South Pass, and upon arriving Thomas had rigged a spirited hardtail and dropped it over the transom.

Sargassum grass was floating around the rig in scattered clumps, hiding baitfish sure to attract predators.

As James bumped the engines in and out of gear to move the bait around and keep it out from under the boat, tuna started busting the top about 30 yards off to the starboard.

Thomas snatched a baitcasting rod rigged with a Yo-Zuri Hydro Tiger, ran to the front of the boat and shot it out as far as possible.

After several pops, the water surrounding the plug exploded as a yellowfin inhaled it before diving for the depths.

Only seconds later, the hardtail line began to sing as line was ripped off the reel’s spool.

I grabbed it, slammed the drag lever forward and began putting pressure on the fish.

Drag sounded as even more line was snatched off the reel, but soon I was gaining on the struggling fish.

Suddenly, the line began to rise, and a 30-pound dolphin reached for the sky, dancing across the surface of the Gulf.

It was lighted up like a Christmas tree, with the greens and blues seemingly shimmering across its body.

The fish dove once more, seeking escape in the cobalt waters, and then it looked for escape in the air once more.

But finally it was too beaten, and I pulled it to the side of the boat.

James wasn’t looking at the now-spent fish — he was searching the waters around it.

“If you look behind a hooked fish, a lot of times you’ll see a bull or cow following,” he explained.

Thomas said this can quickly lead to a second hook-up, but he pointed out that it’s a delicate situation.

“You usually only get one shot at it,” he said. “After that, you can throw something at it for the next hour and he won’t take it.”

Alas, no fish followed this now-doomed dolphin, and it was gaffed and dropped in the fish box.

James said he wasn’t surprised that the dolphin would be feeding around the rig, especially since the area was packed with sargassum grass.

“A lot of times when you’re trolling around a rig and there’s no tuna, you’ll catch a lot of dolphin,” he explained.

The key to trolling up dolphin, though is to customize the boat speed for the bait.

James said artificials can be trolled at 7 or 8 knots, just as they are when the target is billfish.

When natural bait is added, however, things have to slow down.

“If we’re trolling natural (dead) bait, we’ll slow down, and if we’re trolling live bait, we’ll slow down even more,” he said.

But there’s a fine balance that has to be maintained.

“The problem is if you slow down too much, they’ll see it’s a bait and turn off,” James said.

No matter how a dolphin is caught, however, Thomas recommended keeping the boat’s engines in gear as the fight draws to a close.

“A lot of times, you’ll lose the fish when you take it out of gear because the fish jumps and flails around,” he said. “If you leave the boat in gear, for some reason, the dolphin will usually swim right up here beside the boat, and you can reach out and gaff it.”


Osprey Charters can be reached at (504) 834-7097.


About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.

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