On Target

Anglers who refuse to think of dolphin as bycatch can load the boat with bulls and cows.

One of the more pleasant “distractions” involving trolling baits for billfish off the Louisiana coast is the tasty by-catch of dolphin — dorado or mahi-mahi for sensitive or easily confused types — big enough to attack and get a hold of a bait designed for the biggest of bites.

There are better, though not necessarily easier, ways of capturing dolphin, and they involve anglers being able to feel more than the occasional headshake. Downsizing tackle and taking the focus away from the dreamy “man in the blue suit” when working either grasslines or the floating rigs far offshore can result in a supreme battle and loads of tasty fillets.

Earlier this year, the Green Canyon area was absolutely inundated with scattered sargassum, making trolling marlin baits nearly impossible for the 10 anglers chartering the 94-foot Finatic. The crew working the cockpit was growing increasingly forlorn with the prospects of a whole day of chumming to supplant the relatively meager meat haul of yellowfin tuna the night before.

Capt. Bill Delabar and deckhand Hunter Caballerro were holding out hope that the small live bait secured the evening before and worked on the upcurrent of one of the floating rigs in the field would save a trip to the cutting board.

But before a yellowfin suspended below the surface could sense the frantic 3-inch hardtail, a bull dolphin gobbled it up, setting off a cacophony of excited crew members and frantic orders to get another bait in the water. The bull put on an impressive aerial show, but an accompanying cow escaped when an overzealous crew member couldn’t resist the urge to set the hook before the bait was secure in the fish’s mouth.

Repeated efforts to tempt the smaller cow dolphin were rebuffed without much of a reaction at all.

Using tackle suited for yellowfin tuna and blue marlin definitely has its place in capturing dolphin — an accompanying fish can be kept interested enough to get close to the boat by horsing in the first to bite — but most any dolphin other than the young, excitable “chicks” can be loads of fun on the type of tackle Capt. Scott Avanzino uses to pluck them from the rip and any grass patches larger than the size of a room in an average house.

Admittedly a billfish fanatic, Avanzino often sees or senses a measure of dissatisfaction when billfish do not make an appearance in a reasonable amount of time. The call by his customers to abandon plans of capturing a marlin can mean a couple of things: bottom fishing or sticking with the rip and surrounding grass patches and shooting for a more agreeable species.

“One of the best ways to put dolphin in the boat is to toss a small live bait to them,” said Avanzino, who has just added a 36-foot twin-V to his growing fleet. “I’ve never seen one refuse it on the first try. You can throw it behind the fish, and he’ll find it.”

Sounds like simple enough stuff, right up to the part on the end. Avanzino says that getting the fish hooked is absolutely critical. While willing entertainers the first go-around, dolphin can become unbearable should an angler get a case of the “yips” when the fish goes for the bait.

Easier said than done, of course. Dolphin are famous for their unmistakable shape and color, which becomes even more radiant when they become excited at the sense of their next meal. These changes often result in changes to the trigger-man as well.

Much like “buck fever” the angler may tighten up and blow his opportunity by forgetting the most important step in securing a good hookset.

“Once he takes the bait, you’ve got to give him about a 10-count before engaging the reel and reeling in the slack,” said Avanzino, who uses small circle hooks such as the 5/0 Frenzy made by Delabar. “Giving him that much time is very important. You want him to swallow it.”

Not adhering to this step is where most things go terribly wrong, not hard to imagine when dealing with a large, brightly colored fish that has the rapt attention of everybody on deck. When a lightning-quick fish charges a fluttering bait and the line races off the bail of a spinning reel, it’s very easy for the angler to imagine that the line and the fish will quickly be gone if something is not done much sooner than later.

“You’ve got to give them time to get it in their mouth. That’s the reason we use 80- or even 130-pound leader snelled to that small circle hook,” said Avanzino. “If you use 50-pound leader, they’ll bite right through it.”

Small baitfish such as the tiny “potato chip” sized baitfish frequently found around the grass patches and rip lines are the ideal bait, and are caught before the search begins in earnest with tiny sabiki rigs.

“The fish are cruising up and down the grassline looking for just the kind of baitfish we’re throwing to them,” Avanzino said. “The small bar jacks and baby amberjacks make really good bait.”

Cast nets are mostly ineffective trying to catch cat-quick baitfish in deep, salty water, but can be a trip-saver when bait such as pogies are found en route to the fishing grounds.

Hooking the small baits in the meat of the back allows a quick, accurate pitch to a waiting fish without concern that the bait will be lost in flight. This is best accomplished with tackle similar to that used for poppers and surface-feeding tuna, only a little lighter.

Dead-on accuracy is not a requirement for the first try, but drawing a strike from a previously missed fish — whether it’s from your crew or another boat 45 minutes prior — is helped by putting the bait in its face, giving the fish the “fight or flight” choice.

“You need a little more limber rod and a little lighter reel and line — we use 65-pound Power Pro — to have some accuracy in your casting,” said Avanzino. “Sometimes they’ll give you two or three chances, but your best shot is always the first one.”

Small live baits are undoubtedly the choice of Capt. Rene Rice of Cherece IV Charters in Grand Isle, but the veteran skipper has a line-up of proven back-ups for times when getting bait — or the right kind of bait — proves difficult.

“Jigs don’t go bad. They don’t go bad in the livewell and they don’t go bad in the tackle center,” said Rice. “You always want to have live bait, but sometimes you have to fish with what you have.

“I like to use the smaller king mackerel jigs — the King Digger jigs — made by Carolina Lures. They’ve got some real hooks in them, too.”

Tipping them with a piece of squid is a sure way to tempt them when fish are a bit finicky, which is often on days when boat traffic is heavy.

“Sometimes they’ll eat anything you throw out there, but sometimes when they have a bad hair day, they can be real sensitive,” said Rice.

Carolina Lures’ Hydro Jigs are some of Rice’s favorites for casting to big dolphin.

“Pink is always a good color and the green/yellow does a good job,” he said. “The Hydro Jigs are good, deep-running jigs. We’ll use some with the tails on them and some with the skirts. I rig them with about a foot of 80-pound High Seas camo line.”

Though Rice admits throwing spinning reels is easier than conventional tackle, that doesn’t mean he has any more of an opinion of them than in any time in the past.

“God didn’t mean for spinning reels to work. I’ll take a Shimano Speedmaster any day of the week. Penn GT 345’s, too,” said Rice. “They may screech a little, the drag may stick, but they cover up a lot of mistakes. We do use a few spinning reels — got a few that need work right now.”

Avanzino also tackles dolphin with fly gear, using the “bait and switch” to draw them close enough for an easy presentation.

“We’ll run a couple of hookless medium ballyhoos — maybe with a skirt — behind the boat, trolling them at four or five knots so that there’s no white water,” said Avanzino. “When the fish appears, you want to tease it to the boat where the fly angler — I like to have two ready to go — can cast to it.”

Again, not a terribly complicated strategy. But the game is dependent on several things happening.

“The most important thing is to never take your eyes off the spread, not for one second,” said Avanzino. “The fish will come out from under the grass and charge the baits, and you’ve got to keep it from them until they get close enough to the boat.

“We only run the ballyhoo about 25 yards back, but you want to draw them to within 10 or 15 feet of the stern.”

To effectively run the drill takes seven team players working in unison: a captain with his eyes glued to the spread (as well as an extra set of eyes in the tower), two fly anglers, two players behind them assigned to teasing the fish into range and a person ready with a spinning rod rigged with a teaser to bring back any fish somehow missing or losing interest in the trolled bait/teasers.

Avanzino says, like pitching live baits, the first shot is always the best for getting a fish on the fly rod. Of course, that entails not letting the fish get so much as a swipe of the ballyhoo before it has a chance to get a look at the brightly colored combination of feathers, hackle and hooks.

“Once they get a taste of the ballyhoo, it makes it very difficult to get one on a fly,” said Avanzino. “You want to keep it just ahead of him.”

Doing so often entails violently jerking the bait out of the water when the fish comes hard. Fortunately, that’s the kind of fired-up fish that is ideal for fly casters. The shot must be taken at this point and this is where a bulky, brightly colored fly and the lack of prop wash comes into play.

Pursuing dolphin with gear they were suited for can be every bit as effective as cranking them in with 80-pound tackle. By using lighter spinning or fly gear, the entertainment value sky-rockets as high as a bull on its first jump. n


Capt. Rene Rice can be reached at (985) 787-2200. Scott Avanzino is available at (985) 845-8006.