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March 23, 2010

North Carolina: Dolphin HQ?

Move over, south Florida; mahi fishing madness migrates north

Hammond had a new Microwave Telemetry X tag - also known as a pop-off satellite archival tag (PSAT) - burning a hole in his pocket, and we needed a 25-plus-pounder to fill the bill. The electronic tag records information while it's attached to the fish, then pops off and floats to the surface at a preset time. Once at the surface, the tag transmits its data using satellites.

Hardin had rigged fresh dead ballyhoo behind SeaWitches and Ilanders to deploy from four outrigger lines and two flat lines. He prepped the baits by popping out their eyes, breaking their beaks and limbering up their backbones. He ran a squid daisy chain off a short starboard rod, placing a hook in the final bait to snag schoolies.

Peanuts and Teenagers
Just as you might expect in south Florida waters, small dolphin started picking off the baits. But we saw no massive groups of fish. Our buddy boat hooked an 8-pounder, and then Hammond caught and released a 27-inch cow.

Hardin prospected the contours on the bathymetric map, trolling 7 to 8 mph and keeping in close touch with nearby boats. Chopped-up weed lines littered the 80-degree water.

Our buddy boat radioed a nice bull in the spread, but it failed to eat. That crew had wandered out a bit deeper - to 130 feet - and soon hooked up to a nice fish. We could hear shouting and yelling across the still, open water as the fish made its aerial assaults. Unfortunately, the cow came in at about 20 pounds, slightly smaller than needed.

Hammond tagged all dolphin caught aboard our vessel with standard, plastic streamer tags, recording the tag number and the fish's length. If that fish is caught elsewhere, the angler can most easily report its tag by going online to a website address printed on the plastic.

Hardin kept working the boat farther offshore. In 300 feet of water, we saw loads of flying fish and made several passes through their midst without so much as a sniff.

Midmorning we ran back inshore to check out some radio-chatter claims of dolphin in 140 feet of water. Within a half-hour, our buddies boated a 15-pounder and we picked up a peanut.

Farther inshore, several petrels and shearwaters worked a bait school. First to the action, our buddy boat hooked a gaffer. As we sat idle, photographing that fish, a similar teenager slammed one of our sinking baits. The action had proved hot all day, but the tagger remained elusive.

Where, Oh Where
Unwilling to leave the multi-thousand-dollar tag unused, we ran offshore a second day, though without our buddy boat. Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament boats blew through the inlet, heading to the Gulf Stream. Clouds hovered over the coast, but the sun was already warming the offshore waters.

Fifteen minutes after lines in, we hooked a 15-pounder on a blue-and-white Ilander/ballyhoo combo. We had started at the No. 14 buoy, heading southeast. More radio chatter claimed a hot bite just outside the 90-foot drop where the water was warmer. We registered 77 degrees at our location, so 80 sounded prime.