The chopped-up weed lines remained a factor as Hardin routinely hauled in baits to clear debris. And again, he pulled bathy charts to inspect zones where contour lines converged to form sharper drops. Those areas often hold more bait and fish.
By midday, Hardin changed tactics, dropping lures such as Mold Craft Softheads and a Williamson goggle-eye, to troll more quickly and cover more ground. As we headed back to the No. 14 buoy, we found a school of spotted dolphin - the mammals - and instantly scored a doubleheader of dolphinfish. Again, our catch weighed in below the magic number.
Finally, in the early afternoon, as the sun baked the deck - yes, it truly was late spring - a big fish convulsed the port long-rigger rod. The rod danced in the holder as the fish worked the drag. I looked at the tag, making sure it remained handy in case this monster came up green, blue and gold. But before it showed itself, it pulled the hook.
"I hate not knowing what that was," Hammond said, shaking his head. "There's no roughness on the leader either."
Though we felt a bit let down, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we did catch more than a dozen dolphin in two days. Had we kept all the fish, our larder would be full. Hammond tagged eight dolphin and released them for research.
And while the electronic tag remained in his pocket, he vowed to return soon for that prize North Carolina bull.
Get in the Game
The Dolphinfish Research Program is made possible by a grant from Marine Ventures Foundation, an organization that funds projects helping to ensure healthy fish populations. DRP also relies on donations from anglers and fishing organizations.
The program's founder, Don Hammond, began formal studies of dolphin - considered one of the most economically important game fish in the world - in 2002 when he worked for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. In 2006, the study became a private research program. More than 1,300 anglers aboard 460 boats have tagged more than 11,000 dolphin as of January 2010.
The program invites anglers to tag dolphin and provides starter kits. For more information, contact Hammond at Cooperative Science Services in Charleston, South Carolina, at 843-795-7524, or visit www.dolphintagging.com.