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March 23, 2010

North Carolina: Dolphin HQ?

Move over, south Florida; mahi fishing madness migrates north

Dolphin dominate south Florida waters. They're sought after in tournaments and comprise the local angler's annual summer staple. But believe it or not, south Florida's era of dolphin supremacy actually waned in the mid-2000s.

Federal statistics show catches of dolphin from North Carolina began eclipsing those from the Atlantic coast of the Sunshine State from 2005 through 2007. "I think several factors affected that change," says Don Hammond, who heads the Dolphinfish Research Program. "The growth in the North Carolina offshore fishery was spurred by the growth of the economy and the small-boat fleet during that period."

Florida had already become saturated with small boats, but North Carolina's fleet exploded in the mid-2000s, Hammond explains. In addition, Florida (and Georgia) implemented a 20-inch fork-length minimum for federal waters beginning in 2004, meaning anglers likely released more fish.

All that changed again in 2008 as the economy slipped into recession. Total dolphin-fishing effort throughout the Atlantic and Gulf dropped almost 19 percent. Carolina catch rates plummeted compared to Florida's, probably due to the greater distance offshore Tarheel anglers must travel.

Assuming some cautious economic optimism for 2010, North Carolina and south Florida could again be neck and neck this summer vying for top-dolphin honors. To take a better look at this unsung location, I embarked on a dolphin-tagging trip last June with Hammond and top Carolina tagger Jim Hardin, from Grady-White Boats.

Northern Gyrations
A bright-orange dawn and temperatures in the high 60s started our first dolphin day as we ran out of Morehead City on a mid-June morning. Donning a light jacket, I thought to myself, This is definitely not Florida.

Hardin leaned on the throttles of the Grady-White 330 Express as we sped south out of the Beaufort Inlet into a calm sea. We faced a 25- to 30-mile run, which was yet another hint that we were nowhere near Palm Beach.

Hammond says the North Carolina dolphin bite starts as early as April and continues through summer, though the third week of April through the third week of June marks the true peak, depending on the Gulf Stream. During that time, something called a semi-permanent gyre - a ring-like, rotating system of ocean currents - sets up just south of Hatteras on the inshore edge of the Gulf Stream, Hammond says. It lasts most of the summer and concentrates bait, keeping dolphin in the area.

Hardin pulled up at the No. 14 buoy near what locals call the 90-foot drop. Our crew prepared six lines, using four Tiagra 50 wides and two TLD 25s with 6 to 8 feet of 80- to 100-pound mono leaders. Clearly we had hopes for bull dolphin, and we intended to catch and release them quickly.