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Like some people, dolphins get no respect. Mention their name and most people think about the playful mammals that entertain visitors to Sea World. It is sold as a delicacy in some of the finest seafood restaurants in the country under its Hawaiian name - mahi-mahi. Latin Americans appreciate their flashing golden color, but call them el dorado. Most fishermen who catch them complain.

The complaints will come in reply to the question, "How did you do, captain?". The answer will go something like this, "Not too good. I just caught some dolphin."

The fishermen are disappointed because they were after marlin, sailfish, tuna or king mackerel. Few consider the fact that on many occasions, if there were no dolphins in the box there would be no fish at all.

Like most anglers, I caught my first several dolphin while bill fishing, and was not very impressed with the fight they put up with 80-pound tournament rods and reels. It was a major case of over-kill. However, in the last 15 years, the trend toward smaller boats running off shore has provided many opportunities to fish specifically for dolphin with equipment that gave the fish more of a sporting chance. More than once I have found school dolphin that I could cast to from a still boat with spinning tackle. Talk about respect. You'll have it after you land your first little dolphin -- say four or five pounds -- on a 10 or 12 pound test spinning outfit.

Get into one of 10 or 15 pounds and you better have three things. First you will need a lot of luck, second a reel with an exceptional drag, and third a wise boat operator that will help you retrieve line by following the dolphin.

During a recent Memorial Day weekend, while fishing out of Daytona Beach, I added to my personal respect for the species when I ran into a run of the big dolphin that spend their summer's off the Florida coast.

With all the excitement of optimism and anticipation that goes with the first day of a big-money tournament, Capt. Dale Aldridge headed his 48-foot sport fishing boat Sea Bea out of Inlet Harbor at 6 A.M. Before noon, skipper, crew and fishermen were confident they had a money-winning fish in the box. It was not a marlin, but a big dolphin.

After about a two-hour run southeast, Captain Aldridge cut the engines to trolling speed and instructed mates Nick Popovich and David Tomlinson to put out a mixture of rigged mullets and artificial lures.

It was a veteran team of participants on the boat. Don Mann, of Miami, had just recently became the first angler to catch every species of billfish in a calendar year, Larry Larsen, of Lakeland, Gary Diamond, of Maryland, and this writer. In the luck of the draw, Mann and I won the first watch of the five trolling rods.

And watch is all we did for three hours as every species that roams the Atlantic completely ignored our selection of baits and lures. But the action began with a flurry.

Mann had just mentioned a good looking weed line that stretched as far as we could see from the deck, when the flat line he was watching slammed down. It was only a 15-pound king mackerel, but the skunk was off.

The mackerel was still flopping in the box when the line snapped out of the out rigger I was watching. Grabbing the rod, I braced myself against the gunwale and held on as line was being stripped through the drag of the 20-pound outfit.

Because of the forward motion of the boat, it is impossible to determine much about the fish right after hook up. However, when the fish came leaping out of the water about 200 yards behind the boat with its metallic golden scales sparkling in the bright sunlight, there was no doubt it was a dolphin and a good one.

When I identified the fish as a dolphin, my first inclination was to fight it from the deck. However, one of the mates suggested that I get in the fighting chair. Twenty minutes later, with arms aching and perspiration filling my eyes, I could see the wisdom in the advice.

In tournaments, some skippers have a tendency to kill the fish with the boat by going ahead fast or backing down on a fish to get it in the boat as fast as possible. However, Captain Aldridge showed this fish the proper respect by cutting back on the engines and making wide circles. It was me, the rod and the fish.

Actually, it was more of the rod and the fish because after trying to muscle the fish early in the fight, I let the rod keep the pressure on the fish while I cranked in the line gained. The fish made several spectacular leaps within 50 yards of the boat and we all knew we had a good bull dolphin.

When the fish was brought to gaff, 27 minutes after hook up, the speculation began on how much the fish weighed. It looked bigger than the 34-pound dolphin that was my biggest, but 20 years does a lot to the memory. The crew was guessing close to 40 pounds, which had them excited because it should place the catch high on the board at weigh-in.

Several hours later, the dolphin weighed in at 38 pounds and delighted crew and team by being the leader on the board in that category.

It was fun being interviewed and photographed by the local press, but the glory didn't last long. By the time the first day's weigh-in was completed, it had dropped to third place. But there was prize money for the six biggest dolphins. We felt it was unlikely that six dolphins over 38 pounds would be caught in a three-day tournament. We were wrong.

My catch was shoved into obscurity by six fish that weighed between 42.8 and 60 pounds. Three of the fish were over 55 pounds.

You had to respect the dolphin caught in that tournament. The three biggest dolphin were bigger than the three biggest white marlin, sailfish and wahoo, respectively. One of the reasons that dolphins are incidental catches on bill fishing trips is that they are more predictable in that they are usually close or under some kind of shade. Dolphin like to hang in shady areas and dash out to ambush any baitfish swimming by.

Probably the most consistent shade are the weed lines formed of floating grasses by the ocean's currents. These weed lines can run a couple of more miles in length and they are easy to troll parallel to because of the way they stretch into a nearly straight line.

Isolated weed patches, even though no more than 10 to 15 feet wide will often hold a dolphin or two. No weed bed is too small to pass up.

Ocean buoys are few and far between off-shore, but they provide enough shade to hold a dolphin or two. I have lost count of the dolphins that have charged my bait from under buoys over the years.

The ocean off-shore is not the cleanest place in the world. It is littered with all kinds of debris. Included, are wooden crates and planks of lumber. A smart angler never passes up a chance to put his lures or baits close to this trash.

I fished with a crafty old skipper several years ago who would create his own shade patches for dolphin. If the fishing was slow in the morning, he would have the mate spread newspaper sheet-by-sheet so it would float on the ocean. He would leave it for an hour and then return to troll around the floating paper and often catch dolphin attracted by the shade he created. He proved that yesterday's newspaper is not only good for wrapping fish, but catching them, too.

If you are serious about catching dolphin, don't make one pass by likely looking dolphin cover and then move on. It is surprising how many times a second pass will produce when the first failed.

Many times you will be able to see dolphin under cover with Polaroid glasses. Other times, you can see them dart out for the baits, change their mind and dart back to the shade. If you see the fish, definitely make another pass or two.

If you see fish, make a couple of passes and don't provoke a strike, it is a good idea to give them a different look by changing colors on the artificals or changing your trolled bait.

If that doesn't work, move on because they are not feeding right then. However, if your fishing brings you back to the area and hour or so later, give them another try. They very likely will have worked up an appetite.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you don't see fish under cover there is none there. Actually, most of the time they are hanging too deep to be seen from the boat.

A good rule in dolphin fishing, or any off-shore trolling, is not to be complacent with your baits or artificial lures. Artificials come in a wide array of colors that include white, pink, green, chartreuse, purple, yellow, orange and more.

If a particular color has been hot, start off with it. But don't drag the same colors all day if you are not getting strikes.

The two most popular rigged baits suitable for dolphin are mullet and balao. Several things can be done with these two baits to make them versatile. They can be trolled with a wide variety of different colored skirts -- orange, red, yellow, green and chartreuse the most popular -- or they can be trolled with no skirt.

The rigged baits can be trolled without weight so that they skip on the surface or sliding sinkers can be added to the leader to make them swim just under the surface.

Some fishermen will dye their balao different colors just to give them a different look.

Change rigged baits every couple of hours because they will begin to tear up as they are being dragged through the water. Rigging baits is not as easy as it looks. It takes some learning from an expert and the novice is better off buying ready rigged baits that are available in every marina in the Daytona area. Ready-rigged baits are expensive, but it is one of the smaller expenses in an off-shore fishing venture. It is not money wise to ruin a day of fishing with poorly rigged baits. Off-shore fishing is an expensive sport. The cheapest way, and the smartest way for the novice, is to charter one of the many private sport fishing boats in the area. An off-shore charter is going to run about $800 or more a day. That will run about $170 a day per person for a group of five. Five or less is the ideal number because it eliminates rod sharing and crowded fishing conditions.

That may sound expensive to many, but the capital outlay to rig your own boat for off-shore fishing will pay for a lot of charters.

With the development of more reliable outboard engines, boats less than 25 feet in length are common sights in the blue water these days. Most of the rigs are safe while in the hands of experienced boatmen who respect the potential hazards of being caught off-shore in a sudden storm.

Besides a sturdy hull, the basic safety requirements for running off-shore include: Global Positioning System (GPS) reciever, VHF radio, and an auxiliary engine.

GPS is an afoordable and reliable navigational aid when operating out of sight of land. I was once on an off-shore trip on a boat equipped with a compass only. On the compass course back to port, we were 30 miles south of our destination when we first saw land. Fortunately, we had enough fuel to correct our error. The two-way radio and auxiliary engine is a must when you have mechanical problems with your usually reliable engine. Whether running your own boat or hiring a charter, give the dolphins a little respect. Armed with the right tackle, they will give you great sport. Armed with a knife and fork, they will give you great eating.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A large fleet of charter boats are available for hire in the Daytona Beach area.

or information or reservations contact: Inlet Harbor, Ponce Inlet, FL 32019 Tele: 904-767-3266 Sea Love Marina, 4894 Front Street, Ponce Inlet. fL 32019 Tele: 904-767-3406 Critter Fleet, 4950 S. Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet, FL 32019 Tele: 904-767-7676

Uploaded: 2/21/2004