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Renown angler Dennis Braid with an estimated 100-pound dolphin caught in Panama during the shooting of an episode of Trev Gowdy's Monster Fish. It will be aired soon. (Photo courtesy Dennis Braid)

I was out with friends jigging for bluefin tuna last week and having a great time of it. The lump we were drifting was loaded with bait holding near the bottom in 150 feet of water and the LCD screen clearly showed big red blobs mixed in with the bait schools. Those blobs were the tuna tearing up the sand eels and occasionally some of the baitfish would be driven to the surface. When that happened birds started diving and other game fish more acclimated to life near the surface would get in on the dining experience. During one particular melee a big school of dolphin, or mahi mahi for all you Hawaiians in the SKA, showed up and we started catching them on light spinning tackle using pieces of sardines for bait. We employed the usual technique of keeping one in the water on a line so the others would hang around and that worked for a while until the others got wary, but we end up with about a dozen in the fish box. Dolphin are one of my favorite fish to eat so I was happy with the catch and I ended up making a great new recipe for a bunch of friends the next evening. I will let you in on it at the end of this column.

While we were catching the dolphin the conversation on the boat came around to how old these particular five- to eight-pound fish were. Most of the guys knew they grow very fast and guesses ranged between a year and two years old, but they weren't even in the ball park. Most likely these fish were about six months old and had already spawned at least once and possibly twice! Dolphin are pretty amazing animals, very likely the fastest growing fish in the sea and a predator with an almost insatiable appetite. Here are some of the things I've learned about dolphin over the years, some of which you just might find interesting.

The dolphin by any other name is wildly popular game fish, not to mention spectacular table fare. The native Hawaiians liked them so much they named them twice—mahi mahi—and if you've ever caught one of significant size you were probably doing a double take, too! The more you learn about dolphin the more you'll realize just what amazing creatures they are and how they fit into their own little niche in the ocean ecosystem as both predator and prey.

The ocean's chameleon, the dolphin can change its coloration to match its environment or mood. Left bottom, this dolphin is swimming around a weed mat and its color was mostly greenish blue to match the weeds. Right, they tend to turn bright gold when getting near the end of a long fight and nearing exhaustion. The change to while and blue occurs when they are removed from the water and nearing death, while their coloration can be neutral blue that is hard to see when swimming in open ocean water.

There are actually two closely related species of this colorful high flier, the common dolphin (Coryphaena hippurus) and the smaller pompano dolphin (Coryphaena equiselis). Both are pelagic fishes found throughout the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. In the western Atlantic their range extends as far north as Cape Cod in the summer to as far south as southern Brazil in the winter as they migrate with warming ocean temperatures into the more northern and southern latitudes. The common dolphin is the one most frequently encountered by anglers and they can be found both offshore or in near shore waters depending on how closely ocean currents meander toward land. The Gulf Stream is a major migration route along the East Coast of the U.S. and where its western edge is close to shore, like off the central and southern coast of Florida or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, dolphin can be caught within a few miles of the beach. This widespread distribution makes them available to fishermen in boats both large and small.

Considered to be one of the most beautiful fish on the planet, the dolphin is the chameleon of ocean predators with the ability to alter its color patterns radically at a moment's notice. Their body can range from iridescent colors as varied as metallic silvers, blues, and greens to bright yellow and gold with blue or green fins and colorful spots. During a photo session with a 40-pound dolphin caught off North Carolina the fish suddenly morphed to an albino snow white with bright blue spots from head to tail and just as abruptly changed back to gold and green! Off Venezuela a male and female pair of 50-pound plus dolphin appeared in the trolling spread behind our boat made visible only by an iridescent light blue stripe running down the leading edge of their dorsal fins, but once they decided to attack they lit up silver/blue and then green/gold in a matter of seconds! The dolphin is truly one of nature's most unique and changeable canvasses.

Few fish have such visible differences between the males and females of the species. Males (bulls) have a severe, hatchet-shaped forehead while females (cows) have a more graceful, rounded head. Both have a single dorsal fin that starts at the crown of the head and extends the full length of the body ending just before the deeply forked, V-shaped tail fin. They have a flat-sided body that is built for speed and agility, a quality that is an absolute necessity with the metabolism they have to feed on a daily basis. Dolphin grow faster, mature sooner and die younger than any other pelagic predator in the ocean, literally burning themselves out by the time they reach three years of age, if they are lucky enough to live that long. The overwhelming majority of larval dolphin never make it to six months falling prey to a wide variety of larger ocean predators. Even the slow moving whale shark is known to predate on tiny dolphin.

My friend and world famous underwater videographer, Mike Laptew, was lucky enough to film this unusual feeding behavior while diving off Bimini a number of years ago. He saw a large whale shark cruising the surface so he donned flippers, mask and snorkel, grabbed his video camera and plunged in swimming quietly closer. While he was approaching the whale shark did something he had never seen, it pivoted its body until it was bobbing tail straight down, head just under the water's surface. As Mike got even closure he could see a huge cloud of tiny fish gathered around the shark's wide head and he realized the tiny half inch long fish were thousands of newly hatched dolphin. What happened next was remarkable and the resulting video stunned the scientific community when it was published.

The shark hung there as more and more tiny dolphin swam close to its head just like larger dolphin gather around floating objects on the surface. Then, when they were all hovering around its massive, four-foot wide mouth it let its body sink ever so slightly as it opened its maw and inhaled the entire gathering of baby dolphin, which disappeared down the black hole! Mike couldn't believe his eyes. It was a remarkable feeding behavior that relied on the pattern behavior of dolphin to gather around floating objects.

Studies in the Atlantic indicate that a 30-inch long dolphin is typically a year old and a four-foot long dolphin is barely two. They grow even more rapidly in the Pacific where studies near Hawaii have found one-year-old bulls as large as four feet long and the current world record fish that tipped the scales at 87 pounds was probably only two! With a growth rate like that dolphin have a metabolic rate that runs flat out from the day they are born. Females are sexually mature at four months and spawn frequently, several times a year, throughout the course of their short lives.

When the New Jersey State Aquarium opened in Camden about ten years ago I got to know the director. They had a boat that would go offshore on specimen collecting forays and on one they brought back a dolphin that was about two pounds. In the tank it went with the sharks, small tunas and other open ocean fish and it started to grow and grow. Within a year it was estimated to be approaching 40 pounds and when I visited a few weeks later it was gone. I spoke with the director and he said they had to get rid of it because it was eating so much food they couldn't afford to keep it and its increasing size made it large enough to eat many of the smaller fish in the main tank. I asked him what he did with it and he commented that "we used it for research." When I pressed him a little more I found the research was on how good dolphin were to eat! And that's the truth.

Dolphins eat pretty much anything small enough to fit in their mouth, but their favorite prey items are flying fish and halfbeaks (ballyhoo). They are the primary predator fish found around floating sargasso weed, but they are attracted to any floating object they come across. If you find flotsam offshore chances are you've found a dolphin hot spot. But life isn't all food and sex for these fish because they happen to be a favorite meal of some larger predators like wahoo and marlin, which are also hunting the weed lines looking for a mahi dinner. Why do you think green and yellow trolling lures work so well for billfish?

Dolphins are most frequently caught trolling. The larger ones will hit lures meant for tuna and marlin, but to target them put out a spread of 20 pound class outfits and small lures or rigged ballyhoo and work areas with pot buoys or weeds hard. My favorite way to fish them is to head offshore with a live well full of small baitfish and light plugging or spinning tackle. When I find the right conditions I toss some live baits over the side and follow that up with one tethered to a circle hook and a short fluorocarbon leader. When you hook one dolphin keep it in the water alongside your boat as others will hang around it looking to see what it ate. It will up your chances for catching a bunch.

You can't deny that fishing for dolphin is fun and rewarding, but they are truly one of the most interesting creatures in the sea. The real bonus is what you put on the table after a successful trip. I promised you a recipe that I came up with recently and that everyone went nuts over at a pool party recently so here goes. It is called my "Cajun Mahi Hoagie" and it works best with fillets from chicken dolphin, those thin ones that are too small to grill or blacken.





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