I love saltwater fishing, and a forecast for calm seas with no rain on Saturday morning promised to be perfect for a May 1997 mahi-mahi (aka dolphin) run off Florida’s east coast. Frank Abbate, a medium built, tan-skinned Italian lawyer who ran our Human Resources Department at Brevard County where I worked as a Stormwater Engineer, had invited me to go with him to chase dolphin out of Fort Pierce instead of our usual Port Canaveral. His fanatic attention to detail and gear, as well as an almost magical understanding of knowing when and where to find fish, allowed him to catch more fish than anyone I knew outside of professional guides. I joined him and his usual crew of his stout 16-year-old son, Anthony, and friend, Rick, blond-haired and middle-aged with a New York accent who ran a bagel shop, at Frank’s house before sunrise on a Saturday morning. We loaded Frank’s 23-foot center console with gear, three types of heavy and light rods and reels, and drove 65 miles south to Fort Pierce. An advantage of fishing from Fort Pierce is finding the Gulf Stream only 17 miles from shore, rather than a 32 mile run from Port Canaveral. The Gulf Stream’s edge is generally where weed lines and dolphins hang out. An extra hour’s drive pulling Frank’s boat to Fort Pierce proved easier and used far less gas than an extra hour run on a boat.
Oceans are mostly deserts, devoid of life. Springtime in Florida brings vast yellow carpets of sargassum weeds floating along the edge of the Gulf Stream. Weed lines, sometimes miles in length, are floating ecosystems for many small fish, shrimp, crabs, and other tasty meals for dolphins that patrol beneath an abundant oasis. Unlike other types of fishing where I threw a bait in the water and waited for a fish to come to it, I favored this type of fishing that involved driving fast until we sighted weeds, then slowing down to troll skirted lures along the weed’s edge. This visual game, known as “running and gunning,” is much akin to hunting deer by driving along dirt roads rather than waiting in a blind for hours. No time for boredom when running.
We launched at a public boat ramp at sunrise and motored to several buoys along jetties to obtain live bait by dropping light lines with Sabiki Rigs consisting of six ultra-small feathers and very sharp quarter-inch hooks above a weight. When my line went slack, I slowly reeled it in to catch several four to five inch shad minnows at a time. That’s the easy part. Taking writhing, slippery small fish with sharp fins off tiny hooks while four or five other baitfish thrashed on hooks a few inches away proved as difficult as removing a nest of grass spurs from socks. Without a doubt, cursing accompanies this endeavor when fingers become pricked over and over. Soon shad and light droplets of finger blood covered the deck. We carefully scooped flapping shad into a live well with a pump circulating saltwater to keep bait alive. Then we sped eastward across golden water reflecting a wonderous sunrise of yellow beams peeking through clouds. Frank always drove at full speed in calm or rough water to maximize fishing time. I never tired of running that yellow brick road over cobalt blue water with foamy feathers trailing behind us in a broad vee. A thick smell of salt at sea level brought a smile to my face and an adrenaline rush knowing fish awaited us.
Twenty minutes later, Anthony called out, “Weed line at two o’clock.”
Sargassum weeds accumulated in a fifty-foot wide blanket extending north to south as far as I could see. When Frank slowed down, we dropped ballyhoo on skirted lures and trolled southward near the yellow carpet. A rod bent down, accompanied by a melodious squeal of line peeling from a reel. Anthony shortly brought a metallic green and gold dolphin, a five-pound schoolie, to the boat. Bulls (males) and cows (females) are adults with well-formed wide heads. Schoolies are two to five pounders requiring a gaff to bring them aboard, while peanuts are the smallest dolphin, just a pound or two.
Anthony’s fish brought a bunch of friends with him, which is what makes catching dolphins so fun. They travel in schools and follow a hooked fish to a boat. Anthony kept his green fish beneath us to keep the school excited. Frank killed the engine to keep from spooking the fish. In a well-rehearsed routine, Rick and I grabbed live shad, hooked them to spinning rod rigs, and cast behind Anthony’s fish. Hungry schoolies darted out from sargassum weeds for a snack but circled the shad cautiously before two fish cautiously swallowed our baits. A jerk of the rods set the hooks. Both fish danced across sapphire water, shaking their heads in anger as they tried to disgorge cruel hooks. My fish sounded to deep water, stripping line from my light reel, which was more fun than using a big reel and winding fish in like a winch. I tightened my reel’s drag a bit and waited for my fish to wear out. Frank gaffed Anthony’s Mahi and brought it aboard. No time for a bait box now. Meanwhile, Rick’s fish dove under the boat and circled, attempting to cut the line on the hull or prop. I don't know if dolphins are really that smart, but they fought like that almost every time I hooked one. Rick put his rod tip underwater, cursed like a New Yorker, and clambered along a gunnel to the bow, and then back along the other gunnel. I raised my rod, letting him cross under my line.
“Watch out for that prop,” Frank warned.
Rick bent over, putting most of his rod underwater as he stretched around the motor. My fish finished its run, so I reeled it in and brought it to the starboard gunnel where Frank waited with the gaff. Anthony opened the fish box and Frank swung the gaff, lifting the fish over the gunnel and into the box. Anthony slammed the lid onto the thrashing dolphin. Wack wack wack. Rick’s fish succumbed and rose belly up to the surface, followed by several green flashing peanuts in clear navy blue water.
“Don’t bring your fish aboard,” commanded Frank.
I confirmed the weed line was still nearby. All four of us rapidly rebaited our spinning rigs and cast. Again, dolphins circled the baits and pecked on them cautiously before swallowing them. All four rods bent over.
“Fish on,” we all yelled simultaneously, and bedlam descended again.
Rick pulled a small peanut over the rail by grabbing the bare line. The rest of us chased our fish around the boat, passing rods over and under each other while keeping the rod tips down in the water. We reeled fast and soon all four fish flopped on the deck. We grabbed each fish with a towel, pulled the hooks out, and dropped them into the rapidly filling fish box. Fortunately, the boat’s drift kept us next to the weed line, so we didn’t have to start the engine and scare the fish away. A large school of dolphins swirled and flashed between us and the weeds.
Chaos continued for half an hour as we lured schoolies from the weed line by casting live shad. If a peanut swooped in on my bait, I jerked the silver shad away, wound in the bait, and recast until a schoolie hit. Lime green fish flapped around the deck and covered us and the boat with slippery red blood, slime, and the smell of fresh fish.
As Rick crossed the stern at one point, he slipped and fell hard on his butt. “Owwwww. $%#.”
“Did that little bitty fish pull you down?” Frank teased.
Fish kept biting at a slow pace until we ran out of shad. Frank tossed pieces of cut-up ballyhoo in the water to lure dolphins out from under the nearby weeds. A few circled the sparkling tidbits with curiosity, but then returned to the weed line.
"Anthony put the fish away and washed down the deck,” Frank said. “It’s too slippery with all of this blood. Did you notice how the dolphins had little interest in our shad?"
“Yes, that was strange,” Rick replied.
“Rick and Gordon, tie on Sabiki rigs to the ultralight rods and cast under the weeds. I see small fish under there. See if you can catch more live bait.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” I said.
I threw my Sabiki rig within inches of a nearby sargassum patch. Rick cast but overthrew and moaned as his rig landed in the weeds and all six tiny hooks snagged sargassum.
“Who taught you how to cast?” Anthony asked with a laugh.
“Sure wasn’t Frank,” I added.
“I don’t want to hear about it,” Rick growled.
My weighted Sabiki sank. The line jerked. Good, one fish on. Another jiggle and another. I let it sink for a while as the line vibrated, then slowly reeled the bait in to prevent tearing hooks from delicate mouths. A curious peanut approached my rig, so I quickly pulled a group of small, brown baitfish aboard and proceeded to prick my fingers as I unhooked and placed them into the baitwell.
“These are strange little critters,” I said. “What are they?”
“Those are blennies,” replied Anthony. “They only live under sargassum. That’s why they’re yellow and brown with no fins. They hide deep in the weeds.”
“Anthony, you’re as smart as your father about fish.”
“Dad’s the best teacher.”
Meanwhile, Rick struggled to bring in a large clump of seaweed snagged by his rig.
“Hurry up, Rick,” Frank teased. “We can’t waste time messing with weeds. Break off that rig and put another on.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” Rick said.
Frank, Anthony, and I carefully cast Sabikis near weeds and brought in more blennies.
With a bait box stocked again, we switch to spinning rigs and cast blenny near weeds. Schoolies raced to our baits and smashed them as soon as blennies splashed into the water. All four of us fought dolphins like the three stooges, running around the boat with tangled lines, cursing, and laughing. Dolphins loved blennies, inhaling them as fast as we could cast, then circling the boat frantically, causing mayhem for us above as we slipped on blood and slime. We didn’t have time to put fish away. We just pulled the hooks out and let them flop around the deck. Lots of them. Dolphin pandemonium is as fun as fishing gets.
"We might limit out today," Frank said. "Blennies are what dolphin are hitting.”
Once again Frank had found the secret to catching fish at a new location.
“Let's don't keep any more peanuts,” he continued. “Only the bigger ones."
Easier said than done. When a blenny hit the water, a swarm of big and little dolphin raced out from under the weeds. If a peanut came for my bait, I jerked it out of reach. I kept reeling until a larger schoolie approached, then stopped to let him have lunch. If I did catch a peanut, I threw it back, hoping for a larger dolphin next time.
What a memorable day - the first time I had worried about reaching a limit of 10 dolphins per person while still at our original weed line. What a great problem to have, only catching larger dolphins.
After a while, Rick said, “Frank, we have a lot of fish. Maybe we should count them.”
“Good idea. Let’s take a break and clean this mess up.”
With a full fish box, Rick emptied sodas from an ice chest and filled it with dolphins already transitioning from bright green and gold to faded yellow.
"Thirty-five," he announced. "Five more to go.”
With an empty bait box, we threw Sabiki rigs again. Unbelievably, we caught more blennies under sargassum despite hordes of dolphin patrolling below. With more bait, we cast for dolphins once again. Soon we had five more keepers.
“That’s all we can keep,” Frank said.
Like father like son, Anthony asked, “Can’t we just keep catching and releasing, Dad?”
Frank laughed. “Sure, why not. We’ll keep fishing until we run out of blennies.”
Twenty minutes later we used the last blennies and put away our rods. Before noon and still at the first weed line had we stopped at. A total of 40 fish kept and 14 thrown back.
“Frank, we’ll never have a day like this again,” I said. "Fifty-four fish will stand as a record.”
“You got that right,” Rick agreed.
“Maybe,” said Frank. “But I have to keep trying. I’ll be back next week.”
Now that I’ve hung up my fishing rods for good, 54 dolphins is a great record to have.