Catching Big Dolphin Fish
Dedicated to Kristian Kwiecinski
While living in Nassau, my fishing buddies had the coconut telegraph set up to ring when the fish were biting. I heard a March dolphin run was in full swing in the Exuma Islands, so Kristian Kwiecinski, Gary Honkofsky, and I loaded up Boat Tales to partake of the fun. We were a good team, well experienced with dolphin frenzies. Each spring swarms of dolphin, mahi-mahi, migrated through the Bahamas following bait schools northward, eventually ending up near Cape Hatteras in the summer.
We made a fast forty-mile run across smooth flats from Nassau to Ship Channel Cay at the northern end of the Exumas, a string of rocky, barren islands with turquoise flats on the west and indigo water of Exuma Sound on the east.
At low tide, we passed through a narrow cut between small, nameless islands. Perched on the bow, Kristian guided us through a maze of treacherous four-foot waves breaking over shallow reefs. One-half mile later, we went from watching the rocky bottom in fifty feet of crystal clear water to the abrupt 2,000-foot drop of the reef wall into a blue abyss.
We lowered ballyhoo baits into deep water and trolled northward along the edge of the wall towards the “pocket,” where the islands swung through a curve from north to east. Southeast winds trapped extraordinary numbers of baitfish along the reef wall where predator fish awaited. The resulting feeding frenzy created the best location in the Bahamas to catch dolphins during their spring run.
We set short teasers in the motor's wake and then dropped naked ballyhoo baits behind those. We used ballyhoo with pink or green skirts on high outrigger poles that spread two more lines one hundred feet behind the boat. A shotgun rod in the second story rocket launcher had its blue and white lure skipping one hundred yards back to attract cautious predators stalking the boat.
In short order, we landed a doubleheader of a twenty and twenty-two-pound dolphins from the outriggers. I deposited the fish into a six-foot-long fish bag tied against the inside wall of the cockpit. The bag was custom made with the same insulation used on a space shuttle. A bag of ice would keep 100 pounds of fish cold all day long. After re-baiting, I resumed trolling for more action.
Shortly after that, we heard the thrilling buzz of the clicker on the big Penn International 50 reel of the shotgun line.
I yelled, "Fish on," grabbed the rod off the tower, and passed it to Kristian. He lifted hard to set the hook into a fish far behind the boat. The rod tip jerked down almost to the water, a sure sign of a big fish. Gary pulled in the other lines to clear the deck for a fierce battle. A minute later, the reel was still screaming. The addictive adrenaline rush of a primordial struggle kicked in. This high was why we worked so hard and spent so much money pursuing deep-water fish.
Gary shouted, “He’s not slowing down, better start after him.”
I carefully turned the boat and gunned the throttle to chase a four-foot dolphin greyhounding across the water 150 yards behind the boat. Kristian gained line as we raced in pursuit. When we neared the fish, it sensed the boat and dove deep. This fish was not about to surrender just yet. Kristian strained his arms and back to slowly lift the dolphin a few inches at a time. Fifteen minutes later, the angry green brute saw our boat and launched another run, taking back hard-won line. After another five minutes of struggle, Kristian brought the big bull dolphin up from the deep again. I drove the boat at a slow speed to keep pressure on the fish and to keep him from circling around the boat.
“I see color,” Gary shouted. “He’s at least a thirty pounder.”
I told Kristian, "Keep it away from the prop, or you'll lose it."
Gary yelled, “He’s diving under the boat. Turn right.”
I swung the boat around hard and replied, "Take the wheel. I'll do the gaffing." I unzipped the top of the fish bag in preparation for landing the large catch.
When Kristian pulled the fish close to the boat, I swung hard with the gaff and pulled the thrashing dolphin out of the water, swung it across the boat, and dropped it into the fish bag. Before I could pull the zipper closed, the angry fish rebounded out, slinging blood and slime all over the boat. When the flapping fiend landed between my legs, I tried to sit on it. The slippery fish slithered away, bounced across the boat between Kristian and Gary, landed on the gunwale, and splashed into the water before we could lift a finger! We were stunned, frozen in silence over the loss of a great fish.
I grimly told the guys, “We are not going to lose another fish.” We silently re-rigged and dropped baits back into the water.
Up ahead, I saw several boats fighting fish, so I headed their direction, knowing we would soon be into dolphin again.
Gary bellowed, “Here she comes.” He pointed fifty yards to the starboard where a brilliant gold cow dolphin bounded across the water. She charged our spread of lures, jumping into the air every two to three seconds.
I shouted to Gary, “Grab that outrigger rod and get ready.” The three-foot cow flew into the air, backflipped with the bait in her mouth, and crashed into the water.
Kristian yelled, “Wow!”
Gary held tightly on to the bent rod while the fish took off on her first run. Ten minutes later, I gaffed the twenty-six-pound dolphin cow and threw her in the fish bag, closing it immediately before we had another escapee.
I said, “Let’s get those lines back in the water, guys. The bite's incredibly hot. We're gonna fill the boat today."
"Yeah, man," replied Kristian, grinning from ear to ear. "The next one's mine."
Gary responded, “Not if I grab the rod first.”
We quickly rebaited and watched for more fish. Soon Kristian hooked into another twenty-five pounder, rapidly bringing it to the gaff. By now, the fish bag was full.
I reminded the guys, "Don't worry; we have the spare fish box. Let's get some more of these bad boys."
When the action slowed for a while, we broke out lunch. A sure-fire way to attract fish was to eat a sandwich, but I was still surprised when a huge bull dolphin flew out of the water right behind the boat and hit a bait behind hookless teasers near the engine.
Choking on my sandwich, I spun back to the wheel and yelled, “Fish on.”
Gary grabbed the rod and was almost pulled into the water when he tightened the drag. The monster fish took off across the stern, crossing two other lines.
I shouted, “Clear those lines.”
Kristian and I frantically grabbed the other rods and passed them over and under Gary’s rod, trying to untangle the mess. The fish had Gary pulled up tight against the back rail, making it difficult to maneuver the rods around him. We looked like the three stooges as we yelled, scrambled, and frantically reeled lines.
Gary pleaded, “Get me a belt! This rod is killing my stomach.”
Kristian mocked, “Poor Gary, the fish is hurting his stomach.” Kristian and I laughed while we struggled to strap a fighting belt on Gary as the fish tried to pull him overboard. We watched in amazement while the big bull made a two hundred yard run.
"Just hang on," I told Gary. "You can't stop the first run of a fish like this. He has to tire on his own."
When the fish finally slowed down, Gary tightened the drag, pumped the rod, and started reeling. He lifted, dipped, and reeled while I chased the fish with the boat. If I rushed up on the dolphin while it was still green, it would dive under the boat and cut the line on the prop. I steered at slow speed to keep the fish off the stern, waiting for it to tire. The fish was huge. Gary struggled to gain line inch by inch. After twenty minutes, we saw color when the fish rose from the deep. I let go of the wheel and grabbed the gaff, knowing the hydraulic steering would keep Boat Tales moving in a straight line.
I shrieked, “Look at the size of that son of a bitch. That’s the biggest dolphin I’ve ever seen! No screw-ups this time. Kristian, open the fish box and get ready. This one’s not getting away.”
Suddenly, the dolphin rocketed entirely out of the water. The mad bull was eye-to-eye with me as he backflipped, angrily staring with defiance before he splashed back into the water and began another blistering run. Gary was slammed into the side of the boat again. This fight was far from over.
Kristian said, "Keep reeling. Get him back here before he spits the hook unless you want Gordon to show you how to reel." Gary grunted and strained his arms while we laughed.
I told Kristian, “Grab the wheel and steer to the right. He’s trying to circle.”
The mammoth dolphin gave us an incredible aerial show, jumping and flipping across the water. Every time it jumped, I hoped it wouldn’t cut the line with its tail. For every three feet of line Gary reeled in, the fish would take back four.
“Keep reeling,” Kristian coached. “If you rest, he’ll rest and take off again. If you don’t hurry up, a shark will take him.”
Gary moaned, “This damn fish is killing my arms.”
I told him, "Keep reeling and pump with your legs, not your arms. Tighten the drag some more. We're still a long way from getting this fish into the boat. We have to do everything perfect, or we'll lose him."
Bringing in the big fish was a team effort, with Gary reeling, me at the gaff, and Kristian driving the boat to keep the fish positioned off the stern. When the dolphin tried to circle the Boat Tales, Kristian sped up and turned the opposite direction. Then the shrewd fish dove back toward the prop. Kristian turned violently in the other direction, throwing us around the boat.
After ten more minutes of fierce battle, Gary had the fish back to the side of the boat. It was crucial to gaff it in the head for optimum leverage and control, swing the fish smoothly over the gunnel, and put it into the fish box recessed in the floor. I hoped my back was strong enough to lift this giant out of the water. I'd never lifted a fish this big. When I reached down with the gaff, the fish dodged and dove under the boat.
I screamed, “Keep clear of the prop. Steer to the right.” When Gary reached over the side and put the rod tip into the water, he lost all leverage and almost fell overboard. I grabbed his belt and pulled him back from the thrashing fish. The dolphin surprised us and jumped out of the water, then splashed down, drenching us. We cursed and scrambled wildly. The mayhem was incredible.
I yelled, “Steer to the left.” After five more minutes of fierce fighting on the rod, Gary had the fish next to the boat for the third time.
I told Kristian, "Slow down and let him come up where I can gaff him." The fish came closer. Closer. I made a vicious stab with the gaff in a sweeping motion and swung the thrashing dolphin over the rail hard and fast. God, he was heavy. I couldn’t get him across the boat and into the fish box, so I threw the struggling fish onto the floor of the boat and fell on him. Gary and Kristian also dove onto the beast, pinning it to the deck. The mad fish bucked like a bull. The rod, gaff, line, hook, blood, and guts flew everywhere. We struggled, yelled, and cursed to keep the slippery dolphin in the boat. After several minutes of riding the bouncing beast, I managed to put a towel over his eyes to calm him down. I opened the fish box, slid him in, and slammed the lid closed, only to find the head and tail sticking out from each end of the five-foot box. The fish was a full six feet long!
I told Gary, "Sit on that lid until your fish is dead." After a few more hits against the lid, the fish finally quit. Covered with blood and slime, we whooped and hollered.
"We did it. Great job, Gary!"
“Oh my aching arms, I can’t move.”
I pulled out a fish scale to weigh the monster. When I lifted him, the scale bottomed out at fifty pounds.
I grinned. "We need a bigger scale." I retrieved a larger scale from the hold.
“I’m glad I finally get to use this big one.” I lifted again.
“That’s a fifty-five pounder, the biggest dolphin ever for Boat Tales. Way to go, guys." We paused to admire the huge bull and catch our breath.
I thought about it for a moment and concluded, “I don’t know about you guys, but I have had enough. We have more fish than we know what to do with. What do you say we call it a day?”