POTS OF GOLD

When dol­phin flood North­east lob­ster pot fields, pop­pers fly and light-tackle reels scream

Field and Stream - - CAMPFIRE - By JOE CER­MELE

DIRTY POT! THIS IS GONNA BE the one!”

Capt. Eric Ker­ber shouted the pred­i­ca­tion over the hum­ming out­boards as he eased his Debra K II to­ward the lob­ster pot marker bob­bing 100 feet off the bow. The red flag on its tall high­flier was wind-tat­tered. The float at its base and its trail­ing orange poly ball were brown with al­gae growth. That meant it hadn’t been hauled in a while. It also meant that, un­like the 10 scum-free mark­ers we’d al­ready hit with­out a bite, there was a bet­ter chance we’d find what we were look­ing for around this grungy loner. Ker­ber shifted into neu­tral so we’d drift in, then climbed up on the gun­wale to get a higher van­tage point. I sent a pop­per whizzing past the marker and started to chug. Three sweeps in, and two dol­phin— zigzag­ging streaks of elec­tric green, aqua, and gold—ma­te­ri­al­ized out of nowhere.

“Here they come! Big ones!” Ker­ber yelled. “Keep twitch­ing! Don’t stop!”

They were in com­pe­ti­tion, both bent on a feed, but the slightly larger fish won, open­ing a hole in the flat At­lantic as it railed the bait. Af­ter the ini­tial twist­ing air show, it ripped 80 feet of line in an un­bro­ken stream as it sped west. Had it kept go­ing for 40 miles, it would have plowed right into the New Jer­sey coast, where this sum­mer dol­phin chase be­gan.

MADE IN THE SHADE

Dol­phin—or mahimahi—don’t al­ways get the op­por­tu­nity to show off their fierce drive. In many cases, they’re a fish that must be picked through on the road to big­ger play­ers, like tuna or mar­lin. Even a 20-plus-pound dol­phin’s power won’t fully trans­late when you hook it on a heavy trolling out­fit drag­ging a

skirt 100 feet be­hind a mov­ing boat. Dol­phin were built for light tackle, and they have plenty of fans that use it to tar­get them around the globe. These fish can be found in ev­ery ocean ex­cept the Arctic, and when you find them, there’s a good chance you did so near some form of shade-pro­duc­ing sur­face struc­ture. In the Caribbean, that’s of­ten a thick mat of sar­gasso weed. In the Gulf, it’s an off­shore oil rig. We don’t have ei­ther of those in the North­east, but we do have near-end­less fields of lob­ster pot mark­ers.

Not many an­glers as­so­ciate dol­phin with the wa­ters from Delaware to Mas­sachusetts, but ev­ery sum­mer, as the Gulf Stream pulls warm, blue cur­rent north, it hurls piles of them our way. In a good year, you can find dol­phin on the pots 20 miles out; other years, you have to run 50 miles or more. But the fish al­ways show up, even if only for a few weeks. I’ve caught Jer­sey dol­phin un­der float­ing tree trunks, wood planks, and even My­lar bal­loons, but those were all just for­tu­nate finds. The more per­ma­nent the struc­ture, the more con­sis­tently it holds fish, which makes a day of pot hop­ping like shuck­ing de­li­cious oys­ters, know­ing there’s a good chance you’ll find some pearls. If a marker is hold­ing dol­phin, the fish will typ­i­cally show on the first cast. Some­times 30 lit­tle chick­ens swarm your jigs. Some­times a lone 30-pound bull strikes your fly. And when noth­ing moves at all, you don’t sweat it. You just move to the next pot.

BOLT FROM THE BLUE

It’s not so much that dol­phin love over­head cover, but rather that it cre­ates a mini ecosys­tem in an oth­er­wise vast, fea­ture­less ocean. Float­ing struc­ture of­fers some pro­tec­tion to ev­ery­thing from tiny shrimp to schools of small bait­fish. It’s a dol­phin Kwik-E-Mart, and you’ll of­ten find them win­dow-shop­ping from the out­side rather than parked right in the snack aisle. This is why it’s crit­i­cal to keep some dis­tance from a marker. Blasts of­ten come from 20 to 50 feet around it, mak­ing a loud top­wa­ter per­fect for get­ting the at­ten­tion of fish in the area fast. Dol­phin are also nat­u­rally cu­ri­ous, so if there’s an en­tire school around, you’ll end up with all of them fol­low­ing your lure. If you’ve got some live peanut bunker or bal­ly­hoo chunks to toss out as chum, you can keep them be­hind the boat un­til you catch your fill on hooked baits, plugs, soft plas­tics, or flies. I’ve seen en­tire cool­ers filled on one marker af­ter hours of blanks.

The cat­a­lyst for North­east dol­phin ac­tion is wa­ter tem­per­a­ture. If it’s in the high 60s, you’ve got a shot. If it’s above 72 de­grees, the like­li­hood of find­ing loaded mark­ers in­creases dra­mat­i­cally. What’s also crit­i­cal is clar­ity. Dol­phin don’t like dirty wa­ter. They want the deep-blue, crys­tal-clear off­shore sauce. For the North­east fleet, that wa­ter is a gift, al­beit one we can see com­ing thanks to the magic of satel­lite tech­nol­ogy. By early July, I’ll be check­ing the on­line charts daily, look­ing for that first push of blue to move over the pot fields. If we’re lucky, it’ll stay there into early Oc­to­ber, long enough to drain sev­eral bot­tles of cilantro hot sauce, by which time I’ll be so tired of eat­ing mahi ta­cos that the first broiled striper of fall will be a wel­come change.

Pre-sliced A sum­mer day’s haul of New Jer­sey dol­phin ready for the cut­ting board.

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