It’s a warm, early morning in the middle of spring, with a slight breeze out of the southwest. Stephen Hunter keeps his Cape Horn center console in Holden Beach, but he often chooses to use the Cape Fear River channel when leaving before dawn, for no other reason than the reliability of its water. Picking his way behind Oak Island and Southport, he makes a starboard turn into the channel, slips into the ocean, then pushes the throttle down and heads offshore.

A few hours later, Hunter and the crew of the Bounty Hunter are more than 50 miles off of the beach, in 60 fathoms of water, choosing as his starting point the Blackjack Hole and its 70.9-degree water. A few of the usual suspects are already there, trolling passes over the numbers, engaged in what Hunter calls “racetrack fishing.” He has another plan, and while he sets out his spread in view of the fleet, he keeps the boat on a southeasterly heading and continues offshore, trolling at 6.5 knots.

The spread Hunter deploys is relatively simple, but then again, some aspects of fishing for gaffer-sized dolphin are just that.  He runs Sea Witch/medium ballyhoo combos on his long riggers in pink/white and blue/white, fished on Tiagra 30Ws. The short riggers get Ilander Sailure/medium ballyhoo combos in pink/white and green/chartreuse on Tiagra 50Ws. 

He pays particular attention to setting the corner rods and a bait right down the middle, lined up just inside the short riggers. These are all naked, split-bill ballyhoo, aka “dinks”, fished on Shimano TLD 25s. To provide a drop back, Stephen has zip-tied a Blacks outrigger clip to the back of the reel seat on each rod. The line comes from the rod tip, straight down to the clip, where a loop has been twisted before pinning it in place, similar to a downrigger release system. These three reels are all left in free spool with the clickers engaged. Hunter said it’s important to make sure the clips are fastened in place to ensure that the wire falls down and doesn’t release upwards. A clip popping up can lead to tangles, lost fish and usually disaster.

Thirty minutes of fruitless trolling follow as Hunter keeps heading offshore, into deeper and deeper water. The water temperature is climbing when he sees what he is looking for. Just a blip on the horizon at first, as the boat gets closer, it appears to be a floating Porta-John, surrounded by sargassum weed and some assorted debris. 

As the mass comes into clearer sight, the first action of the day is the right short rigger going down. He doesn’t drop back to the fish at all, just cranks the bait at a steady pace. There’s no fish on, but then, both the right corner and the center rod go off.  He takes his time getting to those rods, allowing the fish to swallow the small/medium ballyhoo. When he gets to the rods, he eases the drag up to strike and makes a short sweep of the rod, one at a time. Just like that, both come tight, and there are two dolphin jumping behind the boat. The rods are passed off to anglers, and Hunter slows the boat to a crawl, using just enough forward motion to keep the other baits straight behind the boat. 

He doesn’t pull any baits while the fish are being fought, just changing out the mauled ballyhoo that the first bite came on and puts the line back in the rigger clip before running it back out. That one stays fairly close to the boat with the fish on, to avoid lines getting crossed. Then, he takes the game a step further. As the first, smaller, dolphin is worked closer and closer to the boat, Hunter pulls out a fourth TLD 25 outfit and clips on another dink. He fires it out directly behind the boat and strips 20 feet of line out, quickly pinning the loop in the clip.  

“More hooks in the water means more chances,” he said, and he’s greeted by the sound of that rod going off as well. 

It doesn’t take long before the fish box holds a mixture of dolphin, ice and fish blood. The largest fish from this flurry of activity weighs 34.2 pounds, while the smallest checks in at a respectable 16.9. All gaffers, by anyone’s measure.

Hunter said two keys to having a successful day fishing for gaffer dolphin is being willing to venture offshore and go looking for them and being prepared to catch them when you do find them. Gaffers can certainly be caught at all of the numbers on the chart, but finding a hard temperature change, a grass mat, floating debris or just a good bait concentration can put the odds in your favor. Once he has found the feature he’s going to fish, he rarely leaves it, continuing to make circles of different sizes around it as it drifts.  

Hunter makes it clear that the dinks are the technical key to this style of fishing, and he never leaves the dock without at least three dozen small/medium baits already rigged, on short, 80-pound mono leaders, with a ¼-ounce chin weight, a shot of Monel twisted to the weight, and a Matzuo 7/0, chemically-sharpened hook. He said the hooks are perfect for this fishing and that their hook-up rate is better than anything else he has ever fished. 

There’s an extra dink outfit or two always close by, so when the fishing is hot, all he has to do is clip on a bait. He spools up his TLD 25s with 30-pound, clear Sufix mono, finishing the main line off with a short Bimini twist and using an Albright knot to attach a 15-foot shock leader of 50-pound Sufix, which terminates in a Sampo snap-swivel tied on with a double Uni knot. Lighter tackle it may be, but Hunter said he has handled countless gaffers up to 45 pounds with that setup, as well as a few random yellowfin tuna. Not to mention, big fish on lighter tackle is just more fun.

Chris Critz is another spring dolphin aficionado who does things a bit differently. He and his wife, Carrie, fish the Critter II, a 46-foot Atlantic Express out of the Cape Fear River channel almost exclusively, except when they are in another port for a marlin tournament. With their larger boat armed with a fighting chair, they like to fish more lures than bait, where they can use heavier tackle.  

Chris Critz is a marlin fisherman first and foremost, but dolphin could hardly be considered “by-catch” to marlin fishing. Hard-fighting, prolific, and great on the grill, dolphin may actually be the perfect gamefish. In a season of marlin fishing, nearly every angler and captain will catch far more dolphin than billfish, so Critz makes sure that he is armed to catch gaffers whenever he can. He typically fishes a spread of seven lures, fished on Penn International 50Ws and 80Ws spooled with line one class heavier than the reel would suggest, finishing each line with a 5-foot Bimini twist and looping on a snap-swivel. He fishes primarily Fathom lures with single hook, semi-stiff hooksets, but will work in Black Bart lures to his spread as well, with the same style hooksets. For leaders, he uses Momoi X-Hard, cut at 25-feet, in either 300- or 480-pound, depending on the size of the lure.

Whereas Hunter won’t put anything in the water that doesn’t have a hook in it, Critz prefers the dredge approach to attract fish to his boat. He uses a holographic Strip-Teaser dredge on either side, with each dredge line running to a pulley on the outriggers. When fighting a fish, it’s a simple matter of cranking the dredges up so they are just out of the water to avoid the dreaded tangles. The holographic dredges don’t have as much water resistance as natural dredges do; they require less weight to sink and can be used effectively at lure speeds. They also require little maintenance, so they definitely get the nod in this style of fishing.

Critz typically runs seven lures in his gaffer/blue marlin spread. The smallest go on the long riggers, and they are typically straight-running lures. The short-rigger lures are larger, with a bit more action, and the corner rods get the biggest lures: a Fathom Bill Collector or Marlin Darlin. Critz likes to fish a stinger lure as well, right down the center, and he will run a straight-running lure in this position. A tried-and-true performer, the Black Bart Mahi Candy in pink/mackerel is a great choice. He said that the majority of his gaffer bites come on the rigger lures or the stinger, but that the corner rods certainly can and do get bit by big dolphin that have mouths big enough to swallow just about anything he has ever put in the spread.

There are other times when lures and dredges are effective at drawing fish to the spread — but not getting hooks into dolphin mouths. In that situation, Critz always keeps a few ballyhoo rigged as pitch baits. His wife has become an expert at dropping back a rigged ballyhoo on a 30W to a gaffer that will bat a lure around but not hit it aggressively enough to get hooked. When that fish sees something different in the form of a ballyhoo, it usually isn’t long before the pitch rod is bent over, with a fish peeling line off of the reel.

One aspect of lure fishing with heavy tackle that works really well for Critter II is the endgame. The Critzes have refined their system to where the two of them can be an effective team without anyone else on the boat. The heavy leaders allow Chris to simply hit the autopilot button and come down from the helm to wire a fish that Carrie has angled to the boat, and he can be very aggressive with the leader. Whereas a fish on a dink can still dart off under the boat and into the propellers, a lure-hooked fish on a leader of 300 pounds or more can be controlled by a good wire man, even if it means taking double or triple wraps on the leader with leather gloves on.

The lure style of fishing may not lead to as many multiple hookups as dink ballyhoo fishing, but it can certainly lead to some big ones. A 50.5 pounder that hangs on the wall at the Critz home lays testament to that. Regardless of the method that you choose to hook gaffer dolphin, both parties are staunch in their belief that spending some time exploring the deep water, out to 100 fathoms and beyond, is the key in finding that trophy class of fish. Keep notes of where and how you catch your biggest gaffers this spring, and you may well realize the trend that will keep you pushing further and further offshore, looking for that wall hanger of your own. 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — The Wilmington area is the gateway to top offshore spots offshore of Cape Fear. Masonboro Inlet, Carolina Beach Inlet, the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Lockwood Folly Inlet and Shallotte Inlet all give anglers access to the same general areas. Wilmington is the eastern terminus of I-40, and Fort Fisher is the eastern terminus of US 421, two routes that can bring fishermen to the area from most of the state.

WHEN TO GO — Gaffer dolphin show up in the bluewater off Cape Fear in May, and excellent fishing can continue well into June, depending on water temperature. 

BEST TECHNIQUES — Most bluewater anglers troll ballyhoo or artificial lures to target gaffer dolphin. They can be fished naked or in combination with Sea Witches.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. Carl Snow, Fish Witch II Charters, Carolina Beach, 910-458-5855, www.fishwitch.com; Capt. Ken Upton, Gamekeeper Sportfishing, Wrightsville Beach, 910-279-3445, www.gamekeepersportfishing.com; Oak Island Fishing Charters, Southport, 910-470-1995, www.oakislandfishingcharters.com; Ocean Isle Fishing Center, Ocean Isle Beach, 910-575-3474, www.oifc.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Islander Inn, Ocean Isle Beach, 888-325-4753, www.islanderinn.com; The Inn at River Oaks, Southport, 910-457-1100, www.theinnatriveroaks.com; Sea Witch Motel, Carolina Beach, 910-707-0058; Harbor Inn, Wrightsville Beach, 910-256-9402, www.harborinnwb.com; Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wilmington, 877-406-2356, www.wilmingtonandbeaches.com.

MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing; Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, www.mapsunique.com