Sportfishing at its Finest...in a Bay Boat
Meat. Must have meat. This is the feeling and the way of thinking for many if not most of the anglers coming down to the Florida Keys. Whether they’re bringing they’re own boat or getting on a charter boat, loading the box full of fish to lay on the dock when they get back is what determines a good day. This time of year it usually is all about dolphin (mahi). With dolphin, it can be very easy some days to put a full limit of schoolies in the fish box. They seem to be all over and usually attack anything that moves. The limit is 10 fish per person. Put six anglers on a boat and you have an obscene amount of fish. Don’t get me wrong... I like to eat fish, but lets face it, fish really is not nearly as good once it’s frozen. It develops a fishy taste and fish is not supposed to be fishy. That flavor only comes when it’s old or previously frozen. Of those 60 dolphin that could be kept with six people on the boat, maybe five could be eaten that night and that would be a BIG meal.
Most of the remainder would eventually be frozen. Before these dolphin are frozen, they must be filleted. That will take HOURS! Even 20 schoolies takes quite awhile. There is another way...keep a few for a couple nights of dinners and release the rest. I know... releasing legal dolphin just sounds crazy. It certainly is not the norm especially with larger fish, but on a recent trip I had the opportunity to give it a try.
Capt. Marlin Scott and I arrived at Blane Woodfin’s house in Big Torch Key one morning at the beginning of June. He had just purchased a brand new 24ft Seahunter Bay Boat. The goal of the day was to make sure his gear and new boat were set up and ready for offshore fishing. Blane is an avid and skilled fly fisherman and fishes the backcountry areas quite often along with the oceanside flats for tarpon.
With all of the schoolie dolphin and large weed mats offshore, we decided that we would target them with a fly rod. We loaded up our trolling rods and a teaser so we could hook up schoolies and keep them around so Blane could have the chance to throw in a fly. The winds were east to southeast at 10-15 knots. Offshore we were in 2 to 3 ft seas with an occasional 4 and the Seahunter handled it beautifully. We passed up the first few lines as most of the fish we had been getting into lately were out in about 500 feet. Once at this depth Capt. Marlin decided to lay out our baits and we continued our way south. The current had picked up, making it a bit rough so going slow was a good idea.
I had just finished putting out the first Billy Bait when WHAM it got smashed! I looked back and saw white water as the fish threw its head from side to side trying to shake the lure and then she jumped. Nice 20 lb. cow dolphin. Blane fought the fish and when she was about half way in, the question came up.... “How much fish do you want?” He really only wanted enough for one night and this fish clearly had a lot more meat than that. Then question number two came up “ Do you want to release this fish?” “Yes!”
Well this certainly would be a first for me. I don’t think I’ve ever released a 20 lb. dolphin and I definitely have never tried to get one in the boat without the gaff.Once the fish came to the side of the boat, I grabbed the leader and positioned her so I could reach down and grab the tail. This took a few attempts and then with the first touch on her tail she kicked off for another run. I figured that would happen. She came back up and I gave it another try. Success! Once I had a hold of the tail she really didn’t fight much at all. I slid my other hand under her belly and pulled her in for a picture. The hook was pulled out and as soon as she was back in the water she kicked off without a second thought. This was a new feeling for me, for all three of us I think. Being able to catch that fish and then successfully release her knowing that 99% of the fishing population would have gone for the gaff... it just felt good. I will gaff big dolphin in the future, I know that, but I hope that I’ll get to release some too.
We finished off the day by doing what we had planned on doing in the first place. The weeds bunched up around noon and allowed us to get the schoolies behind the boat. Blane caught a number on fly with two of them coming home for dinner that night. Truly sportfishing at its finest.
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