It was the third and final day of the Bisbee's Black & Blue Marlin Tournament in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. El Niño unleashed its full fury upon the world that year and spread its stink over the tournament - blue marlin fishing was slow to say the least. We hadn't seen a billfish and only one boat in nearly 200 had been able to catch one that would make the minimum. But my partners remained optimistic that a big girl would soon make an appearance in the spread and change all our lives with a big cash payday.
We skipped two 10-pound bonitos from the outriggers and placed several large Black Barts and Pakulas in tight. We wanted a big one.
At 9:55 a.m. my turn in the chair was just about up when a nice cow dolphin of about 35 pounds nailed a Pakula on the left short. She put up a good tussle, but she was no match for the 80-pound gear and came to the boat relatively quickly.
As I got out of the chair to let my buddy Dan Jacobs take his turn in the hot seat, he let out a yell that there was billfish behind the right short. I spun around to see a large, dark shape and an erect dorsal fin charging down on a Black Bart. The lure disappeared in a splash of whitewater but I thought I saw a telltale flash of green.
"I think it's another dolphin, Danny," I said, as line peeled off the 80 at a frighteningly fast pace. Jacobs looked at me like I had just announced a plan to quit fishing and take up ballet.
Just as Jacobs and the captain were about to unleash a torrent of verbal abuse upon me that would make Howard Stern blush, the biggest bull dolphin any of us had ever seen took to the air and replaced their would-be sarcasm with slack-jawed stares.
The 70-plus-pound bull put up a tremendous struggle, even on the 80, and jumped several times on the wire sending everyone on board into a spasm of whoops and hollers each time the fish cleared the water. Once the fish finally came aboard and was nestled snugly in the fish box, we were all beaming as if we had won the tournament. And although Bisbee's doesn't offer a prize for the biggest dolphin, everyone aboard still felt victorious.
As they do on so many offshore fishing excursions, once again a dolphin had saved the day.
A SPECIAL FISH
Let's face it. If you wanted to describe the perfect game fish, what attributes would you like it to have? You'd want a hard-fighting fish that would take to the air, reach a fairly large size, eat just about anything that crossed its path, make a tasty meal at the table and be fairly common so you could actually have a good chance of catching one. Throw in the bonus traits of being a prolific spawner, an extremely fast grower and as colorful as a rainbow, and you've pretty much described a dolphin to a tee.
There are only two species of dolphin fish in the family Coryphaenidae: the common dolphin Coryphaena hippurus, and the pompano dolphin Coryphaena equiselis.
Some scientists theorize that dolphin may be related in some way to cobia, since the larvae of both species are covered by minute, crown-shaped spicules, a unique condition that suggests a close relationship between the two families. They also share similar habits as adults; cobia and dolphin will both associate with objects floating in the water such as buoys, flotsam, boats or turtles.
Both dolphin species look nearly identical as juveniles; however, adult pompano dolphin rarely exceed 30 inches in length. "For the last two or three years I've been trying to find evidence of a pompano dolphin reaching over 8 or 10 pounds, but no one has taken one so far," says Capt. Jim Sharpe, author of Dolphin: The Perfect Gamefish and longtime captain of the Sea Boots in the Florida Keys.
The pompano dolphin does have a slightly different body shape and a different number of rays along its dorsal fin. Unlike the common dolphin, whose body reaches its widest point near the head, the body of a pompano dolphin is widest closer to the midsection. Also, male pompano dolphin fail to develop the high-rise forehead typical of the male common dolphin or "bull."
Most offshore fishermen wouldn't recognize the difference between the two species and would probably call a pompano dolphin a female common dolphin on sight. "Unless you had the two species lying side-by-side at the cleaning table, you probably wouldn't even know you had caught a pompano dolphin," says Sharp.
One more interesting fact about the pompano dolphin: Scientists find many more larval pompano dolphin than they do larval common dolphin. However, the reverse is true for the adults of the species - adult common dolphin are easy to find while adult pompanos are seldom seen. Which is probably one reason that many sport fishermen mistakenly dispute the existence of the pompano dolphin at all.
Speed and agility represent the dolphin's most valuable assets when it comes to pursuing prey and eluding predators. Scientists theorize that they can attain speeds approaching 50 miles an hour in bursts, and they are often seen leaping well clear of the water in pursuit of prey or trying to evade blue marlin or other deepwater predators. It's this ability to peel line off a reel at a tremendous pace and go airborne from a dead stand-still that endears the dolphin to sport fishermen all over the world.
FROM WHERE TO WHERE?
Dolphin range throughout the world's warm-water oceans, but seem to prefer water between 70 and 88 degrees. In the Atlantic, they've been taken as far south as the southern tip of Africa and as far north as Nova Scotia, but dolphin are rare at the extreme edges of their range.
Dolphin can generally be found year-round between the latitudes of 30 DegreeN Degreend 30°S, which encompass much 'f the world's warm-water habitat. However, some scientists believe that there are two populations of dolphin with one occurring above the equator and one below. They base this finding on the separate movement of populations. Since dolphin like warm water, in the Northern Hemisphere they move north as the waters warm up during summer and back down south at the onset of winter. Just the opposite is true for the dolphin in the Southern Hemisphere, which move south in the winter and north in the summer, always following the warm water.
Not much is known about how far dolphin will travel over the course of their lifetime, but they have been known to follow boats or clumps of sargassum for hundreds of miles. One large group of small dolphin reportedly followed a large mat of sargassum from the lower Florida Keys to-Palm Beach - a distance of 230 miles. And"one marked pompano dolphin shadowed a sailboat for 1,050 miles.
Dolphin spend most of their lives at or near the surface, usually inhabiting the top 100 feet of the water column no matter what the water depth. Common dolphin actually move into fairly shallow water at times and many have been taken in harbors and bays. During the summer I've witnessed pods of marauding dolphin skimming under Gulf Coast piers in the panhandle of Florida in just 20 feet of water, popping the lines of unprepared tourists like sewing thread.
There are several locations throughout the world that boast catches of dolphin reaching the upper limits of the species growth potential. Destinations like Cabo San Lucas, Panama, Costa Rica,'Puerto Rico's Mona Passage, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas continually make their way into the record books with catches of big dolphin. Up until 1998, when an 88-pound fish was taken in the Bahamas, an 87-pound fish caught in Costa Rica held the all-tackle record for 22'years. That's an awfully long time for an all-tackle record to last and it might be safe to assume that t'ey just don't get -uch bigger - although there have been reports of a dolphin caught off Puerto Rico that weighed over 100 pounds.
LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG
Dolphin grow at an alarming rate when given plenty of food and warm water to thrive in. It only takes 40 hours for a fertilized dolphin egg to become a free-swimming larva, and then the fry begins to feed and grow in earnest. At 15 days old, the little dolphin has reached about one-half inch in length and already has the blunt snout of an adult. At 30 days old, the fish has doubled in size and features dark vertical bands along its body that make the 1-inch fish look very much like a tiny feather.
Depending on its sex (male dolphin grow faster than females), a 22-inch dolphin is only 60 to 90 days old. Two common dolphin held in the aquarium at Marineland of Florida grew from about 1-1/2 pounds to 32 and 37 pounds in about 7-1/2 months. And a 1-pound male dolphin placed in a large aquarium at the Miami Seaquarium weighed 35 pounds just eight months later.
Most of the dolphin we see offshore are less than a year old and 98 percent are less than 2 years old. In one study done off South Florida, out of 511 dolphin taken, only 121 had reached the age of 1 year and measured between 18 and 40 inches in length. Only nine of the fish made it to 2 years old and they ranged in size from 40 to 50 inches. One 56-inch fish made it to age 3. And the solitary 4-year-old in the group was a 66-inch fish that weighed 77 pounds and turned out to be the all-tackle world record at that time.
This tremendous growth rate provides a plus for sportfishermen because dolphin have to spend a lot of their time eating. And they will eat just about anything. Over 32 species of fish, crabs and the assorted creepy crawlies that live in and around sargassum have been found in the stomachs of dolphin. I once read a study that was actually skewed by the number of discarded chicken bones found in the stomachs of dolphin in the Gulf Stream off Florida. Evidently, fried chicken is a favorite lunch among Florida anglers.
Along with this remarkable growth rate comes a price. As you can see by the numbers above, the odds of a dolphin even making it to the age of 2 are very slim. Some scientists think that the oldest dolphin live only to the age of 5, but others feel even that might be a stretch. "Since dolphin become more fertile each year of their life, if a significant number of them lived to be 5 years old' you couldn't put your foot in the ocean without stepping o" a dolphin," says Sharp.
Dolphin are prodigious spawners and some females are capable of reproducing when they reach 14 inches in length. By the time they reach 21 inches, most, if not all, dolphin can spawn. Since the spawning season is so long, nine months or so off the coast of Florida, it's possible for a female dolphin to be born and spawn during the same season. A female dolphin produces 80,000 to 1 million eggs at ea-h spawning - older, larger females p-oduce more - and can spawn two or three times a year. But even with that many eggs in the water, the rate of survival is miniscule.
While most sport fishermen think of dolphin more as predators than prey, the truth is a lot of fish feed upon dolphin larvae, juveniles and even adult fish. Almost every species of game fish feeds on dolphin at one stage in their life or another. Scientists have found dolphin in the stomachs of yellowfin tuna, every species of marlin, spearfish, swordfish, sailfish and even other dolphin. And human beings play a large role in the predation of dolphin as well.
THINGS COULD BE WORSE
Historically, the total catch of dolphin in the U.S. has been split, 90-percent recreational and 10-percent commercial. And so far, things have been going pretty well for dolphin with that ratio. However, the threat of area closures and decline of other targeted species may signal a switch in longline efforts to target dolphin.
According to Ken Hinman of the National Marine Fisheries service, a new dolphin management plan is under consideration and should probably become law by the year 2001. At press time, the plan was undergoing public hearings, but Hinman remained confident that the plan would go through with adequate protections to keep dolphin populatio"s healthy. "The plan intends to preserve the fishery in its present state and maintain the healthy dolphin fishery'we have. It's rare that we get a piece of proactive legislation designed to keep things from ge"ting worse," says Hinman.
Right now the plan is leaning toward implementing a five- to 10-fish-per-person, per-day bag limit on the recreational fisherman and setting a 1,000- to 5,000-pound trip limit for longliners that will discourage more boats from entering t"e fishery. 'At NMFS, we've recommended a 500-pound trip limit for the commercials, since during the public hearings on the plan, recreational anglers have been willing to take the lower end of the bag limits proposed in the plan. We think if the recreational fishermen are so willing to take less, then there should be a commensurate drop on the commercial side. If that happens, things can only get better for everyo"e involved."
Special thanks goes to the IGFA Museum and library, which provided the research materials for this article, including: Dolphin: The Perfect Gamefish, by Jim Sharpe; NOAA Technical Report NMFS Circular 443, Synopsis of the Biological Data on Dolphin-Fishes, Barbara Jane Palko, Grant L. Beardsley, and William J. Richards; On the Identification, Distribution, and Biology of the Dolphins Coryphaena hippurus and C. equiselis, Robert H. Gibbs Jr. and Bruce B. Collette; and Age, Growth and Reproduction of the Dolphin, Coryphaena hippurus, in the Straits of Florida, Grant L. Beardsley Jr.