Dolphin tagger extraordinaire Don Hammond went to the Bahamas last week looking to catch and tag dolphin for the Dolphin Tagging Research Project he heads.

What he didn’t catch was a break in the weather while fishing out of Highborne Cay in the southeastern Bahamas aboard Makara with Capt. Tom McMurray at the helm.

The Makara crew, out of Beaufort, N.C., and Hammond faced stiff east-northeast winds while fishing for dolphin on Great Exuma Sound.

“The weather was nasty, [with] east-northeast winds from 15 to 30 [knots] depending on the day. It was a typical Bahamas trip for me,” Hammond said with a laugh.

Despite the conditions, the venture was a success as the crew managed to tag and release 24 dolphin ranging in size “from 24 inches to well over 40 inches,” Hammond said.

The mission for Hammond, a retired S.C. DNR biologist who coordinates the tagging project through his Cooperative Science Services, LLC, was to help confirm a migratory path for dolphin from the Bahamas to central/north Florida and up to the Carolinas along the East Coast.

Hammond, through anecdotal information from anglers who fish for dolphin in both South Florida and the Carolinas, has a theory regarding dolphin catches along the Southeast coast. He says the general consensus is dolphin anglers in the Carolinas “tend to catch more big dolphin than [anglers in] South Florida do in a given fishing year.”

It is well documented through the tagging program that dolphin migrate northward up the Gulf Stream from South Florida in the spring to reach the waters off the Carolinas.

“If our fish were solely coming up the Florida Straits and up the East Coast, the Florida boys would have first shot at the big fish,” Hammond said. “Seeing that [Carolinas anglers] are catching more big fish than they are, there has to be another source [of dolphin] in the equation.”

The nomadic dolphin follow ocean currents in their migratory movements.

“Dolphinfish utilize the Gulf Stream and [similar] currents throughout the world as their highways, that is their highway system,” Hammond said.

Hammond surmises dolphin travel in the Antillean Current, moving northward up the eastern side of the Bahamas Bank. The current starts joining the Gulf Stream off Cape Canaveral and fully joins it off Brunswick, Ga.

Hammond’s program already has produced one tag recovery from a fish that was tagged in April, 2005, near Eluthera in the Bahamas and recovered 37 days later off Brunswick.

Hammond is hoping some of last week’s batch of tagged fish will be recaptured off the Carolinas coast, helping further prove his theory.

“I just hope we can see some of these fish show up off our [South Carolina] coast,” he said. “That would be fantastic.”

Why is Hammond so interested in proving the dolphin connection between the Bahamas and the Carolinas?

“We’re trying to prove it’s a common stock, that we’re fishing the same stock of fish, so as to indicate they must be managed jointly,” Hammond said.

Satellite tags

Hammond discussed the details of the data received from a pair of bull dolphin in the 30-pound range that were recently tagged off South Carolina with pop-off satellite archival tags.

The first fish was tagged on June 4, 2005, aboard Tag Team out of Mount Pleasant while the second was tagged June 21, 2006, aboard Jenny Lynn out of Charleston.

Tag Team’s fish was tracked for 10 days while Jenny Lynn’s fish was tracked for six days. The movement of the two fish, including water depth and temperature conditions, was constantly monitored by the satellite while the tags were in place.

“This is the first time we’ve ever been able to look at the diving behavior and temperature selection of dolphin,” Hammond said. “We have seen there are differences in diving behavior and temperature selection depending on the region they occur in.”

The satellite data showed the two tagged fish dove into water as cold as 61 degrees and, as Hammond said, are “purpose driven” when making deep dives.

“When they make these deep dives, they stay down briefly but never linger long in water temperatures below 71-72 degrees,” Hammond said. “They never spend more than 10 minutes [in water temperatures] below that.”

How does this relate to the typical dolphin angler in South Carolina?

“How many times have fishermen, myself included, come across this weedline in perfect water that has all the elements of perfect habitat, but you just find nothing there, it’s a desert?,” Hammond said. “We now know there may be fish associated with that weedline but they’re staying deep. They may be there but not at the surface when the fisherman comes by.

“These fish use a very large portion of the water column. This new data has proven that.”

Hammond relates a story on his Bahamas trip. Hammond said the mate got tired of “seeing dinner swim away” since all dolphin caught were tagged and released. He decided to target wahoo and deployed a deep bait on a wire line.

“The first two fish we caught [on the deep line] were dolphin,” Hammond said.