The bottle nosed dolphins that ply these waters, and call them their domicile, have always been an important adjunct to the pleasure of the fishing experience. Who among us, with rod in hand, wasn't paused when the graceful dolphin surfaced nearby the boat with a whoosh of breath and a tail flip.
They, truly, are a part of the part of the "paradise" experience that we brag about to those less fortunate living elsewhere.
Now, we find that they are in danger or potential danger, from us; the folks that revel in their existence. Authorities have identified a developing pattern in dolphin behavior of dependency on being fed instead of having to hunt for their food. But to define that, let me start at the beginning.
Having fished these waters for some 20 years you get a chance to see creature habits evolve and our prime subject this week would be at the top of that list.
Early on in the early 1990s, you would see decent numbers of dolphin in your fishing grounds, either in the passes or on the reefs both nearshore and deep. They would hold a respectable distance from your boat curious but non-invasive (i.e. never chasing a fish hooked and being retrieved, or "beg" for fish alongside the boat or scoot after your discards – undersized fish).
Folks were mesmerized with this fabled wild creature and often would park rods and grab cameras for what has to be thousands of pictures of dorsal fins, and that was the extent of the interaction.
And then we had a distinctive change. One summer of the early 2000s we had a series of hurricanes that roared over the Keys and flooded lots of real estate including some of the attractions down there that have trained dolphin to do just about everything. Inevitably, it was reported that some of these dolphins escaped their pens, free at last, to cite Free Willy!
Don't remember the date but vividly remember the first time we ran into the "different dolphin" right here. It was a fall morning and my charter was a couple of nice folks from the Fort Lauderdale area over here for a weekend.
We had some good luck on the reefs with Mangrove Snapper and had caught our limit of 10 and were headed back to Capri Pass to see if there was any pompano action. We started a drift working small tipped jigs over near the edges of, the now obliterated, Coconut Island.
The drift was uneventful, when all of a sudden, a dolphin appeared; not a distance away but right under the boat and was begging by turning upside down on the surface in full view. Edith, one of the customers that day, was aghast. She, literally, screamed and dropped the rod overboard (that's how I vividly remember).
Edith then wanted to toss our hard earned snapper to this "beggar" dolphin but cooler heads prevailed and she settled for taking some incredible photo shots.
And that, I sincerely believe was the turning point for dolphin behavior hereabouts. Those naturalists, that specialize in dolphin behavior, have long reiterated that dolphin train one another.
It was a rather slow progression but the evidence is explosive now.
It is not an uncommon event now, either in the passes or nearshore, to have a brace or more of dolphins show and hold within 10 yards of the boat and try to nail a fish being retrieved or a fish being discarded.
They are so relentless in their quest, that in many instances, the only solution for the captain is to pull anchor (away from the good action) and set up somewhere else; a tough decision for the customers paying the tab.
But still they come, with some gift of spontaneous GPS, they locate your new location, and just for the fun of it bring a couple of buddies along.
Now, you can't even get a fish to the boat. Terrible when the dolphins are nailing big, hard to get, pompano and trout.
So in a quest of doing what needs to be done, one little girl a few years back took a stand that helped turn off the dolphin feed even in defiance of regulations.
The whole trip was catch and release thanks to her. Ambivalent about taking fish for consumption, the parents deferred to this little girl's emotional attachment to fish survival.
Amanda hovered over every catch making sure it made it back into the water unharmed. All was going great until we moved to work a great spot in Hurricane Pass.
We were catching sheepshead and snapper, most small, on every cast. Amanda was like a firefly flitting from one to another making sure the caught fish made it back to their environment OK.
And then a marauding dolphin showed. His presence defined as he devoured a snapper right off the line on retrieve followed by scoffing down a small sheepshead intended for release. Amanda was beside herself.
"We can't throw the little fish back, let's keep them here alive until we leave, can't we please do that, captain, pleaded Amanda.
In response, I explained the rules that it was illegal to keep undersized fish and we could be cited by the police if they came along.
"I don't care, we have to save the fish and not feed the dolphin. I'll talk to the police, please, captain."
The bucket of aerated live fish was nearly full by the time we pulled anchor and left that spot. The dolphin had departed earlier since he no longer had easy released fish targets to consume.
Amanda was all smiles as she helped release the fish she had saved.
This episode gives one something to think about. Maybe the authorities could consider an Amanda rule allowing temporary live retention of undersized fish in the effort to turn the dolphin "feeding" problem around.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.