Crazy for Cobia

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DESTIN, Fla. — Tourism takes no break here in northwest Florida.

Non-stop development of the panhandle and the Alabama coast fuels the myriad businesses along the picturesque intracoastal waterways that give such hamlets as Destin and Pensacola Beach a reason for being.

Pricey pleasure crafts of all varieties line the docks mostly unused, but even in the chill, snowbirds and penny-pinchers keep service industry workers busy.

The winter may feel mild to visiting Quebecers, but it makes saltwater game fish scarce along the Emerald Coast, a 150-mile stretch from Dauphin Island, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., named for the spectacular color of its waters. In the sweltering subtropical summers and the erratic autumns, deepwater enthusiasts cherish this coast. Then the holidays hit, and intense cabin fever follows.

The spring cobia run, in which most of the Gulf's cobia population migrates west in mostly small groups, breaks the winter spell.

Workaday angler Jamie Ogden and a group of buddies have been cruising the beaches for 'cobes' in his 21-foot Mako center console — modified, like many smaller boats, with separate controls on top of the canopy.

For the past 10 years or so, they've begun their trips when the water temperature reaches 62 degrees, and returned practically every weekend thereafter.

"We always jump the gun and end up burning a bunch of gas before we really start seeing any fish, but it's so much fun being out there when it finally starts getting warm," said Ogden, 36. "And there's nothing like seeing and getting that first fish of the year."

Bottom fishing for species such as red snapper — whose opening day resembles a land-grab at inlets up and down the coast — makes up the bulk of the tourist high season's entertainment. But, spearheaded by the World Cobia Championships, the season-long tournament based out of Destin's Harbor Docks, the cobia run signals the unofficial kickoff of the fishing season.

To the successful hunter goes a savory prize. The firm, white, fatty flesh of a cobia makes remarkable table fare, and although the fish average about 30 pounds, even the smallest boat could catch one of 100 pounds or more.

"Cobia fishing is a lot about being out there when the big ones move through,"
said Ogden, whose biggest catch was a 79-pounder. "And you never know when or where that fish you've been looking all this time is going to push through. There's nothing saying that our boat won't be the one who catches it."

Not lost on any cobia fisherman is the species' often bizarre behavior. Known to charge a bait with shocking violence and other times snubbing an offering with the indifference of a Southern blue-blood, cobia, though strong, are not among the greatest fighters in the Gulf. They will, however, battle a gaffer. Because the fish are legendary for smashing up cockpits, handling them is one of the first lessons an Emerald Coast angler must learn.

The reality of tournaments such as the Cobia World Championships — a heady title, considering that the species inhabits subtropical climates worldwide — is that big craft tend to win the big money. Winnings approaching six figures are common in events such as the Frank Helton "Living Legend" Crab Cruncher Classic, a separate, shorter tournament held during the Championships.

"Height is everything in this game," Ogden said. "Those guys in those towers can see a fish coming from a mile away."

To hunt cobia, a fisherman picks a course from inside the last sandbar to about a mile offshore, and looks for large brown fish cruising westward at depths of up to 50 feet. Anglers use large spinning reels on custom-made rods, baited with farm-raised river eels. They tend to favor 60-pound leaders tied on strong treble hooks, even though for the International Game Fish Association to recognize a record catch, the trebles must be used on lures (crankbaits, e.g.) for which they were designed..

According to Ogden, the IGFA's stipulations on treble hooks have nixed several would-be line class and overall world records. "There are some people who use J-hooks or even circle hooks now, but I still like to know that I've got him," he said.

Also high on the preferred list of weapons is the aptly named cobia jig. Unlike the natural presentation of live baits, the colorful 2-ounce ball of lead is handy for power fishing or for casting at several fish.

Cobia fishing pioneer Helton is credited with the design of the handmade jig. Helton, 79, used to make as many as 200 dozens of jigs per year, starting the process in November to be done in time for the season. Boatless since his 36-foot Hatteras sportfisher was destroyed in Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Helton claims to have caught 782 fish in one season and 27 on his busiest day.

Ogden's boat has a tower that enables anglers to see from 15 feet above the water, a far cry from the towers on larger sportfishers. Used principally for bluewater fishermen to observe lures being pulled behind their boat, the towers provide a nifty vantage from which to observe cobia.

"We really don't get any smaller boats in these tournaments," said Harbor Docks' Kathy Blue. "There are some great fishermen, but the bigger boats have such an advantage."

The best conditions for cobia fishing also happen to be murder on smaller vessels. When moderate to strong east to southeast winds kick up a nice swell, traveling fish almost literally surf along their chosen path, making them a cinch to see.

"Waiting for the ideal spring day is not an option," Ogden said. "And when you get a little anxious and put a 'green one' in the boat and he gets to beatin' his tail on things, that tab adds up in a hurry. With little space like we've got on our boat, a lot of times you've just got to jump up on the gunnels and hold on to the tower.

"If you're waiting for a day when the wind doesn't blow in April and the first part of May around here, you could be waiting a long time. We all save up a lot of vacation time to be able to take time off during the week and when the conditions are right — and that means mainly sunshine — that's when we go."

Seeing fish is job number one. Taking up sentry on a tower among good friends would seem to be fun, but most times it's a picture of intense scrutiny among the roughly 90 degrees one is responsible for in front of the cruising vessel. Chatter is intermittent at best when trying to spot a sharky-looking fish amid glare and white-capped waves.

Charles Morgan chose to take the day off, the first day of the tournament he's missed in many years. The sun had shone the day previous, but the paucity of weighing fish indicated that the cobia were cruising either further offshore or deeper in the water column.

The talk of the first day weigh-in was a) how many layers of clothes people had on and b) how many layers they wished they had on.

"Yesterday was enough for me. I'm going horse riding," Morgan said that morning. He added that, like billfishing, cobia fishing is hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of pandemonium.

Our day on the water, during the Crab Cruncher, provided only the former. When a bank of clouds pushed through from the west a little after 4 p.m., the captain grumbled an order to "take this S.O.B. to the house." No one protested.

The Crab Cruncher's top fish worth over $50,000 — went only 60 pounds. Another boat took home twice that with a fish three pounds lighter, having put up money in more of the 14 categories.

Ogden and his crew didn't make it out on this day, choosing to bank "good guy points" with a Saturday at the house.

"This would have probably been one of the smoothest days of the season, but you've got to really want to be out there today or have a lot of cash riding on it," Ogden said. "I'm pretty sure my wife put away the winter clothes."

But he sounded relieved only after hearing the day's dismal results. That 100-pounder has to come through at some point.