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Boredom before pandemonium

5/24/2007

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ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Herb Malone was the point man. He was standing in front of a 60-foot charter boat with the wind in his hair. His vigil could have easily passed for a scene in a movie.

But he doesn't look anything like Leonardo DiCaprio, and there was no babe riding the prow with him. The closest thing to Malone was a spinning rod, with a heavy line snaking from the rod's eyes to a five-gallon bucket full of fresh water and hooked into a 10-inch live eel.

Even though the rod and its snaky bait were stationary, Malone was fishing. His casts were made with a consistent scan of the water in every direction, looking for hints of brown in the blue water that was rolling across the Gulf of Mexico and spilling onto Orange Beach.

"This is just a whole lot of boredom — looking and hoping — brought together with moments of sheer pandemonium," Malone said.

For Malone, though, standing in the front of a Titanic-sized fishing boat and doing nothing but waiting for pandemonium, is pure heaven.

For those who have never experienced it, this is cobia fishing, Orange Beach-style.

Malone is the CEO of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor's Bureau. He spends the majority of his time hawking the virtues of coming to Orange Beach for the sun, fun and the incredible red snapper fishing. Those are the lightning rods for a multi-billion dollar tourist economy along the shores where Alabama and Florida meet.

For years cobia fishing has been one of the better-kept secrets, enjoyed by the locals, who look forward to the rush of hooking into a giant fish and the hunt that precedes it. But the annual chase is becoming more popular with anglers from all over the country, who find thrill in the hunt and the pandemonium it creates.

"Our charter fishing industry is well-established," Malone said. "Folks have been coming here for years for the snapper, grouper and triggerfish. But a lot of people want to diversify. And the cobia is definitely different."

How different? Charters for snapper and grouper take you far into the gulf, where you cast heavy, bottom-sitting baits out and wait for the inevitable tug. Traditionally, the trip is not about whether you will catch them, but how many you catch.

"The cobia is a little more sporting," Malone said. "That's not to take anything away from the snapper fishing. That's still incredible. But seeing a cobia, stalking a cobia and hooking a cobia is something a lot of folks want to do."

Malone is stalking from the Summer Breeze II, a 60-foot Resmondo, a custom-built charter boat owned by Captain Bobby Walker.

Walker spends most of his time chasing the legendary red snapper and grouper off the coast of Orange Beach. He likes the change of pace that idling around cobia waters offers. That goes for just about every deckhand on the boat, some of who are sitting atop the tower 25 feet in the air, looking and waiting for the first sighting. But snapper season isn't open when this trip takes place, as a matter of fact all this looking and searching is pleasure for these local anglers.

"We look forward to this every year about this time," said Jimmy Greene, one of the guides. "It's like turkey hunting or deer season for us. We can't wait to get out here and hunt."

And there are a lot of similarities to hunting. The first choice of crafts, like Walker's Resmondo, all have towers, where as many as three or four anglers sit on vigil, like deer hunters in a deer stand, scanning the waves.

Every spring from March to May, cobia (also known as ling and lemon fish) start a migration that takes them from the coast of south Florida to the north central Gulf of Mexico. That trip carries them past the shallow beaches of Orange Beach. They swim lazily by in singles, pairs and occasionally in pods of four or more.

Like duck hunters waiting on waterfowl, anglers along Orange Beach move around in the massive tower boats, idling for miles as they scan the surf for any brown swimming blob that could be a cobia. That's where the looking and hoping comes in.

Anything and everything can be a clue: A wad of sea grass floating in the surf can make hearts race; a sea turtle coming to the surface for a breather is a can't-miss opportunity, since cobia like to hang out with these giant shade-producing swimmers; even watching other boats stop or start gives captains a clue as to what path the cobia might be taking on a particular day.

The pandemonium follows with trying to maneuver a big boat close enough for anglers like Malone to make a cast. That is followed by equal amounts of pandemonium from every other deckhand making casts from any location they can get to. It shifts into overdrive when the fish actually bites and the battle between man and beast is on.

Engines roar in reverse; deck hands offer contradictory support: "He's got it," one yells, followed by "Wait, wait, wait," from another. Malone is frantic, trying to gingerly toss his 10-inch eel at the fish's nose, while the tower-top deck hands are scrambling down ladders and grabbing for their own rods in the bobbing surf. If the cobia doesn't take the first offering, the water around him is soon pelted with lures and baits of every description and from every angle.

The hoped-for outcome is hooking a cobia that can range from 30 to 90 pounds. In fish terms, that's a lot of muscle, compared easily to trying to tow in a Volkswagon that has a penchant for making surges and occasionally jumping.

The battle is enough to make every angler want to latch into it. But the end of the battle is the real treat. Cobi are known as much for their table-fare as they are a worthy adversary with rod and reel. It's firm white meat makes it perfect for grilling or baking, and many claim that the fish comes built in with a slight lemon flavor.

"This is the kind of fish that makes a meal you would slap your mamma for," Greene said. "It melts in your mouth. Even if cobia didn't put up a helluva fight, most of us would be out here with the same excitement, thinking all of this is for dinner, the best dinner of the year."

Regardless of the reasons for hours of boredom tied together with moments of pandemonium, Cobia fishing, or hunting, has become a popular pastime.

On any given day, from March to May, sunbathers laying on the white sand of Orange Beach can look out into the surf as a flotilla of boats idles by coming and going in every conceivable direction and in every shape and size, with point man standing in front and a horde of onlookers scanning from towers.

"In the old days you would see fewer boats, and it wasn't unusual to see smaller boats with ladders strapped to them," Malone said. "Today a lot of the charter boats have towers on them for the primary reason of spotting cobia."

And as more and more cobia and anglers are hooked, these slow-motion boat rides in the surf are becoming a can't miss thing, even for clients who all of the sudden see the value of packing up kids and family for spring break or summer vacation and heading to the beach.

For more information, contact Captain Bobby Walker at 251-981-6159, www.bobbywalker.com or the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor's Bureau at 800-745-7263 www.orangebeach.com.