Offshore: Cobia with Captain Ben Fairey

Editor’s Note: Ben Fairey, a member of the Orange Beach Fishing Association has watched the gently-rolling waves in the emerald-green water off Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, each spring for cobia, for more than 41 years. Early spring, cobia and Ben Fairey are three names that fit together like the Three Musketeers; rarely do you hear one without the other two.

The word, “cobia,” rang-out from the end of the Gulf State Park Pier the first week of March with the energy of a first bolt of lightning cracking. Offshore on charter boats, deckhands screamed, “cobia,” when they spotted one of those big brown fish – the first of the season, moving east to west. This sighting signaled the beginning of the cobia migration that occurs every year as the cobia leave the warm waters of south Florida, move-up the west coast of Florida, swim past Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and move into Louisiana and the tailwaters of the Mississippi River out in the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.

Much like the cobia migration taking place, Captain Ben Fairey of the charter boat, “Necessity,” heads-out into the gulf to meet and greet and catch the cobia on their spring migration. “We had a very-early spring and a very-mild winter this year, so the cobia run probably will be 2-weeks ahead of what it’s generally been in the past,” Fairey reports. “The charter-boat fishermen of the past always said, ‘When you see the dogwoods begin to bloom, start looking for the cobia migration.’ Right now dogwoods are blooming everywhere here on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. I’m looking for a northeastern or a southeastern wind, which are the best wind conditions to see and catch the cobia migration. Usually at the first of the season, we see somewhat-bigger cobia than we do at the end of the season. We consider a really-big cobia as a fish that weighs over 75 pounds. So far, my boat caught the biggest cobia ever landed on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and it weighed 117 pounds and 7 ounces. That fish was caught one year on April 21, which proves that big fish can show-up at any time of the cobia run.”

Fairey’s Secret for Catching Cobia:

According to Fairey, “The main secret for catching cobia is to be prepared. When we leave the marina, we start rigging rods with baits to throw to the cobia. We’ll have live fish hooked-up and ready to cast, live eels and live catfish with their spines cut-off, as well as two or three rods rigged with cobia jigs. You never know when you’ll see a cobia, and oftentimes they’ll come to the surface really-close to the boat. Then you’ve got to be ready to cast to them. We use circle hooks tied straight to 30-pound-test monofilament line spooled-up on saltwater spinning reels. We downsize the terminal tackle that we use to keep the fish from seeing our lines. When we spot a cobia, we try and get way-out in front of the cobia, put our engine in neutral and then wait for the cobia, which is moving from east to west, to swim to us. When the cobia comes within casting distance, we want to land our live bait about 10 feet in front of the fish. We’ll start by casting a live eel to the cobia, and if the cobia doesn’t take that, we’ll cast a live pinfish with a live catfish our third bait. I always keep one very-special bait, either a catfish or maybe a live mullet, as my last-resort bait to throw to the temperamental cobia.

“Once the cobia takes the bait, we instruct our angler to not do anything, except hold the rod up at the 11 o’clock position and let the cobia pull the rod down. We tell them, Don’t try to set the hook. If the bait comes-out of the cobia’s mouth due to the pressure on the rod, if you don’t jerk and try and set the hook, 90 percent of the time the cobia will attempt to take the bait again and often get the entire bait in its mouth. As the fish puts pressure on the rod again, the circle hook will set itself. The fight is on as we encourage the angler to tire the fish out as much as possible before he or she brings the cobia to the boat. If we’ve caught a small cobia or a cobia that the angler doesn’t want to eat, we’ll use a net to land the fish, let our customers make pictures of the fish and then release the cobia to fight again another day. If our customer wants to keep the fish, the mate will be on the shoulder of the angler, away from the line. He’ll make one quick thrust with his gaff close to the cobia’s dorsal fin and then move his hands quickly, hand-over-hand down the gaff as he pulls the fish up. Once the cobia is vertical to the boat, then the first mate will bring the cobia on-board. On a good trip, you may see 5 to 10 cobia. If we see 10 cobia, I expect our boat to catch 7 of them. If we only catch 5, I’m disappointed. But, cobia fishing is very weather-dependent. We need a wind with some component of an east wind and clear water to be able to see the fish. Cobia fishing is one of my favorite ways to fish in the early spring.”

To learn more about fishing with Captain Ben Fairey on the “Necessity,” visit www.captben.com, email bfairey@bellsouth.net, or call 251-609-2525.

Gulf State Park Pier Report:

Editor’s Note: Our pier report comes from David Thornton, who fishes there almost every day and receives reports from the pier anglers daily.

“Because the weather was rough the first week in March, activity on the pier was scaled-back a bit,” Thornton explains. “However, the good news is that the sheepshead spawn has started, and anglers are having good catches of big sheepshead around the pilings on the pier. We fish with small hooks and live shrimp to catch these sheepshead. If the weather’s not rough, and the water’s clear, I like to fish with 8- to 12-pound-test line. But, if a strong current’s running, I’ll use 15-pound-test line. When you hook a sheepshead, that fish will use the current to dive right beside the pilings where the barnacles will cut your line. Therefore, you need a stronger line in stiff current.

“We haven’t had a very-good run of whiting so far at the pier, and because the weather has been so mild, we haven’t see the big numbers of redfish that we normally do at this time of the year. However, we’ve had an outstanding run of pompano, and there’s still plenty of pompano, weighing from 1-1/2- to 2-pounds each to be caught. Any day now, we expect to see the Spanish mackerel returning, since they’re generally the first mackerel to show-up on the pier. Then 2 or 3 weeks after them, the king mackerel will show-up. So, as the wind calms-down, and the weather gets warmer, fishing on the Gulf State Park Pier will be heating-up. If our area has calm winds and warm weather during Spring Break, I expect to see good catches coming from the pier each day.” To learn more about fishing the Gulf State Park Pier, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call 251-948-7275.

The Orange Beach Fishing Association will be glad to find you and your family a captain and a boat that fits your needs. The good news is that you don’t have to leave your wife and children at home when you visit Alabama’s Gulf Coast. There’s plenty to do and see. For accommodation and restaurant recommendations, contact Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism at 800-745-SAND, or visit www.orangebeach.com. To have your fresh fish prepared at the beach, go to www.alabamasnaturalcoast.net, click on restaurants, and check box for “Will Cook Your Catch.”

Spicy Pompano

This simple recipe is delicious and very healthy to eat, since it’s baked.

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2-cup Panko (coarse bread crumbs)
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, drained
Salt and pepper
4 skinless, boneless pompano fillets
6 ounces fresh baby spinach

Preparation:
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet with foil. In a large bowl, toss vinegar, 1 tablespoon dill, 1 tablespoon oil and 1/8-teaspoon each salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine Panko, horseradish and 1 tablespoon each of dill and oil. Sprinkle pompano with 1/8-teaspoon each salt and pepper; place on cookie sheet, smooth-side up. Press Panko mixture evenly on top of fillets. Bake 8 minutes or until golden brown on top. Toss spinach with vinegar mixture, and serve with fish.