Capt. Robert Earl McDaniel warned we were in for a long day on the Gulf of Mexico, doing what we were planning to do, which was chum for giant spawning cobia on shallow sand bars in early May.
“I hope you understand that in this type of fishing, there’s a whole lot of sitting and waiting, interrupted by brief periods of intense excitement,” the skipper of the Whipasnapa charter boat said.
A few hours later, sitting about a mile off the west tip of Horn Island, we found out exactly what Capt. Earl meant. Our near-comatose state, brought on by the relentless, rhythmic rocking of the 25-foot boat on the 4- to 5-foot waves, ended with the first click from one of the six reels in use. It clicked a second time and eventually a third, before the clicking came so fast you couldn’t differentiate whether it was the fifth or 1,000th.
Over the next two hours, we had constant action. It wasn’t always from our desired species, but also from sharks — big, backbreaking ones if we were able to successfully hooked up — and giant jack crevalle.
We had at least nine or 10 shark strikes, and all but two chewed through the line. We caught several jacks, too, before we caught a 55-pound cobia.
“That’s the great thing about the Gulf of Mexico,” Capt. Earl said. “You put a line in the water, and you never know what’s going to bite, but if you sit long enough, something surely will.”
Chumming only intensifies that theory. When you introduce enough enticing stink in the water, have it spread by current, sooner or later a predator will find the scent and follow it to its source. Of course, that means it might follow the trail toward the boat, eventually passing up the array of live baits swimming in the chum slick.
Capt. Earl is well known for his abilities to attract and catch big cobia during the spring season. It was his chumming that lured a 106-pound, 13-ounce cobia (a.k.a. lemonfish, ling) to the hook in the 1996 Gorenflo Cobia Tournament. His brother, Randy McDaniel of Grenada, still holds that state record with that fish.
There’s been several in the 90- and 100-pound range aboard Capt. Earl’s Whipasnapa, named for his expertise at catching big red snapper.
“I guess chumming for cobia is my favorite way to fish,” said Capt. Earl. “I know I can’t make a living doing it as a charter captain because 95 percent, or more, of my clients wouldn’t go for it. You fish all day for two or three bites, and then you have to hope that it’s cobia and not sharks or big jack crevalle.”
Each spring, cobia migrate up from the Florida keys to the northern Gulf, following a route that takes them through some of the south’s great fishing ports. Their arrival off Panama City, then Destin and eventually Pensacola, is good news for Mississippi fishermen.
“About three weeks after we start seeing online reports of fish in Destin, we get them here,” said Capt. Earl. “They like to get on the shallow bars of our barrier islands, like Ship or Horn, and even Chandeleur to the west.
“That’s where the big sow females come to spawn. And when they get on the bars, the best way to get them is to chum. After the spawn, they move to deeper water and to wrecks and oil rigs.”
In Florida, where the water is a heck of a lot more clear, charter fishermen sight fish for the big brown gamefish.
“You see a lot of the charter boats with flying bridges moving slowly up and down the beaches about 300 or 400 yards out,” McDaniel said. “They’re looking for cobia. They can spot them and then cast at them.
“We can’t do that here, even when the water is at its clearest. So we chum.”
A day of chumming always begins with fishing for bait. For us that meant fishing a shallow shoal just north of Deer Island south of Biloxi.
Capt. Earl always carries a small container of bait shrimp to use with light tackle to catch white trout, ground mullet and catfish, which are kept alive in an aerated tank. Cobia, you see, like live bait. Sharks will hit anything, but also like the looks of a swimming bait.
“Cobia like them all, as long as they are alive, but I seem to do best with ground mullet,” he said. “You want to fill the livewell with as many live baitfish as you can get. The problem is, we catch a lot of ground mullet and to tell you the truth, it’s one of the tastiest fish we’ve got down here. I love it, and so do many of my fishing partners and clients. We’re always torn over whether we should keep them to eat, or use them for bait.
“We usually keep the ones we consider too big for bait ... and it’s funny that we always seem to have a lot of big ones.”
Hardhead catfish, perhaps the most common of salt water critters, are considered a nuisance fish by most fishermen. Not Capt. Earl.
“Cobia like them a lot,” he said. “You get about a 8- or 9-inch hardhead, you’ve got a good bait. They’re tough, so they stay alive good on the hook when you use them for bait. I do clip the fins and barbs so that they can’t hurt me when I have to get them out of the livewell.”
After filling the baitwell with an ensemble of the aforementioned fish, Capt. Earl cranked the engine, turned the Whipasnapa about and headed south into the Gulf.
“We’re going to fish at the Isle of Capri,” he said. “It’s an old island now underwater just north of the west tip of Horn Island and east of Ship. It’s due south of the mouth of Biloxi Bay, about 10 miles.
“You can find it on some old maps. It used to be an island, but now it’s completely submerged and is a perfect place to fish. It’s surrounded by deeper water but on top of the island, the depth is anywhere from 4½ to 6 feet.”
“Fish like to feed on shallow flats and big cobia are attracted to those areas to spawn, too,” Capt. Earl said. “When it’s right, usually starting in late April and continuing through mid May, the cobia will gather on Capri and also on the shallow bars of Horn, Ship and Chandeleur.
Our captain bemoaned the fact that the numbers of giant cobia that frequent the bars have fallen drastically since the mid ‘90s.
“It was nothing to come out here and have four or five hook ups a day with big cobia, I mean big cobia,” Capt. Earl said. “I was kind of hoping that Hurricane Katrina (2005) would help regenerate it, but it never did. But, still, if you want to target great big giant sow cobia, this is the ticket.”
After anchoring on the Isle of Capri, the first step was establishing the chum slick in the current. A good one can extend a mile off the back of the boat, and can gag anyone not used to the stink.
The main ingredient is dead fish, especially the very smelly pogy. McDaniel is serious about his chumming, using one commercial chum device, another homemade one and then a croaker sack that stays attached to the boat. He hammers on the sack with an old axe handle.
“Got to have pogys,” said Capt. Earl, referring to the small but extremely oily fish. “They put out the best slick.”
Other species include croakers, hardhead catfish and white trout, plus many others that would take a biologist to identify. Bait shops and fish houses along the coast sell the trash fish in frozen blocks, the result of by-catches of commercial fishermen. In addition to chumming it into fine pieces and oil, Capt. Earl uses a big knife to cut it into pieces to be tossed behind the boat.
“I also like to sweeten the slick a bit with some fish oil,” he said. “But it’s very expensive so I’ve come up with a way to stretch it. I’ve been getting some of the vegetable oil that the commercial fish houses use to fry fish, shrimp and oysters. I add some fish oil to it and then pour it into my chum slick.”
The result is a long slick that forms behind the boat and, hopefully, will get the attention of any predator fish that swims through it.
“Then, they follow it right up to the boat, which brings them right through our baits.”
Finally, the fishing
Once the slick was developing, and it didn’t take long for the oily film to stretch out of sight, Capt. Earl began setting out the live baits. He used six rods, with three fixed to work on the surface under balloons and three to fish on the bottom.
“You need both, because a lot of time, cobia will stay down,” Capt. Earl said. “But, for the most part they are surface feeders and they are curious. I’ve seen them swim through the baits and actually attack the chum bag. They’re just so curious.”
The long line is always a surface bait that floats under a balloon (lightly inflated and tied to the line a few feet from the hook), and is usually set from 75 to 100 yards away from the boat. A balloon is used because it deflates during the fight.
“The balloon keeps the bait at the surface, but unlike a big cork, the balloon doesn’t create drag once the fish is on,” Capt. Earl said. “It pops.”
Other lines are staggered at various distances behind the boat. Once placed, the long wait begins. Hours of sitting, and catching a few naps, until the lull is interrupted by a single click from a reel.
Then another click.
Then a third.