Note: Bobby Cleveland covered the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo as a reporter for nearly 25 years. This is the fifth in a series of his favorite stories as the 66th annual event is held this weekend.
It wasn’t so much that Bobby Brown’s shrug wasn’t believable as it was just how bad the two holes in his right thigh actually looked at the 53rd Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.
About three inches apart in the front of his leg, both were fiery red on top and sitting on mounds of swollen flesh that appeared to be growing by the minute. Two little volcanoes were what they looked like.
“Now don’t go making this out to be any big deal,” said Brown, or was it the beer that was talking. “It looks a lot worse than it really was. Really.”
It looked gruesome, and Brown’s description of how he came to have the two holes was downright sickening. It had to have hurt, and hurt horribly, because everyone who heard him tell the story cringed with every painful detail. We listened, not wanting to look down at the holes in his leg, but we kept looking just the same.
The top hole was the entry wound, where a 10/0 (ten/ought, which denotes the size of a very big piece of tackle) hook had pieced his skin. The other was the exit, where the hook’s barbed point had found its way back out.
That Brown had to endure such a hook wound 50 miles off shore was bad enough, but it got worse. At the time the sharp piece of metal went into and back out off his leg, there was a 65-pound, 11-ounce cobia attached to it.
A very upset 65-pound, 11-ounce cobia, it should be noted.
For the uninformed, cobia (a.k.a. lemonfish or ling) is a prized game fish in the Gulf of Mexico, treasured as much for its flavor when grilled as for its rage, which doesn’t end when one is reeled to the boat.
No, a cobia’s real show begins when it is hoisted over the side and dropped on the back deck of a boat. They go berserk, jumping, rolling and slapping the floor with a constant flapping of its powerful tail. Some of the fanciest footwork you’ll ever see is a group of fishermen dancing out of the way of an angry cobia that has just been pulled from its salty home, dumped on a deck and introduced to fresh air.
One the size of Brown’s fish can break a man’s leg and tear up tackle with its death roll, if the captain or deckhand or somebody doesn’t first whack it over the head with a small baseball bat made for just such a purpose. Two or three good swats to the cranium will usually anesthetize a cobia enough to be handled.
In Brown’s situation, which became quite dire, no such whacking of the head was possible. He just had to grit his teeth that June 30, 2001.
Brown, who gave his age as between 35 and 45, was fishing with friend Brian Welch, also of Long Beach, when Brown hooked a big cobia near an oil rig. He fought it to submission and pulled it alongside the boat. Welch grabbed the gaff and was ready.
“I gaffed the fish and got ready to lift the fish up in the boat,” Welch said. “It was bigger than I thought and still had some life, so when I got him up, I couldn’t get him high enough to get over the side of the boat.”
Brown realized that Welch was about to drop the fish, gaff and all, in the Gulf and went into action.
“I put down the rod and reached over and grabbed the gaff and helped him pull in the fish,” Brown said. “We got him over the side and then just dropped him on the deck of the boat. It happened when he was on the way down.”
What happened was this: On the way to the deck, as it passed in front of Brown, the fish swung its head and brushed the big man’s thigh. And it snagged him.
“The barbed hook point was obviously sticking out of its lip and it got me,” Brown said, wincing in pain as he remembered the moment. “I felt this sharp, burning, stabbing pain and then a tug, so I looked down and could see both ends of the hook, the eye and the barb, sticking out of my leg, one out of each hole.”
That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that the hook had pulled free of the cobia’s lips and the wire leader was now being pulled through the hole in the fish’s mouth.
Imagine Brown’s predictament: A hook was through his leg and there was a very unhappy, very disturbed and very active cobia pulling hard against the skin as it flopped around on the deck.
Welch said he doesn’t remember the amount of screaming or cussing that went on, but it was enough he said that he realized something had to be done.
“I threw the gaff down and just dove on the fish and tackled him,” he said. “I bear-hugged him and tried to keep him from doing all that thrashing around that they do because I could see the hook being pulled in his leg.”
Brown said his buddy’s decisive action caught him by surprise.
“I couldn’t believe it, but he jumped down on that fish and got his arms somehow around it and held him tight enough to keep him still,” Brown said. “That’s a pal. I think he went through a worse ordeal than I did.”
With the fish subdued, Brown was able to get some slack and cut the line.
“That immediately eased the pain,” he said. “You can’t imagine the difference between just being hooked and being hooked with a 63-pound fish pulling against it. It was easy enough then just to clip the hook with wire cutters and pull the hook out backward.
“Then it was time for some painkiller,” Brown added, toasting the end of his tale with a cold can of beer. “Here’s to sharp hooks ... It’s the dull ones that can hurt you. They won’t go all the way through so you can cut them and get them out.”