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An impossible dream... Or, is it?
As an outdoors writer/photographer I certainly get my share of chances to go on some incredible fishing excursions. While I rarely pick up a rod when on assignment, I've met, interviewed and learned much from some of the best interior, coastal and offshore anglers in the country. A great deal of my time is spent traveling to tiny fishing villages, living in motels, rustic camps or lodges, and on the water in every kind of vessel imaginable, from kayaks to palatial sportfishing yachts..
A recent invite to target cobia and amberjack interested me greatly. I've always been fascinated by lemonfish, those wonderfully neurotic creatures that pop up to visit from time to time. There's nothing more entertaining than watching the sheer pandemonium that ensues on board as anglers lunge for any rods and reel within reach. The mannerisms of this particular species are so vastly different than what we have come to accept as normal behavior from other fish.
I also have grown to love the mystery of targeting big snapper, amberjack and grouper at the countless rigs, wrecks and reefs that are scattered across the northern Gulf. I'm always amazed at how these reef dwellers have mastered the art of using the structure where they live to cut lines and evade capture. Just about anyone can catch a snapper. But trophy reef anglers know that subduing the big ones is much more of a challenge and involves more finesse and technique than people realize.
What was so intriguing about this trip was the schedule proposed by my hosts. The plan was to target these fish in parts of four states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and part of the Florida Panhandle. The catch was that we would do it all in a single day.
"Impossible," I thought to myself. "There's absolutely no way."
Over the next two days I began to realize that this style of extreme recreational sport fishing could be common in the next decade.
The call came from Rimmer Covington, a Pass Christian, Mississippi native. I've known Covington since he was a wide-eyed 16 year-old deckhand working for Capt. Peace Marvel in Venice, Louisiana. Even back then, young Rimmer worked like a seasoned veteran, after spending his childhood chasing billfish with his father and others with the legendary New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club. I remember telling Peace that this "kid" was going places.
Turns out I was right. Covington, now a 25 year-old captain, is making lasting impressions with many movers and shakers in the industry. Marvel saw something special in Covington, taking him under his wing and teaching him to become one of the best offshore anglers in the country. He was recently featured in a series of programs on ESPN2's Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe. Covington's television appearances led him to seminar circuits with the Saltwater Sportsman and he managed to pick up several major sponsorships and endorsement deals.
He's been approached by television interests but has declined in order to devote more time into his new business, the Mexican Gulf Fishing Company. He's always known the potential of the northern Gulf of Mexico. From seasonal runs of cobia and white marlin off the coasts of Florida and Alabama, to Mississippi's snapper and grouper fishery to monster swordfish and yellowfin tuna found off the Louisiana coast.
He has long known that Gulf Coast residents are blessed with what is perhaps one of the most diverse and prolific fisheries in the world. With countless species that live in many different environs, the problem can be where to go and what to fish for. Charter captains have historically had to select one or perhaps two species that can be caught relatively close to their ports "in their waters."
But Covington's dream was to do something so vastly different that it would revolutionize the offshore charter fishing industry. If he did not have to abide by these regional boundaries, he was certain that he could put clients on virtually any species they wanted, no matter where those fish were. Theoretically, the problems he faced were time and space, and the fact that there was not a feasible vessel on the market that would allow him to do access these remote areas and get home in a single day.
Covington extended an invitation to join him and two other hardcore veteran captains. They included his mentor, Marvel of Baton Rouge, and Capt. Scott Sullivan, a veritable cobia and reef fish scholar from Gulfport, Miss.
I recalled some of my conversations years earlier with Covington that usually began with, "What if "
"So you've finally figured out a way to do it?" I asked.
He never gave me a direct answer. I assumed he wanted me to see for myself.
"You know this is something I've always wanted to do," Covington said. "Get down here now and check this out."
I arrived at Covington's houseboat to see Marvel carrying an armload of shiny, gold Shimano Torsa reels seated on short, stubby rods. Spread across the kitchen table was boxes of bigheaded-skirted jigs, an ample supply of Mustad hooks, fluorocarbon leader, and other assorted tackle. From the stern of the houseboat I got my first glimpse of how Covington planned to accomplish his dream. My jaw dropped. Here was a brand new 39-foot SeaVee with a trio of 350-hp Yamaha outboards - the first $425,000 "bay boat" I'd ever seen.
Well, "bay boat" may be a stretch. But it was a center console, and I was literally in awe. I had never seen such a boat. This is probably because only about 12 have been produced since it was unveiled at this year's Miami Boat Show. Behind the console was a state-of-the-art electronics system with two Raymarine LCD monitors, radar - the works. It had precise charts, plotters, autopilot and computers with the ability to store and retrieve any information one may need. Within the database were priceless lists of underwater wrecks, and reefs that took years of blood, sweat and money to compile.
The three dimensional graphics of the fishfinders allows anglers to clearly identify structure, bait and toothy predators down to 1,000 feet below surface. It was a work of art - a thing of beauty. And Covington is the only licensed captain in the world who runs charters on this particular model.
He fired up the outboards and we quietly idled out of the harbor at Venice Marina. Minutes later we were cruising at 50 mph out of a pass off the Mississippi River and into the Chandeleur Sound. From there it was only 15 minutes to our first stop, Breton Island, the southernmost island in the Chandeleur chain. Many believe that lemonfish seem to be focused more on traveling in spring and early summer months. So one school of thought is that cobia don't relate to pronounced structure, such as oil and gas platform, until later in the summer and early fall. He suggested that we start chumming on the flats starting at Breton Island.
With two chum bags hanging over the gunwale we drifted and threw cut mullet hoping to snag a big shovelhead. After no signs of any cobia for an hour, we headed to the north, hitting several more landmasses along the barrier chain. At sunset we found ourselves somewhere between Cat and Ship islands, about 10 miles south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As the sun dropped behind the horizon we decided to head into Pass Christian, Mississippi. where we were scheduled to meet Sullivan, eat, rest and plan for the next day. As we arrived at the harbor of Shaggy's Restaurant and Marina we were greeted by group of onlookers who had never seen such a boat.
I was exhausted - too tired to debate or discuss fishing. But we somehow managed to do just that over the next several hours and a bottle of Jamaican rum. I head some amazing stories and wouldn't have believed them under normal circumstances. But these stories were not about a normal fish. They were about cobia.
One of the most frustrating moments that most lemonfish enthusiasts can relate to is when you cannot get one to take interest in any bait. This generally happens when the fish are within a few yards of the boat and this only compounds an angler's frustration.
Example: On a trip last fall, Marvel and Covington encountered a particularly finicky cobia that turned its head away from everything they had to offer. At the stern of the boat they casually snacked on one of those store-bought assorted vegetable trays with a sour cream dip in the middle. Covington happened to toss a baby carrot over the side and the cobia engulfed it without hesitation.
The two captains looked at each other and burst out in laughter.
"So I put a hook in one and threw it out," Marvel said. "Another cobia came up from behind the other one and ate it."
A few minutes later Covington placed the gaff in a lemonfish they estimated to be in the 75-pound class.
When the bottle of rum was dry and the last story told, we headed to a nearby beach bungalow for a few hours rest.
It seemed that no sooner that I'd closed my eyes the alarm clock rang. I threw on the cleanest T-shirt I could find, slammed down a Red Bull and met the group at Shaggy's. Covington punched in some coordinates and we idled out of the harbor. The boat took the three- to four-foot cross chops of the Mississippi Sound as well as any bi-hulled boat I'd ever fished. But the speeds we were able to reach gave us a clear advantage, allowing for more precious time to fish.
As the sun rose in the east we were nearing our first stop, somewhere off the coast of Pascagoula. We worked the rigs and a nearby shrimp boat, catching several bluefish and a barracuda. The action was good - but not good enough.
"Get the lines in - let's move," Covington said.
From this point we took an east-southeast course to an area somewhere 45 miles south of Mobile, Alabama. We found blue water, large mats of grass, commercial shrimp boats, and oil and gas platforms. We moved from structure to structure with no luck. But Covington went to his database of information and found a small, underfished wreck.
"I'm marking fish," he said. "Get some lines out."
Marvel frantically worked a Shimano jig in the 180-foot depths. Sullivan, meanwhile, dropped a live mullet with 12 ounces of weight. Marvel was first to strike gold.
"Fish on," he said. "I don't have a clue what it is."
He brought up a red snapper that was put on ice. Just after two other small ones were caught we decided to move on. We headed east to fish a group of rigs somewhere due south of Orange Beach, Ala. Once more Covington marked fish and baits went out. This time Sullivan hit big and his rod lurched forward.
"Big fish," Sullivan grunted. "Could be a cobia."
The fish seemed determined to head back into the maze of rusted steel, but Covington worked the trio of outboards. Sullivan gave Covington the okay when he felt the fish was safely out of harm's way.
"This is a big boy," Sullivan said, as he pumped and cranked. The fish stripped out another 75 yards of line as the fight turned into a standoff. Then, after a 15-minute bout, we could see the large silver outline of the fish below.
"Amberjack," Covington said. "I thought that's what it was."
The big fish was pulled to the surface then gaffed immediately. After two more amberjack were caught, Covington went west. In a little more than two hours we had almost traveled 100 miles. I had no clue where I was, so I asked Covington.
"We're right over this wreck," he said. "Look at the monitor."
He was right. I could clearly see the curved outline of an old hull nearly 400 feet below.
"I've got fish marked," he said. "Get the lines out."
Over the next 90 minutes we managed to catch two species of snapper, bluefish, an amberjack, a jack crevelle, a barracuda, and a grouper that was lost at the boat.
Our last stop was at a group of rigs to the east of Venice, We had essentially completed the circle, traveling more than 340 miles in a single day across parts of four states. I had no idea that this could be done.
But once again Covington proved me wrong. If you have a dream and work hard to get it, you can make it happen. And nothing - nothing is impossible.