Fishing For A Cobia Dinner

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

January 15, 1995|By ROB KASPER

I thought I had tasted every kind of fish that swims in the Chesapeake Bay. Then in a Richmond restaurant called the Frog and the Redneck, I met a fish called cobia.

It was grilled and topped with capers and tomatoes. It was magnificent.

I figured it was one of those flying fish, a fish that the restaurant had flown in, at major expense, from some distant clime.

But chef Jimmy Snead, the self-proclaimed "redneck" of his restaurant's name, said cobia was a local. By the way, the "Frog" in the restaurant name refers to Jean-Louis Palladin, the Washington, D.C., chef who is a friend and former mentor of Snead.

Snead, whose talents as a storyteller rival his considerable skills as a chef, told me the tale of how he was introduced to the fish. Several years ago he opened a restaurant in Urbanna, Va., where the Rappahannock River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. He put the word out to local watermen that he was interested in buying virtually any kind of fish they caught. "My contact with the fishermen was a guy named Bunk," Snead said.

"Just Bunk."

"One day Bunk said to me: 'They caught one of them cobias, you want it?'

"So I asked Bunk: 'Do you eat it?' "

"And Bunk told me: 'Sure I do, it is real good eatin'.' "

Thanks to Bunk's recommendation, the chef cooked the fish he now calls his favorite. "It is the only fish I know that tastes as rich, as buttery, as swordfish," Snead said. "When you cook it," he added, "the texture of cobia is like dolphin. You turn your fork at an angle and press it down through a piece and it will flake."

Another thing cobia has got going for it, Snead said, is its price. It sells for $2.65 to $3.25 a pound wholesale, which is close to half of the price of swordfish, Snead said.

Delicious, local and cheap. It sounded like my kind of fish. I was all set to rush out to my local fishmonger for a fillet of cobia when Snead told me the drawbacks of being a member of the fish's fan club.

First of all, it rarely shows up in seafood markets. Cobia is not plentiful. Rather than hanging out in groups, cobia hangs out in pairs. That means a big catch of cobia is a couple of fish. Fishermen have to catch them, one at time, on baited lines.

nTC Another drawback is you buy the whole fish, not parts of it. Snead said the ones he buys range from 20 to 60 pounds. Coping with a fish that size is not a problem for restaurants, but it is not something most folks are prepared to do in their kitchen.

It began to come clear to me that if I wanted to feast on cobia I was going to have to find one in a restaurant or catch one myself.

When I got back to Maryland, I tried the restaurant route. I got a nibble at O'Leary's in Annapolis. Mike Fritz, one of the restaurant managers, told me he often had cobia on the menu. He had planned to have it that very evening, he said, but his plans went awry when the restaurant's cobia connection reported the fishing boats working off the Carolina coast that day had returned with nary a cobia in their holds. Apparently, while cobia can be found in the Chesapeake during warm weather, the fish heads to the warmer Carolina waters when the weather turns cold.

"Cobia is a hit-or-miss fish," Fritz explained. "Some days the fisherman will get one. Some days he won't."

I also began investigating how to catch a cobia. I read about their habits -- how they bask around flotsam and have a weakness for bluefish and eels. I learned their scientific name, Rachycentron canadum. I learned that they have a very hard nose, a flat head and somewhat resemble a shark. Over and over I was told that they are tricky to catch.

Instead of chomping on their food, cobia eat at a measured pace. First they nibble on the bait, as if it were an appetizer. Then they take bigger bites, like diners working on the salad course. Then they chomp.

Bill Sieling told me this, although not in those exact words. Sieling, who heads the seafood marketing efforts for Maryland's Department of Agriculture, recounted how he had caught a cobia a few years ago while on a boat out in the Atlantic.

It was "lazy man's fishing," Sieling said. "You put bait fish on the hooks, drop them down to the bottom, then you eat cheese and drink beer while you wait."

As the fishermen waited they listened to the clickers on their fishing reels, he said. If a reel went "click" it meant the cobia was just nibbling. A "click, click" meant the fish was interested. A rapid "click, click, click" was the signal for the fisherman to pick up the rod and try to bring the cobia in.

Like most good fish stories it whetted my appetite. It made me want to get out on a boat in the bay this summer and catch cobia. The other day I looked up the record for the biggest cobia caught in the Chesapeake Bay: 97 pounds, 12 ounces. That is a lot of supper. Thoughts of catching a meal that big keeps me going this winter.

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