By TIM KELLY
As fish stories go, this one is a whopper.
Joe Cunningham has been a fisherman his whole life. But he never envisioned what happened Sunday off the coast of Sea Isle City.
Out for a cruise in his boat “Relentless” with his wife Kelly and daughters Keira, 6, and Brynn, 8, Cunningham spotted the biggest cobia – a species of large fish – he had ever seen before.
“He wasn’t moving too fast. I swam out closer to where he was,” Cunningham said. “I got a good look at him and that’s when I shot him with my spear gun.”
The spear was on target, connecting on the right side of the fish about a third of the way between its head and tail. The result was a new state record of 74.5 pounds (pending paperwork and certification), according to the scale at Sea Isle Bait and Tackle.
The record did not come without a struggle, however. With the spear embedded in the fish, and attached to a long elastic band, the cobia – also known as black kingfish, lemonfish and black salmon, among other names – took Cunningham for a ride.
“He started diving forward and tried to pull me under,” Cunningham said.
The Sea Isle City resident said he was never frightened as the huge fish began towing him through the waters of the Wildwood Reef, a section of ocean three miles off Sea Isle.
“Was I scared? No. Was I uncomfortable and did I take in a few gulps of water? I’d have to say yes,” Cunningham noted.
Cunningham, 33, a master captain who has made his living on fishing boats for years, found himself in a tug-of-war with the fish, and was able to out-muscle it and pull it in.
Had the ride continued much longer and deeper into the sea, “then it would have been time to let go of the spear gun and cut my losses,” he said. “But thankfully that didn’t happen.”
“It was the largest fish I ever speared,” said Cunningham, whose boat and crew won the South Jersey Shark Fishing Tournament this year when they hauled in a 435-pound Thresher, contributing to his crew’s $88,000 in winnings.
At present, he said the prize cobia is in a giant cooler, waiting to be cut into filets. Cunningham estimated his catch could feed about 30 people.
“We’ll eat some and we’ll give some away,” he said.
The record is currently unofficial until a certified account and witness statements and other technicalities are filed with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. However, no problems are foreseen, Cunningham said.
He also plans on working with a taxidermist who will create a trophy model to commemorate the record catch.
Once the fish was hauled in, Cunningham was able to savor the moment.
“There was a whole lot of adrenaline pumping and a whole lot of excitement,” he said.
The catch also won’t hurt his business running fishing charters. After all, when the boat captain holds the state record, prospective customers might select his charter over competition with lesser credentials.
“Yep, I guess that’s true,” Cunningham said with a laugh.