Capt. Jimmy Trammell once tagged him as one of the best cobia fishermen around — and today at age 76 Capt. Tommy Browning is still in the hunt for that elusive ling.
Just last week, Capt. Browning climbed up in the tower of his boat Finest Kind on more than one occasion to try and spot a cobia to enter in one of the local tournaments.
"This used to be it ... cobia fishing," Browning told The Log, while sitting at the helm of his boat. "Nobody would beat me out here. I'd go from daylight to dark.”
The Cobia Chronicles
The biggest cobia he's ever landed was a 111-pounder about seven years ago. However, Browning said he's pulled in five over 100 pounds, "and I've caught a lot of 90-pounders."
"The most I ever caught was 38 in one day, and I could have caught more," he said. "We just quit. We were back at the docks by 2 o'clock ... most of them were 40 to 50 pounders. We had tails sticking out everywhere."
Cobia were a lot more plentiful — and larger — about 40 years ago. Browning remembers one day they were fishing offshore near Navarre when they spotted a “solid line” of cobia.
Today it's a different story.
"This cobia fishing is nothing compared to what it used to be," Browning said. "Used to see big bunches of them. I've seen as many as 100 in one bunch," he said.
"There's a lot of pressure on them," Browning said, noting a lot more people started fishing for them because of the price they bring at market. "And you never had as many tournaments as you have nowadays."
Just in Destin alone this year, there were at least six cobia tournaments. Plus the price of cobia at the local seafood market is going for $16.95 a pound.
Nevertheless, Browning still enjoys cobia fishing and the best conditions include a southeast wind.
"You've got to get that water back on the beach," he said.
As for the best bait, he uses lures and eels. "It seems like the eel gets the fish down wind of you, but you've got to get it just right," he said.
Other Fish and Fish tales
Cobia is not the only fish that has lured in Capt. Browning during his more than a half-century on the water.
"I like this, but sailfishing and billfishing was my favorite," he said.
"We would have schools of sailfish out there and before you'd get the third line out there you'd have a sailfish on, it was great fishing," Browning said. The best fishing was about 20 to 22 miles out at the Southwest Edge.
"Sometimes you'd get two or three on at one time," Browning said.
One day he and Capt. Bruce Marler were fishing and they caught three — two on the same line.
"I looked out there at the line and one fish jumped and the other one jumped," he said. "I knew we had two on for sure, but I didn't know we had three on."
Browning explained that where the line went through the water, it created a foam trail. "Another billfish ran up there and hit that line where it was foaming and when it did, it just wrapped around its bill," he said. The fish started jumping.
"We reeled him in and got the line off of him, tagged him and released him," while the other fish they kept and had it mounted.
As for the tagged fish, "Chubby Destin's wife caught it seven days later right out in the same area," Browning said.
"I was kidding Chubby: ‘That fish didn't fight much because we done caught him.’ "
The biggest billfish Browning and crew ever landed was in 2001.
Fishing in the Bay Point Offshore Tournament, they pulled in a 1,046-pound blue marlin that still holds the Florida record.
Browning said they were fishing due south of Destin near a fishing hole called the Squiggles.
"It didn't do much jumping at all," he said of the fish that measured 131 inches long and 78 inches around the girth. "It went out there about 200 or 300 yards and broke the water, but that was the only jump we got out of it."
It took them about two hours and 15 minutes to land the billfish on 100-pound line.
Beginnings and boats
Browning, who was born in Kentucky, made the move to the Emerald Coast at age 7 when his dad was stationed at Eglin.
"I started working a long time ago," he said. "I was about 11."
"We didn't have many boats here. Some of us tied up on the other side of the bridge," he said, noting there were about seven boats in that area.
The first boat he ever ran was the Linda Ann, a 37-foot wood boat with a single Chrysler engine and a tank that held 35 gallons of gasoline. To go offshore they had to take along about four 5-gallon cans of fuel to add along the way.
His next boat was the Finest Kind.
"I've had three Finest Kinds," Browning said.
"This is the only fiberglass one I've had," he said, of the 55-footer that now sits in the slip at HarborWalk Marina.
As for the name, Browning said folks used to ask how he was doing and he'd say 'oh, the finest kind.'
"Chubby said if you ever get a boat, you need to name it ‘Finest Kind’ as much as you say it," Browning said.
Capt. Tommy Carter, who now runs the Blue Runner II, started out as a mate on that first Finest Kind alongside Browning.
"He was a tough taskmaster, but I learned a lot," Carter said. "I had to have every rod out and ready to go. He taught me right.
"He's one of the great charter fishermen," Carter said. "When you do it consistently, it's not just luck."
One of the most memorable trips Carter recalls fishing with Browning was the day they landed 17 wahoo and five white marlin — all in one day on a slow boat.
Today, Capt. Browning shares the helm of the Finest Kind with Capt. Dennis Kendricks.
This is Kendricks’ second year to work with Browning.
"He's very fair and pretty straight forward," said Kendricks, who takes the helm on occasion.
"You can't do anything for 50-plus years and not be good," Kendricks said. "And his records speak for his ability. It's definitley in his blood ... he loves it.”
And there are plenty of fish in Browning’s future.
"I've been fishing 65 years I'd say," said Browning. "And, shoot, as long as I feel good," he plans to keep fishing.