EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a 2006 profile that The Log’s Tina Harbuck wrote on Frank Helton.
Frank Helton once caught 27 cobia in one day.
And at age 74, Helton figures he’s caught thousands.
As a matter of fact, Helton recalls catching 782 in one year back when he used to keep records.
“There was a time you could look across the Gulf of Mexico and all you could see were cobia,” Helton said.
But those days are gone.
Helton has noticed a decrease in the last five years.
“But I don’t believe there is a shortage,” he said.
“Back in the mid-’80s there might have been 20 boats out there fishing for cobia, now there’s 200 boats,” Helton said. “There’s just more boats fishing.”
First cobia, and more
Helton caught his first cobia off Pensacola Beach in 1949. A junior in high school at Pensacola Catholic, Helton was on spring break and fooling around on the beach with friends pompano fishing.
He put about a 6-inch choffer on his 40-pound test line and tossed it out as far as he could, in hopes of landing a redfish.
He had put the rod in a sand spike and sometime later one of the girls noticed the fishing rod shaking.
“And for the next 35 minutes I had a battle on my hands,” he said.
Helton was running up and down the beach trying not to lose the fish on a reel that didn’t have any drag.
“I about burned my thumbs up,” he said.
To his surprise it wasn’t redfish or a pompano, it was a cobia.
“I had the fever right then and there,” Helton said. “I went from a freshwater fisherman to a saltwater fisherman over night.”
And for the next week, Helton missed school, but not because of blistered thumbs, but because of fishing at the Pensacola pier.
“I caught one off the pier that week,” he said, noting he got in trouble for skipping school. “But it was worth it.”
After high school, Helton joined the Coast Guard and lived in Massachusetts. During that time he played semi-pro football and baseball as well as work as a state trooper.
In high school he was a halfback, but in the Coast Guard he played quarterback.
As a state trooper, “I even had a chance to arrest one of the Kennedy’s,” he said, noting they got off with a ticket.
In 1963 Helton moved back to Pensacola and then to Fort Walton Beach in 1972.
“It seems like it was yesterday,” he said.
In those early days fishing off the Pensacola Pier in the 1970s, Helton said he caught 21 cobia in one day.
“There were more fish, than Van Kamp’s got beans,” he said.
After moving to Okaloosa County, Helton got himself a 14-foot boat with a 35 Chrysler outboard.
“I caught 27 fish in one day,” he said on that little boat that wasn’t but about 5-foot wide. “I had so many in the boat I was walking on ’em.
“My neighbors in those days used to love to see me come in in the afternoon,” Helton said, knowing he was going to have fish to give away.
Helton recalls a day when he and his son Mohammed (Mo) went out in the early 1990 fishing just past the El Matador on Okaloosa Island.
“We caught four or six in an hour,” he said.
He said that Wayne Fisher was fishing with Capt. Tommy Browning on the Finest Kind and was trying to get in touch with them, wanting to know where they were fishing.
Helton said he finally answered the radio and gave away his spot.
“In 30 minutes the Finest Kind was there along with five other boats,” he said, noting the Anastasia and Revielle.
“Tommy came in at 1:30 with 20 cobia,” Helton said. “I thought Wayne was going to go ballistic because they went in at 1:30, when they could have fished all day.”
Helton soon graduated from the 14-footer, to a 23-foot boat, to a 30-footer called the “Ididit” which he fished from 1984 to 1994.
In 1995 he bought a 36-footer and called it the “At Last”.
“It was a cobia catching monkey,” Helton said. He fished the At Last up until a couple of years ago.
Big and bigger
In 1995 Helton finally pulled in his first 100-pounder.
“I’ve seen a bunch of ’em,” he said. “But that one wanted a jig that day.”
Helton was fishing off Pensacola with Horace Osborne and Bill Montgomery and both had just put a cobia in the boat.
“I looked back over my shoulder and there she was,” he said. “It took one cast and she took it.”
Fishing just off the beach, Helton said it took him an hour and 45 minutes to haul in the cobia.
“It pulled me off the beach about two miles,” Helton said.
In the early 1970s, Helton won the Five Flags Fiesta Cobia Tournament with an 87.8-pounder he caught aboard his 14-foot boat.
“That was a humongous fish. It filled up the whole boat,” he said.
Another time Helton recalls landing a big cobia was during the spring of 1996.
“We caught 11 fish better than 80-pounds each in nine days,” he said. “And two were weighed more than 100 pounds.” Montgomery was fishing with him at the time.
“That pull,” Helton said.
“They’re a tough breed of fish and they’re the most unpredictable.
“Just when you think you’ve got’em figured out, they change — just like women.”
Nevertheless, Helton says you can usually count on cobia to be here the second and third week of April. And a lot of the time fishing is good right through May, he said.
“They don’t move as fast as you think they do,” Helton said.
“Cobia fishing is much harder today,” he said.
“In the mid-’80s you would see some fish, but they would be finicky and you’d say, we’ll catch them on the way back ... there is no ‘on the way back’ anymore.
Because there’s 20 boats behind ya,” Helton said.
Things to remember
“Seeing is the biggest thing,” Helton said pointing to his eyes.
Cobia fishing is usually done from a tower where you can look down and see the fish in the water.
“Relax, take it easy,” he said when trying to hook a fish.
“Not many can work a cobia jig like me and Mohammed,” he said. “I’ll tease a cobia with a jig. And when I know he wants it, I’ll let him have it.
“Stay calm ... I don’t ever get excited,” he said even when he has three or four cobia on, with rods in every rod holder on the boat.
However he did admit to going through four packs of cigarettes while fishing, noting that the winds blows off more than he gets puffs.
“Don’t try and gaff a green fish,” Helton advises. “When I gaff a fish he’s laying on his side,” he said noting he has worn the fish out.
Courtesy on the water is also important.
“It’s not like it used to be ... it’s dog eat dog with people cutting you off in these big money tournaments.”
Helton fished by himself up until the mid-’80s.
However guys that have fished with him as mates over the years are Rick Kosta, Scott Ande, Bill Montgomery, David Strong, Billy Callahan and Mike Williams.
“That’s one of the best group of guys I’ve met,” he said.
Others he has fished with include Tony Davis, Tommy Browning, William Frank Davis, Peter Wright and Charles Morgan.
“Tony Davis is the most excitable man in the world with a cobia rod in his hand,” Helton said. “He’s like a kid with a new toy.”
As for Morgan, “Out of all the people I’ve made friends with Charles is one of the best ... Charles is a human being who understands people,” Helton said. “And he’s got a heart.”
Helton docked his boat behind Harbor Docks for more than 20 years.
Legend lives in tournament
Today one of the biggest cobia tournaments in Destin bears the name — The Frank Helton “Living Legend” Crab Cruncher, scheduled for April 7-9 out of Harbor Docks.
“When he started this tournament in 1991, I guess he liked the way I fished,” Helton said.
Prior to taking on Helton’s name, the tournament was known as just the Crab Cruncher Tournament.
Helton won the tournament seven times with the last being in 1992.
“I made 18,000 bucks ... I thought I was a rich man,” he said. But then, last year’s winner in the Cruncher took home $105,000.”
Helton plans on fishing the cobia tournament this year with Capt. Todd Allen on the Big John.
“I plan on cobia fishing until I die,” Helton said. “But if I never catch another one ... I’ve caught my share.”