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Aug 24, 2012

Published 8/24/12 By Ben Raines, Press-Register

Robert Cunningham's new fishing book, "Chasing Records, an Angler's Quest," details two decades spent in pursuit of 57 fishing world records. Cunningham, a Mobile native, is now at the center of the BP oil spill litigation. The book, published by Skyhorse Publishing, is available at area bookstores. (Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing)

Robert Cunningham specializes in catching big fish on tiny lines. (Photo courtesy Robert Cunningham)

For as long as there have been high-pressure jobs, those in them have found ways to blow off steam.

Winston Churchill shook off the weight of defending the free world by rendering bucolic scenes in watercolor.

Herbert Hoover, eager to escape the stress of steering the nation into the Great Depression, routinely fled the capitol for a mountain stream in Virginia where he caught tiny brook trout as the economy crumbled.

Mobile's Robert Cunningham — on the trial team taking on BP, Transocean and Halliburton, and ranked as one of the nation's top lawyers by Lawdragon magazine — unwinds by setting world records. Lots of world records.

So far, Cunningham has notched 57 international world records for catching all manner of fish, from the lowly bluegill to gamefish like cobia and roosterfish.

He specializes in catching big fish on tiny lines, often as light as two-pound test, which means the line would break if you tried to lift a two-pound weight with it.

To get a feel for what he does, imagine using a reel spooled with line as wispy as a human hair to catch a fish that measured five feet long and weighed 73 pounds, a feat Cunningham accomplished in Orange Beach in 1999.

In a new book he authored, "Chasing Records, an Angler's Quest," Cunningham offers a peek into the piscatorial alter ego of one of the lead lawyers in the Deepwater Horizon litigation. Appointed to the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, Cunningham was the leader of the trial team for the BP trial in February of 2012. He was in New Orleans, preparing for an upcoming trial against Transocean, Halliburton, and other the companies that played roles in the BP disaster, when interviewed for this story.

"Chasing Records" serves as both an amusing journey into the depths of one angler's singular obsession and as a fisherman's love note to the Gulf Coast.

As a kid, Cunningham, who introduces himself as "Bobo" in conversation, spent Saturday mornings in the old Mobile courthouse watching his father plead cases in police court. When court was out of session, his father took him fishing.

"If you grew up in Mobile, you pretty much fished," Cunningham said. "My grandfather fished. My dad fished. All my uncles fished. It was the leading outdoor activity here. It was just part of growing up."

After graduating from high school, Cunningham joined the Marine Corps in 1965, just as the Vietnam War cranked up. He flew hundreds of combat missions as a helicopter pilot, including during the battle of Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive. Wounded during Tet, he earned both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. College and law school came after he returned home, and he joined his father's practice, Mobile's Cunningham Bounds law firm.

He caught the fever that would consume him for the next 20 years while on a tarpon fishing trip to Costa Rica in 1989. There he happened upon a copy of the International Game Fishing Association rulebook, which included a list of current world record fish.

Returning home to Alabama, Cunningham set out to break a world record, in this case for redfish caught on two-pound test. Within a year, after landing a 13-pound redfish on line about as strong as a piece of sewing thread, he was a record holder. He was also saddled with an obsession.

He likens the adrenaline rush of playing a record fish to landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, flying a helicopter into a hot zone, or waiting on a jury of 12 strangers to settle a million-dollar case.

He spent the next 20 years breaking records, and earned an amazing 11 world records in a single year. For every record he set, there were dozens of fish that got away, often after fights that lasted for hours. One world record fish was stolen from a cooler and eaten by a stray dog on a sparsely populated island in the Caribbean before the catch could be certified.

When he wasn't on the water, he was in the courtroom, winning millions of dollars in court for his clients, including a record $3.6 billion judgment for the state of Alabama against ExxonMobil.

But as soon as the gavel came down on a big case, Cunningham was back on the water. As the records accumulated, his version of fishing became ever more precise, for in the realm of world record catches, little things matter.

After a few potential record catches were rejected by the international body in charge of records because the line Cunningham used turned out to be stronger than what was advertised on the package, he began having the organization test the spools of line he bought before he put it on his reels.

After a record was rejected because a section of the monofilament connecting his fly line to his lure was too long, he began carefully measuring and tying up dozens of lines at home so no errors would be made on the boat.

Sometimes, he fished in the open Gulf from the pontoon of his floatplane. Often, he spent days alone in a boat dozens of miles from shore.

"There was something appealing about being alone out on the Gulf for hour after hour," Cunningham writes in his book. "The Gulf is a wild place. Being out there is almost like being in a jungle where there are all kinds of exotic forms of life, and at any moment one of them can appear and surprise you."

He said last week that he found the solitude curative, but was often at a loss to explain it to friends, who thought it sounded monotonous and boring.

"I do a lot of thinking out there in addition to fishing. I think you can do that in the quiet of nature a lot better than you can anywhere else," Cunningham said last week. "My profession, you're going full speed an awful lot of the time. It's really nice to be alone, have time to think."

Asked why he liked to fish, Cunningham was briefly stumped.

"I don't know anything to say, but it is fun," he finally offered. "You've got to be outside to do it. You can't do it from a chair in your house. There's not really a better hobby than that."

He had an ulterior motive in writing his book, he said. He hopes to elevate the northern Gulf's reputation as a world class fishery, and counter the notion that Florida is "the center of the angling universe."

"I wanted to show that this part of the Gulf, the northern Gulf, is an incredible place to fish. I don't think enough of us have an opportunity to appreciate what a fantastic fishery it is, not just in the Gulf, but all the tributary rivers and the Mobile Delta," Cunningham said. "You do not have to travel to find great fishing. It's right at our doorstep. You can fish for a hundred different species and have a great time doing it."

When the BP well blew and images of a Gulf coated in oil were inescapable, Cunningham feared all would be lost.

"I felt sick. You know. Just sick. Like everybody, I hoped it would be capped quickly. That would have limited the damage so that it would not really have been that big a deal," Cunningham said. "I never dreamed the spill would continue as long as it did. Then you add to the oil the use of dispersants and all the questions raised by that issue. Everyone is wondering what's going to happen, especially guides and people who depend for their livelihood on the Gulf. You think of all them and you're really talking about a serious situation."

Meanwhile, in between court dates and trips to London to depose witnesses, Cunningham is sneaking in some fishing off Venice, La., with a famed tarpon guide named Capt. Coon Schouest.

A few years ago fishing aboard Coon's boat, he caught a tarpon that ranks as the Louisiana state fly rod record. What he's after now is a tarpon better than 200 pounds, something he's been chasing for more than a decade.

"I've been five days and hooked one fish. But that's the way it is when you're chasing records."

The book is available at McCoy Outdoor Co., in Mobile, Books a Million, Page and Palette and the Church Mouse in Fairhope, Just Books in Gulf Shores, Bienville Books, Quint's Sporting Goods, and through online retailers such as Amazon.

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