Shallow Cobia In The Spring

It's the time of year to find these brown torpedoes cruising inshore flats and channels along the northern Gulf coast. And these tips should put some fish on the end of your line!

Warmer weather and rising water temperatures attract cobia to the shallows of the northern Gulf of Mexico this month as they begin their spring migration. Sight-casting to these big bruisers is popular among Gulf coast anglers and guides alike.

Capt. Brian Carter hooked this northern Gulf cobia by tossing a fly around a buoy marker.
Photo by Capt. Sonny Schindler.

A cobia may be spotted swimming leisurely alongside the boat. They may seem fickle and uninterested, but if enticed to take your bait, than hang on! Hooking into one of these big boys can cause chaos at the end of your line and in the boat!

The fish show up around mid-March to early April as the surf temperatures warm. Migrating cobia travel northward along the coast of Florida and then westward into Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It may be as late as May or June in the western Gulf before cobia show up. Water temperature is key, with 68 to 70 degrees ideal for the fish.

Research conducted by the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Mississippi indicated that cobia can be quite the travelers. One fish tagged off the Chandeleur Islands was recaptured nearly three years later over 1,300 miles away off the South Carolina coast. The fastest migration recorded was a cobia that traveled more than 700 miles in 46 days. That fish averaged over 15 miles per day!

Studies also showed that some cobia do not migrate at all. Many of the fish that winter in South Florida remain there year 'round. Some cobia also winter in the deeper waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, and then show up on the beaches to spawn.

Cobia, which also are referred to as lemonfish or ling, are fast growers. Some reach 20 inches in their first year. By age 2, the average length is about 35 inches, but they can reach 44 inches in two years! Females grow faster and bigger than the males. Research shows that the majority of cobia over 40 inches long are females.

Early in the season, the big cobia travel as singles or in small groups of up to three fish. A big cobia is 60 to 100 pounds. As the spring season progresses, the schools tend to get larger and the fish smaller, then averaging 20 to 30 pounds.

According to Capt. Pat Dineen, you don't fish for cobia: You hunt them. Captain Dineen guides the eastern end of the Gulf coast for cobia. He cruises sandbars and beaches scanning the water from atop his boat tower looking for the big brown fish. He will hunt for cobia from the first sandbar out to about a mile offshore.

The ideal condition for hunting cobia is a nice, sunny day with a south or southeast breeze and a little bit of a swell on the water. Since cobia are migrating east to west, they like to take advantage of an east wind and stay on top getting help from the current. This also aids anglers in being able to spot the fish.

A wind coming out of the west may force cobia to swim a little deeper so as not to fight the surface current that is going the opposite direction of its migration route. Having that slight swell provides anglers a "window" to see what's lying just beneath the water's surface.

Capt. Dineen recommended being ready with an assortment of baits. When he is scouting for cobia, he won't have a bait in the water until a fish is spotted, but he will have a rod rigged with bait -- usually a live eel -- and another rod rigged with a bucktail jig ready to throw. Cobia can be fussy about what they want to eat, and offering a selection may be necessary in getting one to bite.

"The more flavors you have, the better off you are," Capt. Dineen said.

A live eel is a good first option, but live pinfish, mangrove snapper and even mullet are also good choices. He tries one bait or jig at a time until he finds what the preference of the day is. The captain said he occasionally follows a single fish up the beach for miles throwing different offerings.

When using live bait, Capt. Dineen opts for medium to heavy spinning rods with 30-pound line and 40- to 50-pound leaders of a foot or two long. He prefers a J-hook, but does mention that others do well with circle hooks too.

He goes with bright, fluorescent colors when throwing a bucktail jig. Chartreuse, yellow, pink and sometimes white are good options.

Also, in the eastern portion of the Gulf, cobia are Capt. Brian Smith's favorite species to hunt. He looks for cobia around channel markers and has learned that multi-pronged markers are better than a single post. Also, wooden markers attract more fish than a steel beam.

He looks for "oddities" to attract the fish. A conical, floating nun-buoy may attract a cobia, as will a marker with debris at the base or ones placed at sharp dropoffs.

Capt. Smith uses stout gear. There is always the chance of hooking into a really big fish, and since cobia hang near obstructions, why take a chance of breaking off? When fishing an individual marker, Capt. Smith drifts live or imitation eels past it. If he has reason to believe one is a "better" marker, he may anchor the boat up current and put out some live or dead pinfish while throwing lures. In a good current, he may even chum to attract the fish.

On the western end of the Gulf, Capt. Sonny Schindler looks farther offshore for cobia. He likes to run the buoys on channels or looks along sandbars. He gets the fish interested with a chum line and said live bait is deadly. His assortment includes crabs, eels, pinfish, croakers and baby catfish. If fishing artificial lures, Capt. Schindler also recommended bright, fluorescent colors.

Capt. William Toney is another Gulf coast guide who uses a chum bag when anchoring in deep cuts. He wants to find 12- to 15-foot depths between two bars. He prefers an incoming tide when using this method and recommended pinfish, pigfish and ladyfish for live baits.

"A good technique is to fish one bait on the bottom and one under a float about 3 feet down," Capt. Toney noted.

For more sporting action with a medium weight spinning rod or even a fly rod, Capt. Toney cruises the flats working his way toward shore on an incoming tide, looking for stingrays. Cobia often cruise right on top of the ray looking for small crabs or baitfish that the ray spooks up. The captain said if you miss the first shot at such a fish, you can usually motor or pole ahead of the ray and get anothe

r chance. Capt. Toney also keeps a heavier rig on board for the occasional big boys.

For the lightweight action, the captain recommended a D.O.A. C.A.L. shad in glow with a 1/4-ounce chartreuse jighead. He said a black 8-inch Culprit worm is also a favorite. That freshwater bass lure is a good imitation of an eel, a choice food of cobia.

Cobia are great sport fish for fly-rodders, especially since they don't spook easily and you may get several shots at one. Capt. Tony suggested throwing Toad Flies or black Cockroach patterns.

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