Ripping Up Some Cobia

One secret to catching these fish in the spring is to target clashing currents. Here's how to use these current rips in the Gulf of Mexico to your advantage for some cobia action.

Properly fishing a current rip can put some hefty cobia in your boat in the spring months.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.

In many cases the fish suddenly appears startlingly near the boat. For a moment everyone aboard stares, amazed that something that large could get so close without being spotted sooner. The next reaction -- at least by the neophytes within the crew -- is to think, "Shark!"

Despite the resemblance a cobia may have to a shark, veteran anglers recognize the fish for what it is, and if any of the crew has managed to retain enough sense to make a cast, the fish may be hooked. That scenario is most likely if the cobia is encountered along an offshore current rip.

There are two major variables in targeting cobia -- finding a fish to cast at that has not been subjected to angling pressure and having the subsequent contest end in your favor. Along the northern Gulf coast, there is a factor that can minimize the variables of the first problem. It is created by opposing offshore currents that meet to form "rips." These phenomena attract cobia like magnets.

UNDERSTANDING RIPS

Rips are dynamic, moving away from and toward shore and forming, breaking up and reforming with the changes of the tide. For targeting cobia, those found in roughly 30 to 100 feet of water are of the most interest, though much deeper "blue-water" rips can also hold fish, especially during late spring.

There is a good reason why rips attract cobia. The clashing waters collect flotsam. Cobia love to hang around floating objects. This behavior is based on the fact that various forage species regularly seek protection beneath such debris. Therefore, a flotsam-laden rip is just like a cafeteria line for hungry cobia. You can be assured that any of these predators encountered in such a situation is there for the single purpose of eating. That's why rips make the "hooking" part of the cobia equation relatively certain.

In spite of this rule of thumb, however, some rips need not hold flotsam to attract cobia. Debris-free rips with good current and a sharp color change are definitely worth checking out and even more so if baitfish, shrimp or crabs are present. In fact, cobia are usually more easily spotted along barren rips than trashy ones. The latter tend to be foamy, which can mask the presence of the fish. (Continued)

Still, the best potential is usually around areas of rip-accumulated flotsam. The flotsam can be composed of natural material such as freshwater or saltwater grasses and logs, but may also be manmade objects.

RIP TACTICS

Once a promising rip has been located, you have to then decide how to best "run" it. Actually, you should be going only a little faster than dead slow when fishing the rip and moving in the direction where sub-surface visibility and the sun's glare are most favorable. Though swells or surface chop on your stern or quarters can influence the run too, the ability to see into the water takes priority.

Despite sounding like I'm advocating a departure from the rule just noted, when it is possible I prefer running a rip on its "dirty side." This allows me to spot fish in water that might have masked them had I been working the clear side. Cobia often patrol the edge of the dirtier water, so concentrating your search on the clear side can be a mistake. Besides, fish on that clear side are easy to spot, even from some distance. Ideally, you want to run along the dingier side, manipulating the circumstances as much as possible to see into the dirty water and depending on any fish along the far side to be easily seen.

TACKLE

Since this is basically open-water fishing, casting-style tackle is preferable over bottom-fishing gear or the heavy boat rods that are often associated with cobia. A suitable outfit can be made up of either spinning or bait-casting-type gear. The rod should be in the 6- to 6 1/2-foot range with plenty of butt-section strength and a quick tip for the short and accurate casts that are regularly required. The reel should have a good drag and capacity for around 200 yards of 20-pound-test monofilament line, though lighter line can be used in a pinch. In fact, one May morning trip took an interesting turn when a 45-pound cobia appeared near an inshore rip during an outing for speckled trout. We ended up taking that fish on a popping outfit and 14-pound line. That's a bit extreme, but it illustrates what is possible in a pinch.

To complete the rig, a 3-foot length of 50-pound fluorocarbon makes a good leader. Tie it directly to the line with an Albright knot. Finish out with a 1/2-ounce jighead featuring a stout 2/0 or 3/0 hook. Tip the hook with a cigar minnow, a 4- to 6-inch menhaden, or a similar-sized soft-plastic imitation.

JOINING THE BATTLE

Cast the setup about three feet ahead of the cobia and immediately begin a fairly rapid retrieve with short pumps, and it is a good bet you will get a bite!

In fact, you will likely see the fish take the bait. But do not try to set the hook based on what you are seeing. Rather, keep reeling until you feel the fish's weight and then give it two or three short sharp jabs. After that, just try to hold on!

RECORD COBIA

The largest certified cobia to be caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico weighed 130 pounds, 1 ounce. Peter McCollester, who was fishing out of a marina in the Florida Panhandle, took the fish on March 21, 1997.

 

Once the initial run has ended, begin to pump the fish back towards the boat. This is best done with the rod held low and stroked from about horizontal to a point perhaps 30 degrees higher. In other words, refrain from "high-sticking" the fish by holding the rod high and creating a big bow. Make that mistake and the cobia might whip you before you get the best of it!

If everything goes in your favor, the cobia eventually comes alongside the boat. Here it is paramount to be careful with the fish. These brown fish are quite prone to playing possum. Fall for that trick and bring a still "green" cobia into the boat and he surely will make a shambles out of the contents of your vessel, and may even injure you or your crew!

Unless you can turn the fish handily wi

th firm sideways pressure of the rod, he is still green. Be patient -- a lot of these fish are lost at this point by anglers attempting to gaff or net them prematurely. It is always best to drop the fish directly into an open ice chest, which should then be quickly closed. It is not a bad idea to then sit on the lid to prevent the fish from escaping the box. I once neglected to do that and had a rather large cobia climb out of the chest. It took an open-field tackle to keep it from clearing the gunwale. I ended up stinking of cobia slime, but I still had my fish!

Like all good things, cobia-packed rips come to an end. Currents change or quit entirely. But this does not necessarily mean an end to the fishing.

When a rip does wash out, if you encountered some fish as you ran it, you would be wise to make a long swing back down along its former path.

Another option occurs on days with small swells but very little surface chop. Flotsam that a vanished rip collected disperses over an area that widens as time passes. However, any bait -- and any lurking cobia -- are likely to remain near or beneath the spreading trash. Spotting the fish in this situation is a bit more difficult than it is when they are fairly concentrated along the rip. They may appear virtually anywhere, but I've had some great times in such a setting.

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