It's time for cobia fishing throughout much of Florida as the big, dark, hard-fighting fish migrate along the state's coasts.
The pair of anglers stood side-by-side on the boat, heavy spinning rods in hand while hanging on tightly to a bow rail. A serious south wind was blowing, pushing frothy 3-foot waves hard into the white sand beaches of Pensacola. The 50-foot boat cruised parallel to the surf, and with a sideways pushing sea, the deep-V hull rocked like a hammock in a hurricane.
Cobia were the target, and the crew was intense. With several local big dollar cobia fishing tournaments underway, and some heavy fish reported in the vicinity, everyone was dead serious in the fishing quest.
There were two ready-to-cast anglers standing at the bow, with two crewmembers running the boat from far atop a tall tower, and two more anglers hanging from the tower beneath the caption. Everyone had a cobia-rigged rod and reel, either in hand or sitting nearby. In all, nearly a dozen sets of eyes scanned the Gulf, but the fish were slow in showing.
"We've had a late spring, and morning water temperature has been cool," said the captain. "I really don't expect to see much until this afternoon when the surface water temperature rises well into the 60s. Then we can make up fast for slow, early fishing. It really makes most sense not to even be out in the Gulf until the afternoon. But you never know when cobia might show because they're so unpredictable. And you sure can't catch 'em sitting at the dock."
It was a spring full moon, a choice time according to anglers who have spent years of their lives chasing the giant fish along Florida beaches. There is plenty about these fish that no one understands, but when the surface water temperature warms into the 60s in spring, with a full moon, fish seem to move from offshore to the beaches.
Anglers see a lot of deep-water squirrelfish in cobia stomachs early in the season, so it would seem those fish were living offshore and suddenly moved inshore, presumably to spawn. Later in the season, there are "beach run" fish moving from east to west. These fish seem to be a different stock of cobia, certainly different from the ones earlier in the year starting in April.
Many anglers believe in the early season, when the water is cool in mornings, cobia are deep. But as the sun heats the water, cobia rise in the water column, until they cruise just beneath the surface and can be seen by anglers who cast baits, lures and flies to them.
This often happens at mid-day, but enough cobia are seen and caught in early mornings (especially near inlet buoys, tide rips and surface-cruising turtles) that serious cobia anglers are on the water as long as possible — usually from dawn to dusk.
Anglers often see whole schools of cobia riding south-to-north waves as they "surf" toward beaches. Those first fish are often aggressive, too, and hit almost any bait or lure tossed their way. These fish usually haven't been pressured much, so if not spooked, can be caught with ease.
Of course, the Panhandle of Florida isn't the only spot in the Sunshine State offering great cobia fishing.
"Mantas migrate near the beach, and cobia saddle along them to feast on crabs, shrimp and baitfish washed up by the flapping wings of gentle-swimming mantas," said Joel Brandenburg, Apollo Beach guide. "An oversize manta is impressive, with a wingspan up to 15 feet. It also throws a large shadow in clear water, which cobia seem to like as the Florida sun shines down bright. Cobia track mantas, and can be found behind them, beside them and often under them. Thus any time a manta is spotted, cobia may be present and casts should be made to the moving, oversize rays."
Water temperature is the key to the manta-cobia run, with 68 to 70 degrees seeming to be the magic numbers for good action. Along the ocean side of the Florida Keys is Hawk Channel, and it's a great and well-known spot for early season cobia sight fishing, particularly around Marathon and Long Key out to depths of 25 feet. Like cobia-ray fishing everywhere, anglers motor around likely areas until they spot rays and then, as quietly as possible, they stalk the ray from the rear until they move into casting range.
Often cobia are seen with rays, but not always. When in doubt, cast anyway, repeatedly, in fact, using different lures and baits.
In many regions of Florida, rays are spotted near the surface. But in the ultra-clear water of the Florida Keys, especially in Hawk Channel, rays often are seen deep, with cobia in tow. Also in the Keys, smaller spotted eagle rays are common, and cobia track them, too. In fact, never overlook a ray of any kind for cobia, and note sea turtles at the surface, too, as cobia can be found around them, but be very careful if casting near a sea turtle.
Anglers looking for rays and cobia are best served with some type of tower or platform raised above the boat deck, which allows for long-range viewing, and a better angle for spotting fish deep. White-sand channel edges are choice locations for spotting rays in the Keys. For deep rays and fish, jigs do well, with 1-ounce models good, and sometimes 3-ounce jigs are needed. Live pinfish or other baits also may be productive for spooky or reluctant cobia.
"Although rays and cobia are most easily spotted when the sun is high (be sure to wear quality polarized sunglasses and a brimmed cap), many anglers are on the water at daybreak," said long-time cobia angler Eddie Smith of Jacksonville. "Sometimes when it's calm, rays near the surface cut the water with their wing tips, which are clearly seen from many yards away. Manta wing tips are so large they often are mistaken for shark dorsal fins when they knife the surface."
Rays can also leap out of the water, which is a major tip-off to their locations, as their white underside can be seen from a long distance.
Once a ray is spotted the fun begins. It's a team effort, with a caster or two in the bow and the captain at the helm. It's a delicate dance not to get too close too fast, so as not to spook the ray, which can dive deep and end the show. Once within range of the ray, fire away with lures or baits.
Long casts are in order to keep spooked rays and fish to a minimum, and the more pressure on the targets the more skittish they become. Be ready for long-range, accurate casting. Many veterans like medium-action spinning gear, rods 7 to even 8 feet long with a fast tip, but plenty of muscle in the butt. Fine-diameter braided line facilitates distance casting.
Cobia Fishing From Piers
Cobia fishing from long piers jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico has a long and rich history, and some spectacular action for giant cobia have been documented over the years.
Cobia often cruise just outside beach breakers, and anglers who stand watching and waiting on piers sometimes are richly rewarded by casting hefty jigs to fish, which fight long and well against shore-bound anglers.
Timing is everything, with the best action happening during the peak of the spring cobia run. But cobia don't make a mass run for a week or so, and the fishing is over. Rather, pods of migrating fish push along the beach for a week or so, with pauses or gaps in the run, followed by another flurry as more fish move through. It can last for weeks.
There also is a fall run, though not as strong. But it's still worth looking for in September and October.
Over the years this part of Panhandle Florida has been battered by strong hurricanes, and many piers have been destroyed. Most have plans for being rebuilt, or are in some phase of reconstruction.
Two good ones that are still in top shape and offer anglers ample opportunity for a realistic chance of catching a cobia are the 1,471-foot long Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier (850-934-7200) and the 1,262-foot Okaloosa County Pier (850-244-1023) in Ft. Walton Beach. — Bob McNally
Although many anglers prefer jigs or natural baits, large chugger plugs or oversize floating-diving lures can be best, and perhaps also the most fun to use. With a surface lure or floater-diver, a long cast can be made well ahead of a cruising ray anglers are tracking from the boat. The lure rests on the ocean as the ray closes, then when it's directly below the lure, action is imparted.
Even when no cobia are seen around a ray, a chugging plug can draw fish instantly top-side, where an explosion on the lure can rattle nerves and rock the rod hand. Floating-diving lures can be used the same way, and sometimes draw strikes when plugs won't. When cobia are hanging tight to a manta ray's back, a floating-diving plug that suddenly zips down into their midst is a sight to behold. The fish seem so startled that a plug has suddenly shown in their posse, that it's a little humorous as they rush the plug from all sides.
If two anglers are casting, it's a good idea for one to use a plug, the other a jig or natural bait. This covers the water column, and appeals to the fickle whims of big cobia.
Fly rod poppers and streamers can be great for cobia, if a proficient caster. The longer the cast the least likely of spooking fish from a boat.
"A hooked cobia invariably tries to return to a ray, and perhaps other fish in a school," said Danny Patrick, a lifelong northeast Florida angler. "For this reason wise cobia anglers modify hooks on chugging and diving plugs. Trebles are removed, and only a single rear hook is fitted to a lure. This is to prevent a lure from barbing a ray, or even another cobia, when a hooked fish returns to its moving home base."
Like most marine fish in Florida, there are state limits for cobia harvest, with a 33-inch minimum length (fork of tail to nose) and one fish per person, per day, no more than six fish per boat. But to maintain great Florida fishing for this outstanding gamefish, these limits are welcomed by most folks.