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Virginia's Best Combo Trips for Cobia & Red Drum

Virginia's Best Combo Trips for Cobia & Red Drum

Hooking either of these power and sporting saltwater game fish is a thrill. Doing battle with both on one outing takes the experience to an even higher level.

By Charles M. Coates

Virginia's Chesapeake Bay anglers enjoy a wealth of fishing opportunities during the month of June. There are so many sporting and tasty game fish species available in the bay this time of year that it's difficult to choose a favorite.

Flounder and spadefish are justifiably popular, and croaker and trout have their followers as well. But limit the choice to those species in the heavyweight division - fish likely to go 30 pounds or better - and the list is narrowed down to two. For reel-burning runs and muscle-testing power, no other inshore game fish can compete with cobia and red drum.

The best news for the Commonwealth's saltwater anglers is that they don't have to choose between these two species. Both can be found in good sizes and numbers, often in the same areas, and can be taken on the same tackle using the same baits. But while anglers fishing for one species can often stumble across the other, some basic knowledge of the habits of the two will increase the odds of doubling the fun.

Whether targeting one or both of these species, you'll want to prepare for some long, hard battles. Either spinning or baitcasting outfits will work fine as long as you don't skimp on quality. These fish make long horizontal runs, and you'll need a fast-taper rod with enough backbone to slow them down. Match the rod with a sturdy reel to handle an angry, hard-running fish that's likely to weigh well over 40 pounds.

The best setup for both cobia and red drum this time of year is a fishfinder rig with 20- to 40-pound test line attached to an 80- to 100-pound monofilament leader about 2 to 4 feet in length. Use a 5/0 to 8/0 hook for cut bait and a slightly smaller short-shank hook when using live bait. Bring along an assortment of sinkers from 5 to 10 ounces to handle varying degrees of tide and current.

Nice red drum can be found in the shallower Eastern Shore shoals north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-tunnel. Photo by Charlie Coates

Cobia begin to show up in the Chesapeake Bay in late May, with the best action taking place from mid-June through the summer. These are large fish, averaging 25 to 50 pounds, with a fair number of 70- to 100-pound specimens mixed in. In 2002, 217 citations were awarded for creeled cobia weighing 50 pounds or more, and another 272 release citations were earned for fish measuring at least 44 inches. Anglers are allowed to keep one fish, with a minimum size limit of 37 inches.


The most consistent action is found along the edges of shoals in the lower bay in water from 18 to 25 feet deep. Latimer Shoal, off the bay's Eastern Shore south of Cape Charles, is a perennial top producer of large cobia each year. Good fishing can be found along the entire shoal from the RN 16 buoy off Kiptopeke all the way down to the shoal's southern tip. Good numbers of trophy-sized cobia were caught in this area last year, including a new state record taken on July 7 that weighed a whopping 104 1/2 pounds. The record-breaking fish, which measured 72 inches, hit a bottom-fished piece of menhaden and took 45 minutes to land.

Other cobia hotspots on the eastern side of the bay include the Cabbage Patch north of buoy 16, the Inner Middle Ground Shoal north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and the area around the C-13 buoy. Good fishing is also available along both the bay and ocean sides of the bridge-tunnel complex.

The Western Shore boasts a number of productive locations for cobia during the early season as well. When the cobia first arrive in spring, they will be concentrated between the York and James rivers, with the area around Bluefish Rock off Hampton providing the lion's share of the action. Between Bluefish Rock and the shore, cobia can be found in relatively shallow water along structure such as ledges, humps and sloughs. Good numbers of cobia are taken close to shore just off Grandview Beach by anglers in small boats, and pier fishermen score on citation-sized fish off Grandview and Buckroe piers. Other Western Shore hotspots include the York Spit area and the mouth of Back River.

Cobia Tactics
Wherever you fish for cobia during late spring and early summer, the game plan is the same. While some fish are caught by drifting or trolling, bottom-fishing is by far the most productive method.

Using a good chart and depthfinder, locate a dropoff - usually the edge of a shoal - drop anchor and set up a chum slick. In addition to tossing out chum behind the boat, it's a good idea to tie off a container of chum that is weighted, so it's just off the bottom. A line fished near the chum bucket will often get lots of visitors. An IV bag or water bottle that drips menhaden oil or other attractant into the water can add further enticement.

Although many anglers find and catch cobia without the aid of chum, odds are in your favor if you go to the added expense and trouble. Most anglers will use menhaden - fresh if it's available - for both chum and cut bait, but live bait is sometimes more productive and often catches larger fish. A combination of cut and live bait will increase your chances of success. Menhaden, spot, mullet and eels are all effective live baits, and peeler crabs are high on the cobia's list of favorite foods.

Captain Frank Carver, who runs cobia trips out of Cape Charles during June and July each year, believes in using every tool at his disposal to gain an advantage. He chums and chunks with various baits, and he is a firm believer in using menhaden oil to attract fish.

"A lot of guys don't bother with oil, but I think it really makes a difference," he said. "You do have to monitor it to keep a slow, steady drip. Use too much and the rays and sharks will eat up your bait. I'll speed up the flow if the tide is running hard, though."

Once the chum slick is started, baits should be cast out at various distances from the boat. Live baits can be free-lined or fished on the bottom. Put the rods in holders and keep an eye on rod tips while waiting for a bite. The wait can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and it is likely to be longer if there's no moving tide. When the action does start, multiple hookups are not uncommon.

Carver also believes in checking his lines frequently for stolen baits or hooks fouled by grass, shells and other debris. This can be time-consuming for Carver, who fishes a dozen or more lines at a time, but he's convinced it's worth the trouble. "You won't catch many fish on fouled hooks," he said, "and you won't catch any on empty hooks."

Carver's attention to detail paid off for him last year, as he boated 55 cobia and 20 red drum during two weeks of fishing. Although he finds fish along the edges of a number of shoals throughout the lower eastern bay area, he's particularly fond of the waters around buoy 13, which is conveniently surrounded by such cobia and drum haunts as Latimer Shoal, Inner Middle Ground Shoal and Fisherman's Island.

When a strike is detected, it's important not to set the hook too soon. Give the cobia time to get the bait turned around in its mouth and to start moving off before setting the hook. Sometimes a cobia can be brought close to the boat without much of a fight, but its mood will inevitably change before it can be netted or gaffed. Never try to boat a cobia before it's tired out, as "green" cobia are well known for their ability to do considerable damage to boats and human body parts.

Cobia can often be seen cruising near the surface, so it's a good idea to have a bucktail or large spoon ready at all times. Casting becomes a more viable option around the middle of July, when cobia become more scattered and can often be seen just beneath the surface around buoys at the mouth of the bay. Anglers can enjoy excellent sport throughout the rest of the summer by "buoy hopping" - running along a line of buoys, sight-casting to visible fish with artificials or live bait.

Red drum begin to enter the bay earlier than cobia, usually by mid-April. The best fishing will be from May until the middle of July, peaking in mid-June. These hard-fighting fish, averaging 25 to 50 pounds, have recaptured the attention of saltwater anglers in the past four or five years. In 2002, nearly 400 release citations were awarded for reds measuring at least 44 inches. That number was up from 345 in 2001, but far below the 509 registered in 2000 and the record 694 in 1999.

Beginning this year, fishing for big red drum will be strictly a catch-and-release sport in Virginia, as the state imposes a slot limit of 18 to 26 inches and a creel limit of three per angler. In previous years, anglers were allowed five fish, with one allowed to exceed an 18- to 27-inch slot limit. This change was made to comply with an amendment of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's management plan that preserves spawning stocks and increases yield in the fishery.

"There's not a large overall population of red drum, but there are a couple of schools that are concentrated in one area," said Claude Bain, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. "If we kill these fish, we'll destroy their recovery."

The season's earliest catches of red drum usually occur around the southern end of the Eastern Shore along the shoals and flats near Magothy Bay, Smith Island and Fisherman's Island. Other top locations include Latimer and Inner Middle Ground shoals in the lower bay. Farther up the eastern side of the bay, good fishing is available off Parkers Island out of Onancock and in Tangier Sound.

Red Drum Tactics
Though also referred to as channel bass, that name is deceiving to anglers this time of year. While red drum inhabit the same shoals as cobia, they're usually found farther up on the shoal rather than on the edge. "They like shallow water," said Bain. "During the day, you can catch them in the sloughs on top of the shoals, but in the evening they'll be in shallower water."

Daytime trollers can score in the sloughs using large spoons on a 3-way rig. You'll need an 8- to 10-ounce sinker and a 25-foot leader. Troll slowly and keep the spoon on the bottom.

The best red drum action, however, comes around dusk when reds move to the tops of the shoals to feed. Bain likes to fish between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. "About half the time they'll hit before dark, and the other half they'll hit after dark," he said. "You want some tide movement, but it doesn't have to be a lot."

Bain will anchor up on a shoal and put baits out on a fish-finder rig. He uses an 8-ounce pyramid sinker to hold the bait in position on the bottom, and he uses all circle hooks - an important conservation measure now that all large fish must be released. He'll fish with both cut bait and peeler crabs until dark, then use all crabs to discourage sharks. Bain removes the top shell from the crab, putting a whole one on the hook if they're small and cutting larger ones in half. He runs the hook through the crab's leg hole and then through the body, leaving the hook point exposed. He uses a rubber band to hold the legs to the shank of the hook.

With rods in the holders, Bain waits for the fish to find his baits. When they do, the action can be spectacular. "We're talking about shallow water here, maybe 8 feet or less," he said. "It's some great topwater fishing."

There's a totally different fishery available for light-tackle enthusiasts and those who want to keep smaller, tastier drum for the table. Puppy drum in the 15- to 23-inch range inhabit Virginia Beach's Rudee and Lynnhaven inlets from April through summer. On a high tide, fish the marshes at the edges of grass lines in the backs of creeks with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs and 3-inch plastic worms in white and green. Tip the hook with a piece of shrimp or killifish, and then cast and retrieve slowly across the bottom. On a falling tide, drop back to deeper water at the mouths of creeks where drum will wait for minnows to be pulled out of the grass.

While many anglers fish for cobia and red drum at the same time, the last two weeks of June usually finds Bain dividing his fishing day evenly between the two species. He prefers the Inner Middle Ground Shoal for combination fishing and can occasionally add a black drum to the catch as well. He'll anchor off the shoal and dunk menhaden for cobia from about 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., then move up on the shoal and fish for red drum until 10 p.m. or so. It's about 500 yards between the two fishing spots.

Frank Carver primarily targets cobia and fishes only in the daytime, but he's mindful of the red drum's inclination to feed during low light. Often, a red or two will strike the baits as they're being put out first thing in the morning. Carver has also found that drum are more likely to bite during the day, when skies are dark and the seas are rough.

"The rougher the water and nastier the weather, the better they bite," he said. "The worst weather day we had last summer, we caught five red drum outside Plantation Light during the middle of the day."

A good map or chart is invaluable in locating the shoals that harbor cobia and red drum. ADC's waterproof Chartbook of the Chesapeake Bay, 7th Edition, is available at most area tackle shops or by calling GMCO Maps & Charts at (888) 420-6277.

Numerous boat launches are located on both sides of the bay. Some of the better and more convenient locations for access to cobia and red drum fishing include Onancock and Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore, Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach, and Grandview in Hampton on the Western Shore.

For cobia and red drum fishing information or charters, call Captain Frank Carver at (301) 261-5869.

For information on the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament or the latest fishing regulations, call (757) 491-5160.

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