Vol 6 No. 6 - November 2, 2005

Cobia: on the wings of eagles
By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer

It’s November, and as local waters chill, one of the area’s most exciting predators will be cruising the Gulf and local bays. Cobia are an elusive, pelagic species of fish that invade offshore waters as well as local bays and estuaries on both Florida coasts in the winter and spring.

Anglers along the west coast of Florida can find cobia swimming along the Gulf coast beaches and inhabiting offshore wrecks this time of the year. These bruisers are often confused with sharks, which they resemble at first glance. Most cobia are caught by anglers who are bottom fishing on wrecks and reefs, but they can be targeted during the fall run. One tactic is to look around inshore and offshore markers, as cobia are very structure oriented. On offshore ledges and artificial reefs, a chum bag can be deployed to attract the fish to the boat. Live bait, jigs, top water plugs and black bunny flies can all be effective.

David Miller, of Longboat Key, caught this cobia on light spinning tackle and a top water plug.
SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS

An exciting fishery exists at the warm water discharges near several west central coast power plants. Water temperature is the most dependable marker when looking for concentrations of cobia near these generating plants. Anglers can start their search when water temperatures reach 72 degrees between late October and mid-November. Productive sight fishing lasts until the water temperatures reach the low 60s in mid to late December.

It’s possible to find cobia in excess of 60 pounds in area waters, so tackle should be stout, and leaders well tied. In most cases, a 20-pound spinning outfit or a nine- to ten- weight fly outfit will suffice.

Top water plugs and swimming plugs are the best artificial lures to use with standard tackle. The top fly is a black bunny tied 5 to 6 inches long to resemble an eel. A large grey and white Clouser Deep Minnow tied 4 to 5 inches long can also be effective. Try a chartreuse and white pattern when the water is off color.

A floating fly line is best since most of the cobia will be at or very near the surface. Sink tip lines work best when the fish are cruising just under the surface. Some anglers use an intermediate line, but sinking lines are harder to retrieve for multiple casts when cruising fish don’t stay on a particular track.

Be prepared for cobia at offshore locations. It’s a good idea to have a rod rigged and ready if you’re not targeting them, as they usually arrive undetected. When fishing the bay, look for spotted eagle rays, manatees and surface disturbances.

Rays are the most dependable way to find cobia. Watch for them to breach or jump out of the water, or look for wakes and wingtips as they cruise just below the surface. Rays tend to be gregarious, so when you find one, you will usually find a few. With practice and attention to the details, it’s possible to identify the wake from a ray that has cobia in tow. Look for a secondary, smaller wake that forms when there is one or more cobia with the ray.

Tides are critical for finding consistent action with cruising cobia and those that frequent power plants. It’s counter-intuitive to most fishing situations, with the slack portion of the tides being best. This has to do with the habits of the eagle rays. When the tide is running hard, either ebbing or flooding, the rays are on the bottom feeding. When the rays go down, they take the cobia with them. As the tide starts to slow, the rays come back up to the surface and bring their cohorts with them.

Since much of the inshore fishing is done by locating disturbances on the surface, a bright sunny day with light winds yield the optimal conditions. Casts are normally relatively short (20 to 50 feet), but need to be quick and accurate since the rays (and cobia) can change direction at any time. Presentation is critical. The fly or plug must land in front of the cobia as it swims with the ray. The fish will not leave the ray, and casts that are too far to either side, or behind, will be ignored. Since most cobia will be riding in the wake of the eagle ray, cast right on the head of the ray and let the lure fall between its wingtips. This will put you in prime position for the trailing fish.

When a cobia is hooked it should be fought just like a tarpon. This means knowing the limit of your tackle and leader, and fighting them hard from the first run. This technique shortens the fight and breaks their spirit more quickly. Anglers are cautioned to be very careful when landing a big cobia. A l "green" one can be very dangerous. It seems that they save part of the fight for when they get in the boat. Anglers are encouraged to release these large and hard fighting fish.

The fall run of cobia has to be experienced to be appreciated. It takes a practiced eye to spot the fish, and a well placed fly or lure to entice them, but when the stars align, the strike and fight of a cobia is one of the most exciting challenges an angler can experience.

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