When your rod doubles over and drag screams out with a large, hard fighting fish attached, there is no better feeling or sense of satisfaction by an angler fishing inshore that a cobia hooked up and bowed up. Cobia is one of the hardest fighting fish anglers can target inshore. A 40 lb striped bass has nothing on a 40 lb cobia. When a cobia gets hooked, he goes ballistic and makes strong runs. And when you think the end game is near and the cobia sees the boat, net, or gaff coming at him, they make another, and another run giving anglers an epic battle. And when you finally get the cobia in the boat, he goes nuts not giving up easily. It’s no surprise that so many anglers target cobia along the Atlantic and Gulf states. And on top of a great fight they are extremely tasty and delicious tender white meat.
Cobia spend the cold winter months in the Gulf of Mexico then move north along the Atlantic coast for the Summer passing Florida around March and has been seen as far North as Massachusetts for summer. Although Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware are usually as far north as they go with Virginia generally considered the Northern migration at least in good numbers. Female cobia can spawn up to 30 times during a season usually from April to September. The male matures after only two years and the female can spawn after three years. Both sexes can live up 15 years.
While cobia reproduce in healthy numbers and experienced anglers are seeing just as many cobia as years past, fishery managers from the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), who manage cobia, feel differently. Based solely on a single year of data (which has a high margin of error), the National Marine Fishery Service closed cobia fishing in Federal waters on June, 20 2016 and attempted to convince the states to do the same in state waters. The states did not cave in to Federal pressures but did significantly reduce cobia limits for the 2016 season. Here are the numbers from the Draft Framework Amendment 4 (Management Measures for Atlantic Cobia), July 15, 2016 posted on the SAFMC website.
This clearly shows that from 2005 to 2104 our cobia landings have been relatively steady state and now based on single year (2015) of exceeding the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) or quota, anglers up and down the coast have been battling fishery managers to get at least some season for cobia fishing. And the margin of error for catch estimates are very high approaching 50% which is a coin toss as to whether the data is accurate or not. All the states enacted different regulations for state waters for 2016 but gone are the days of keeping even 1 fish per angler. While cobia fishing for 2016 is over, anglers are now battling with SAFMC for what the regulations for 2017 and beyond will be. All anglers who cobia fish should go to the website for SAFMC and get involved and send in your comments and concerns now or we may not even have a cobia season for next year. But this article is not about fishery management woes, it’s about how to target and catch cobia along the Atlantic coast, specifically Virginia, my fishing grounds.
When: For Virginia the best time is late Spring, all Summer, and early Fall as water temperatures approach 70 degrees. This usually happens around mid-May each year. You will hear about reports from Ocracoke, Hatteras, and the Outer Banks then you know to get your cobia gear in Virginia ready. For the lower Chesapeake Bay, the first reports of fish most always occur on the western side of the bay. Best for chumming seems to be mid-June while sight casters can intercept cobia as soon as they get here. Cobia spawn in the Chesapeake Bay then remain in the bay all summer leaving as temperatures moderate around mid-September. Depending of temperatures they can be caught all of September and even into early October.
Fishing for cobia off Virginia waters is generally done in one of two ways; (1) Chum while anchored or (2) Sight casting. I’ll cover both as both can produce cobia.
Chum while anchored. First you have to decide where. Of course you want to fish where the fish are or at least passing though. For early season cobia, pick some spots on the western side of the bay like Buckroe Beach, Fort Monroe, Grandview Rock Pile, Bluefish Rock. As more fish push in, other spots around the bay start to hold cobia. Here are some typical area cobia chummers like to setup. Chumming is a great option when sight casting conditions are not good like cloudy days. And for some reason, the cobia chum bite seems to be better when the wind is blowing Northeast, the harder the better.
Anchor next to drops offs where shallow water meets deep water. Give each spot a good chance before pulling anchor as each time you move you break up a well-established chum line. Once anchored get your chum slick going. Most use ground up menhaden or bunker either in a mesh bag or bucket drilled with holes to disperse the chum. Use enough weight to keep the chum on the bottom. You can also chum on top with a mesh bag. Some say fish can’t see black so they paint the chum buckets black. I’m not sure about this but why take changes so I painted mine black too. Shake your chum bucket from time to time to ensure the chum is going out well. You can drip menhaden milk or oil on top get a scent really moving down current. I use a water bottle with a small hole in the cap hanging upside down.
OK now you have chum on the bottom and chum on the top as well as oil or milk going out. There is one more thing you can do to entice the bite. Send out chunks of menhaden. Your chum and oil gets the cobia near the boat but chunks dispersed around the boat gets them in a feeding mode and hopefully find your hooked baits next. For baits a variety of baits work well from live eels, live croaker or spot or cut bait of menhaden, bluefish or any fresh fish cut into strips. Just know that cut bait often attracts critters like sharks, rays, and skates. For eels I like to hook in the tail while anchored but mouth while sight casting. I think you get less eel knots this way. But while casting or drifting I hook in the mouth through an eye because an eel does not swim backwards.
While chumming you want to use fairly heavy tackle. Remember you are at anchor. You need to control these fish as much as possible and not get them tangled in your anchor line, chum bucket or other lines. I like to use medium to heavy spinning or conventional reels. Penn Battle, Shimano Baitrunners or Saragosa, TLD 15, Torium 15/20, or Penn GTi 320 get the job done. 50-65 lb braid is about right attached to a fishfinder rig with a short 80 lb mono leader snelled to an 8/0 to 10/0 J hook. I still like a J hook for chumming but use a circle hook while sight casting. Both work. Use a bank, pyramid, or pancake sinker to hold bottom and not roll in the current. Set the drags a little loose, let them run a bit, then engage and set the hook. Cobia often grab the ends of the baits and run without the hook in the mouth yet so letting them do a little running ensure they eat the bait to get the hook in the right place.
Deploy as many rods as the current, crew, and boat allows. Don’t be too greedy as one run can tangle your other lines in an instant. You don’t have to cast too far. Best to see where your chum slick is going and put as many rods in or near the chum slick as possible. Most often the bait closest to the chum bucket is the one that gets hit. Check your baits often to ensure live baits are still lively and cut baits are not picked clean. Once a cobia is hooked and the angler is fighting the fish, best to clear the other lines and pull the chum bucket. A medium to large cobia is not coming in easily. If netting the cobia, best to point the handle straight up in the air and lift by the rims. If you lift by the handle, you could break the net with a heavy fish. Once you boat the cobia he will go nuts. You can place a towel over the eyes to calm them down. Or if you plan to keep the fish, a few good knocks on the head with a small bat will put them down. For 2016 in Virginia gaffing cobia is prohibited but anglers will be fighting this new rule for next year’s regulations. I prefer to gaff cobia as they get spooked by the sight of a large net coming at their head and results in more lost fish than with a clean gaff shot. If the fish is going to be kept what does it matter net or gaff the fish is still dead?
Sight Casting for Cobia. Now chumming is not for everybody. Some say it’s downright boring. Sitting on a boat at anchor waiting for a bite that may or may not happen spending large sums of money on chum and bait sometimes not producing cobia. But I still enjoy chumming. It can be very relaxing and enjoyable. And sometimes chumming produces bigger fish. But others prefer to hunt them down by looking for them on top. Sight casting is very exciting way to catch cobia and more and more anglers are getting in on the game. Sight casting is all about seeing the fish on top. Being higher does help as looking down into the water column is far better than looking straight at it. Many anglers put towers on their boats to get high. Having controls, steering, throttle, and shifter helps as shouting commands down to someone at the helm can be difficult. Some anglers just put a granny walker strapped to the top and this works too. Some strap on ladders and other contraptions to get up high but these operations are risky and could result in serious injury but that does not stop anglers from trying to get in the sight casting game. Adding any height can help, even standing on the gunnels gives an advantage. Here are my controls looking directly into the sun. That water is all glared up. Best to have the sun at your back while sight casting.
Now that you are up high time to hunt down some cobia. Best times to sight cast is sunny days with no or few cloud cover. Clouds produce a glare on the water that significantly reduces visibility. You can still see some cobia but odds are you will not see them far out and only see only ones very close to the boat. Seeing a fish far out gives you the best shot. Once they get next to a boat with running engines, they get spooked and sound quickly. We only have a few feet of visibility in the water column so once they go down you lost your shot. Bright sunny days are your best shot. And even a sunny day can produce significant glare while the sun is low in the am and pm. Once the sun is up high that is your best shot.
Cobia can be found anywhere but often seem to concentrate in certain areas. Look for channel ledges, edges of shoals or any structure. Deep water next to shallow water is good. Cobia will often hang out next to a buoy so always check the buoy lines when near them. Once you start seeing cobia keep working that general area. While cobia are not schooling fish during the summer, whatever conditions brought a cobia to that area probably brought more cobia to the same area. Here are some common areas off the lower bay.
Always travel in the direction you have visibility. This will be obvious once you start looking. Always look in the direction of the best visibility. Four eyes are better than two and six eyes are better than four. Have everybody on the boat actively looking and call out everything. Young eyeballs see better than old eyeballs. My mates are all younger than me and they see way more cobia than me farther away. Glasses are important too. Amber or green glass from a quality sunglass are a must. Keep them clean and scratch free. Carry some microfiber cloths to keep them as clean as possible.
The bow is always twelve o’clock so have your anglers call out specific direction like “I see something at 2 o’clock at 100 feet”. Don’t’ just say cobia over there. Everyone will say where is there? When you spot something, keep your eyes locked on that while you get another set of eyes on what you are seeing. If you take your eyes off what you see for even a second, you may not find it again. You are looking for brown torpedo shaped objects. Rays are brown too and often fool you at first but they are triangle shaped. Sometimes the cobia will follow a ray or turtle so always look and even make a cast to a ray or turtle as sometimes a cobia may be following but down deeper out of visual range.
Many times cobia on top are moving fast. Sometimes you have to position the boat to get a good cast off. This requires a certain amount of skill and practice. Cobia can change directions fast too, even after your cast. You want to make your cast with the boat as far away as possible to not spook the fish. Never cast behind the fish. They won’t see the bait. Cast in front and beyond. A short cast is bad too but a long cast you can retrieve rapidly to get in front of the fish. You will likely get only one cast on the fish before sounding.
We are always ready with a bucktail and a live bait. Live eels or croaker are the best live baits. Keep a live bait in a bucket of saltwater up top on the tower floor ready to be cast out. You have to make the call as to which is thrown first. An eel is hard to cast against the wind but a bucktail can be thrown better against the wind. A live bait only has to be dropped in the general vicinity of the fish and most often they will eat it. I like to use a good spinning rod with 65 lb braid and a short 80 lb leader attached via an FG knot with a snelled 8/0 circle hook. Let the cobia eat the live bait by feeding line once the fish goes for the bait then close the bail and the fish will load up setting the hook since the boat is moving you don’t even have to reel to set the hook. My favorite setup for sight casting is a Shimano Saragosa 8000 with an 8 foot Teramar (TMS-X80XH).
Sometimes cobia get finicky for a jig but a jig can be very effective because casting can be more accurate. Cast a jig in front of and ahead of a moving fish then with a good jigging action rip the bucktail across the cobia’s face. Once he starts to go for it, pause for a brief second then set the hook hard and come tight giving some extra pulls to make sure that hook is fully set. The fish wants no part of that hook and will try to shake their head to spit the jig. Some obsess over the cobia jig, colors, hook, size, ect. I think the perfect jig is less important than a good cast and action of the angler can give ripping the bucktail across the cobia’s face. But a good quality jig is important so here are some of my jigs in my tackle bag from Bowed Up Lures. You can add a curly plastic tail to give a little more action if you want. Some add a piece of white squid to entice the bite.
Never attach your hook or bucktail directly to the braid mainline. Always attach a short leader like 80 lb mono. I like to use the FG knot to attach the leader but these can be hard to tie in a hurry so an Albright will get the job done too. A good FG knot is a 100% knot that can be casted and cranked easily through the guides.
Now once you have the cobia hooked up it’s best to fight the fish from the cockpit and not from the tower. Carefully pass the rod down to the angler giving the angler the rod butt first. The angler in the tower has to keep the fish tight, get low, and hold the rod (but not the line) just above the reel while passing the rod down. Once the angler in the cockpit has the rod, reel quickly to make sure the line is still tight as fish are lost when there is slack in the line. I like to stay in the tower working the controls to keep the fish to the side of the boat while the anglers fights the fish. You have better visibility from the tower than down in the lower station. Being able to maneuver the boat while fighting the fish gives the sight casters a much greater advantage since there is nothing else for the fish to tangle like anchor lines or other lines in the water. Let the angler enjoy the fight. No need to tighten the drag down too much to risk losing the fish. Wear the fish down before trying to boat.
So there the two main ways anglers in Virginia target cobia, chumming and sight casting. Anglers sometime score a cobia while fishing for other fish. Sometimes a flounder fishermen will hook a cobia on a flounder rig and give a good battle. Sometimes while trolling for Spanish or King Mackerel will land a cobia. You just never know. One last tip. Even if you’re not targeting cobia, keep a spinning rod with a bucktail tied handy. You never know when a cobia will swim by and by the time you scramble the crew to tie on a bucktail, the fish is gone.
Hopefully for 2017 and beyond we will have a cobia season. Get involved with your state regulators and SAFMC now to ensure we will have a cobia season next year. Check your local regulations before heading out as they are changing for next year for sure. Good luck and good hunting.
Cobia Article BGFJ Sep/Oct 2016 Issue
The article on cobia chumming and sight casting in Virginia as published in the Sep/Oct 2016 issue of Big Game Fishing Journal.