From Texas all the way around to Virginia, cobia begin their annual beach trips as the water warms. Specific times will vary by water temperature, but as the water warms, cobia will head for the beach. It's a spring break of sorts for these hard-fighting fish.
|Baitfish is key. When the water warms to around 65 degrees, cobia will be on the beach in search of food. Cobia follow baitfish, which move north as the water warms.
Cobia are in a class all by themselves -- literally. They have no close relatives scientifically speaking, and quite frankly, they behave like no other fish. At one point they ignore every bait presented to them, and in an instant they can turn on and strike anything that comes close to them.
But, this time of year, they like to run the beaches in search of food. Larger cobia are often mistaken for sharks, while smaller ones look very similar to a remora -- the pilot fish that attach themselves to sharks and other large fish.
As they roam the beaches just beyond the surf line and breakers, their dark brown silhouette can be seen at some distance from almost any size boat. More often than not, they will travel in pairs or threesomes, and usually will be following some other species of fish.
Stingrays, leopard rays, and even manta rays are the cobia's favorite traveling companion. Cobia often practice what many anglers call "riding the ray" -- that is simply swimming along just over or under the back shoulder of a slow moving ray. They seem to like almost any object in the water, and their curiosity plays an important part in anyone's fishing plans in the spring.
They appear to be slow swimmers, not really interested in high-speed bait chasing, choosing instead to scavenge with the rays or with a school of large redfish. But don't let their lethargic appearance fool you. Once they are hooked and realize they are hooked, it can get real hectic, real quick!
Catching cobia this time of year can be relatively easy and can be done from almost any size boat on a good day. Even kayaks get into the action from time to time.
The process is simple, really. Head to the beach and stay outside the breakers and the surf line. Get as high in the boat as possible and look for anything dark in the water. Rays have a peculiar habit of jumping from time to time for no apparent reason. Keep an eye out for a jumping ray.
Once you find a ray -- and they are relatively easy to find this time of year -- simply stay in contact. Stay far enough away to avoid spooking the ray, yet close enough to see any following fish. Have bait or a lure ready to cast as you idle along watching the ray.
When a cobia shows up, you will see him on the surface. The trick now is to get ahead of the ray/cobia combo, shut down the engine and get ready to cast to them.
The cast has to be gentle and needs to be far enough ahead of them so as not to spook them, yet close enough that the cobia will see the bait or lure. Live bait needs to be directly in front of them, while a lure needs to come at a right angle to them, across their path and within their sight range.
If the first cast does not draw any attention, sit still and let the combo continue past your boat. Once they have moved a distance away, start your engine and repeat the entire process. Sometimes multiple attempts are required to draw a strike, particularly with a lone cobia on a lone ray.
In a situation where several cobia are following one large ray, the picture can be quite different. There will be competition among the cobia, and it will not be unusual for several of them to be fighting over which fish can get to the bait first!
And don't be surprised if this school of cobia comes to and identifies with your boat. They may swim just under the surface in several circles around your boat. This is where a live bait splashing right on the surface can drive the school into a feeding frenzy -- right there at the side of your boat!
Lures for cobia range from eel baits, jigs, and topwater plugs. Many cobia anglers favor long, black eel imitations because an eel is a favorite food of beach runners this time of year. Eels make a spawning run to upstream rivers and creeks every spring, and the near shore surf usually has an abundance of them.
Other anglers favor jigs in every color combination imaginable. The theory about lures "matching the hatch" in color scheme is thrown out the window for cobia. Experienced cobia hunters seem to prefer bright, colorful jigs that take advantage of the cobia's natural curiosity.
Most cobia anglers will keep a noisy topwater bait close by as well. The lure has to be well made and able to handle quite a beating, so freshwater bass lures need to stay home! Often a popping, rattling lure on top of the water will draw a strike when even live bait won't.
As for live baits, the menhaden shad (pogie) is by far the preferred bait for beach runners. Huge schools of pogies are in the surf along the beaches this time of year, and it is for the most part these shad that the cobia and rays are following. Later in the year when the cobia disperse to offshore and near shore wrecks and reefs, a variety of live baits will work, but for now, go after the pogies.
In the open sandy bottom of a beach there is little structure to which a cobia can run to when hooked. Consequently the tackle can be as heavy or as light as an angler prefers. Lighter tackle is easier to cast and easier to make a bait presentation, but a forty-pound cobia hooked up to a fifteen-pound spinning or casting outfit means a very long battle. If you are into long fights on light tackle, by all means bring it on! But, if you prefer to get a fish to the boat, you may want to opt for twenty-five or thirty pound tackle. Even then, these fish fight long and hard.
A word of advice is necessary here. Never, ever bring a green cobia into the boat (green fish are those hooked fish with fight still in them)! Once hooked, these fish sometimes swim directly at the boat and can be right on the surface passing within a foot or two of the boat. The temptation to stick them with a gaff and get them in the boat can be overwhelming.
It only takes an angler one time to agree with this warning. A good-size green cobia inside a boat can destroy lots of tackle and bruise or even break an ankle or leg.
It's that time of year. Cobia are on the beach in the spring and looking for food. What better way to spend a calm morning than drifting off the beach waiting for a flotilla of cobia to come by!