Cobia are very unique fish. Unlike grouper, snapper and many other species, they belong to a fish family all to themselves. And, being so different in look and shape from other fish, they take their differences one step further. Their actions and reactions are just as unique as their physical appearance.
We were fishing some wrecks in 100 feet or so of water off the Atlantic coastline and had been catching the standard array of bottom fish. While catching legal red snapper and a couple of grouper, we managed to save several live, bait-sized fish in the live-well to be used on another wreck we planned to fish.
As I turned to re-bait my hook after catching another bottom fish, I saw them coming. Cobia! I counted at least six of them right on top of the water. They were coming straight at the boat in a most amazing formation that reminded me of squadron of fighter jets doing a fly-by!
The scramble was on in the boat as my partner Charles and I jumped toward the live bait well. Before either of us could get bait hooked up, the flight had passed just three feet off the stern of the boat and turned ninety degrees to swim away from us. We both made several futile attempts to cast bait in their direction.
As we watched, the whole school of cobia, still on the surface, turned again to make another pass by our boat. This time we were ready, and as they neared, we gently placed two live baits in their path. In the blue-clear water we could see one fish break off and slowly swim toward one of the live baits.
This fish was in no hurry, and the baitfish, probably scared out of its wits, simply froze in the water. The cobia nosed the bait, causing it to make a run. The cobia followed slowly, almost lethargically, and actually grabbed the bait in its mouth. With the bait half in the cobia's mouth, I could see my hook as the he swam back toward the formation which was now making a third pass at our boat. It swam toward the formation, and instead of eating the bait this cobia dropped it and joined up with the passing school.
The next thirty minutes or so was the most frustrating half hour I can remember. These fish stayed at and around the boat, and we tried everything we could think of to get them to eat.
Often one or two of the cobia would come to the stern of the boat and actually bump the lower unit of the motor or the boat itself. I think the self-bailing scuppers were letting some fishy smelling water out and it acted as a chum line of sorts. Whatever the reason, they would not leave!
While all this was going on, another boat moved in and anchored off our bow, and within minutes a young boy fishing with his dad hooked a really good fish. You guessed it -- it was a cobia!
As I mumbled to myself about this turn of events, I saw the squadron coming from the newly anchored boat toward us again. I pitched bait in front of them, and this time the entire school took off after the bait, almost fighting over it!
We hooked up and fought a forty-pound cobia to the boat, and as we gaffed this fish, the remainder of the school circled the boat.
As quickly as we could, we re-rigged and got another bait in the water. But, just as quickly as they turned on, they turned off! Ten minutes later we watched them swim away in formation on the surface again. This time they headed for another wreck and left us to our bottom fishing.
I have witnessed this a number of times -- cobia circling the area uninterested in any bait you present. Then suddenly, they turn on and attack almost anything you put in front of them.
In the past we have been able to turn them on by letting a live bait swim and splash and cause a commotion right on the surface of the water. A long saltwater rod and short line keeps the bait from going down, and the commotion on the surface will usually incite a cobia to strike. Very seldom is it that we can't get one to strike.
On this occasion we tried that method only to have one or two cobia come up, nose the bait and slowly swim away. I know they could see us; they were so close to the boat that I could have reached down and touched them!
Whatever turned them on that day turned all of them on. For a few minutes it was a feeding frenzy. I believe our persistence in presenting good, live bait to them made a difference.
Powerful and hard fighting, these fish lead a life of their own over the offshore wrecks and reefs. From riding the back of a ray to swimming among the mangroves, they can be found all up and down the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast. And, while they can be frustrating at times, they often personify the use of the term "patience" in the fishing world.