People often ask me what’s my favorite fish to eat. “Cobia,” I say, without hesitation.
Fresh cobia steaks are tasty, to be sure. But my fondness for the stuff probably has more to do with how rarely I get my hands some.
Over the years, I’ve lost far more cobia than I’ve landed. One of the most frustrating encounters came two seasons ago, when we ran into a beast of a fish at the C Buoy. We spotted the big, brown-and-white bruiser — presumably a female — circling the buoy with a contingent of smaller males.
With my buddy at the helm of my center console, we hung around the buoy for a half-hour while I threw every lure I had in front of her. No dice.
I finally turned to natural bait, rigging a 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and stout circle hook on a heavy spinning setup.
The cobia ignored frozen squid pitched out in front of her. She swam directly under a live menhaden. Finally, I reached into the bait well and pulled out an 8-inch white grunt that we had pulled from a nearshore reef and kept alive as bait.
I rigged it up and waited for the courting cobes to make another circuit around the buoy.
When the lively grunt hit the water, it darted downward. The big cobia couldn’t resist. She accelerated and inhaled the bait. The circle hook worked perfectly, and my 40-pound-test braided line was soon screaming off the reel.
We threw the boat into reverse and I tried to palm the spinning spool to slow down that runaway train. Naturally, the 50-pounder made a beeline for the buoy chain. … Pop!
When we left to head home, she was still circling the buoy, my circle hook clearly visible in the corner of her mouth.
Encounters such as this leave no question in my mind that for sheer angling excitement, few fish can compete with cobia. They’re notoriously tough fighters, superb dinner fare and fairly predictable, if sometimes finicky, feeders. Best of all, they’re drawn to anything floating on the surface and often will swim right up to a boat. Trust me: Nothing gets a boat-full of anglers hopping around like the sight of a 60-pound fish nosing around just off the stern.
Cobia are a coastal pelagic species that can be found year-round at offshore and nearshore reefs. But starting in late April and early May, they migrate up our coast and into some estuaries, particularly in the Port Royal and St. Helena sounds. Evidence points to these areas as possible spawning grounds.
Some Charleston-based charter captains head south to the Beaufort area during prime cobia time to take advantage of the yearly influx. Many recreational anglers also trailer their boats down to join the crowded flotillas at popular rips and sandbars in the Broad River and elsewhere. (I’ve heard that the lure of the cobia run is so strong that some wily local anglers have circulated false rumors of a hot Beaufort bite just to empty Charleston waters of would-be competitors.)
About this time, cobia also start showing up at nearshore reefs and the buoys marking Charleston’s shipping channel.
Big specimens caught off the Lowcountry this time of year can top 60 pounds or more. Fish this big are usually egg-laden females, so many conservation-minded anglers practice catch-and-release with these big mommas.
Anglers typically target cobia either by running-and-gunning while sight-casting for surface fish, or by anchoring up at known hot spots and soaking baits while chumming.
Great cobia lures include big bucktail jigs and long, eel-like, soft-plastic lures that can be used with or without weighted jig heads. Eight- to 14-inch varieties of Hogy and ZMan lures seem popular these days.
When fishing natural baits, bring plenty of choices. Cobia seem to dine on just about anything, but not everything at the same time. Good baits to have on hand include squid, dead or live menhaden (pogies), live eels, threadfin herring (greenies) and other finfish such as whiting, croakers, pinfish and small reef fish (make sure all are legal size).
Gear up with stout terminal tackle. These fish are tough.
The limit is two cobia per person per day, with a minimum 33-inch fork length.
Trip of a lifetime
Local diver Rob Harding just returned from a “dream trip” to Central America, where he spent four days spearing monster yellowfin tuna.
The kicker? He was free- diving, without scuba tanks.
Holding your breath while tethering yourself to an open-ocean giant clearly ranks as a high-risk, high-reward scenario.
“Many divers have gotten wrapped in the tangle of lines and dragged deeper than they can possibly recover from,” Harding said.
Even getting to the fishing grounds proved to be an adventure. Harding had to fly into Panama City, transfer to another airport, take a short flight to another airport, then ride a bus ride through the jungle for three hours.
The boat trip to get to the tuna hunting grounds covered 70 miles, each way.
Harding scored his biggest tuna at the end of the trip. They ran their boat ahead of a pod of dolphins, which are known to accompany yellowfins. He then free-dove to about 40 feet, where a “wall of tuna appeared.”
He passed on several 100-pounders before spotting his trophy. Still holding his breath, he closed the distance, made a good shot and returned to the surface to start fighting the tuna.
The fish towed Harding and two fellow divers through the open ocean. When it finally slowed, they started hand-lining the fish back into range, all the while swimming.
After putting another shot on the tuna, they wrestled it to the surface.
Reach Matt Winter, manager of niche content and design and editor of Tideline magazine, at (843) 937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org