It's getting to be cobia time. Dogwoods and azaleas have bloomed, the water temperature is on the rise and local tackle shops are offering cobia fishing seminars as anglers make plans to hit the buoys and reefs out of Charleston or travel south to the Broad River or St. Helena Sound.
The cobia is a highly migratory species with tagged fish traveling a two-way highway of more than a thousand miles between South Carolina and Louisiana. South Carolina's state record, caught in 2009 near Hilton Head, weighed 92 pounds, 10 ounces. The world record is a 135-9 catch made in Australia.
I've been fortunate to land a handful of pretty nice cobia, certainly not record size but a few that topped 50 pounds. My most vivid memory, though, is of a cobia I didn't land. I cast a live menhaden into a pod of cobia hovering near a buoy and briefly had a fish on before it spit the hook and darted under my boat. I could entice it out with live menhaden tossed over the side, but when I tossed over a hooked menhaden, the cobia ignored the offering. That fish grew fatter by the minute as I fed it until I finally gave up and moved on.
Chasing cobia has become a rite of spring for Lowcountry fishermen, among them the Summerville Saltwater Anglers who annually put together a Cobia Flotilla for club members. The seeds for the annual pilgrimage began five years ago when club president David Fladd decided to chase cobia on St. Helena Sound. Fladd, who has a place at Edisto, took his son Ian and on their second try they boated two keeper cobia (33-inch minimum fork length, two fish per angler per day).
"A year after that we formed the club and we had the idea (the cobia trip) would be a way for people to get to know other people. We had the house down there, so we would go on a certain day and after the trip come back to the house and have a cookout. That first year we had two boats, and three people and caught one fish," Fladd said.
"It's a really fun event. We usually catch seven or eight sharks per boat, but it's a camaraderie thing, a very fun time. We usually pick a weekday because the weekend can get busy. This year we're going to do it on a Friday and get the kids involved."
Fladd said he catches menhaden which he uses for bait and for chum. He fishes heavy spinning rods spooled with 30- to 50-pound braid, a six-ounce egg sinker and a five-foot monofilament leader with a 4/0 to 5/0 circle hook.
"I've only had luck catching them on the bottom. I always float a bait but I've never had anything take it," he said.
He said the second year he netted a 42-inch fish and was trying to find a place in his boat to stow the fish and ice when an old-timer suggested he string it up behind the boat which would attract other cobia. He did that and shortly thereafter Ian hooked and landed another keeper cobia.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources is seeking help from anglers targeting cobia to collect DNA samples of fish caught in 2014 for ongoing research projects.
These DNA samples will be used to identify hatchery released cobia and characterize the population structure of cobia captured along our coast. Anglers are encouraged to request a fin clip collection kit online at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/stocking/finclip.html.
Anglers who do not collect fin clips are asked to donate filleted carcasses to the freezer collection program. There are four freezer locations (http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/carcassdropoff.html), or carcasses may be dropped off in person at the Waddell Mariculture Center on Sawmill Creek Road in Bluffton.
In the late 1980s and early 90s the recreational fishery for cobia in South Carolina saw exponential growth as inshore anglers began to target cobia for their size, accessibility and fine table fare. For more information about cobia in South Carolina waters, see http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/species/cobia.html.