May is the right time of year for South Carolina cobia anglers. If only the weather would cooperate.
"It's actually been pretty quiet this year. I finally saw a few fish Tuesday, but it was my first day going out to the reefs and wrecks," said guide John Irwin of Fly Right Charters. "Usually, I've done about 10 trips by this time. The weather has been tough...really rough."
Cobia are one of the favorite target of South Carolina's nearshore anglers. They are one of the hardest-fighting saltwater species, and they are pretty tasty as well. I remember well my introduction to fighting a cobia, battling one that was in the 50-pound class.
I waited for my fishing companions to gaff it but they insisted I let the fish make a few more runs. Their reasoning? You don't want a green cobia in your boat because they are capable of destroying the interior, flapping their strong tails in an effort to escape. I've known fishermen who have had large tackle boxes knocked overboard because they brought a fish in too quickly.
One technique for locating cobia is to stop alongside the buoys that mark the shipping channel or those located on the artificial reefs. You can sometimes flip a bait to fish you spot. But as the fishing population grows in South Carolina that becomes more challenging as the pressure rises.
Irwin said the best places to catch cobia are the nearshore reefs and wrecks, which can be found on the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' website (dnr.sc.gov).
"You want to fish some baits down on the bottom and some on the surface as well," Irwin said.
Irwin uses a traditional fish-finder rig for fishing the bottom, a Carolina rig with an egg sinker. Because he's fishing near so much structure, he uses 60- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon leaders and a 5/0 Owner Mutu circle hook. The long leader allows the live menhaden that are the preferred bait to swim freely.
On the surface he will use a balloon or float to keep the bait in the strike range. Instead of a swivel to attach the leader to the 50- to 65-pound test Power Pro braided line, he prefers an FG Knot or PR Bobbin Knot for the connection.
And if he is planning to flip a live bait to a fish that swims within casting distance, Irwin uses an Owner SSW 6/0 or 8/0 J-hook.
South Carolina has two distinct populations of cobia, including one known to spawn in the waters of Beaufort County including the Broad River and Port Royal Sound. The fishery became so popular that these fish were over-fished and fishery biologists are trying to rebuild that population.
So that means there are different regulations for cobia anglers. The state waters south of Jeremy Inlet near Edisto Beach are considered the Southern Cobia Management Zone, which is closed during the month of May. There is a one-fish per angler, three-fish per boat limit. The fish must measure 36 inches fork length. For all other waters, there is a one fish per angler, six fish per boat limit with a minimum size of 36 inches fork length. The state record for cobia is 92 pounds, 10 ounces and was caught off Hilton Head in 2009.
Before the area became so overfished, Irwin would often spend a month in that area guiding clients for cobia. Today, he only goes if he has the right client on the right day.
"It's getting a little better but it's still closed to keeping fish (in May), which is a good thing," Irwin said. "There are a lot of small fish and it's showing some signs of improvement. There was a whole culture down there (of anglers who used eels for bait) but that stuff has shut down. It's awfully quiet there compared to how it used to be."
As for the Charleston area, Irwin said last year's cobia season saw lots of small fish.
"It was really crazy how many cobia you were catching some days," he said. "Hopefully this year, some of those fish will have grown up a little bit."
America's Boating Club
America’s Boating Club Charleston will hold boating safety classes June 12 and June 26 at 1376 Orange Grove Road, Charleston. The classes begin at 9 a.m. and end around 4 p.m. Successful participants earn the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Boater Education Card. The cost is $25 for adults and youth 12-18 are free. Call 843-312-2876 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.