Cobia, the cool way

Colt Harrison caught this cobia while fly fishing near Beaufort.

We had been slow-motoring against the tide in the Broad River for about an hour without the first sign of a fish. Naturally, we were getting antsy.

“Maybe we should run closer to the inlet.” “Dude, maybe the fish are hanging tight to the bridge.”

I was fishing with Chris Lupo, a fly enthusiast from Greenville, and Ken Hardwick, a trout fishing guide from Brevard. For the past few years, I had been traveling south with my Upstate buddies to cash in on the springtime influx of cobia into the waters around Beaufort. The rivers and nearshore waters are packed with cobes, and our yearly trip usually yielded some of the best big-game fly fishing any of us experienced all year.

Fly fishing for cobia around Beaufort isn’t rocket science: You pick a day when the river is slick, drive around at slack tide or against the current, and look for fish cruising on the surface.

Last year’s trip started slow. But remembering the virtue of patience, we calmed our nerves with a cold beverage and returned to our lookout posts.

A “push” materialized on the surface about 50 yards off the bow. Chris carefully maneuvered the boat into position ahead of the cruising cobia, and Hardwick took the bow with a 10-weight fly rod and a ridiculous articulated fly he uses for Alaskan king salmon.

Hardwick landed the fly about 5 feet in front of the fish, and the little cobe smashed the thing with every muscle in its 35-inch body — small by Lowcountry cobia standards.

A long winter guiding on the Davidson River in western North Carolina had reduced Hardwick’s hook-set to little more than a gentle prick. The fly slid out of the fish’s mouth, but before Ken could react, the fish ate the fly again, with just as much enthusiasm as on its first attempt.

“Strip! Strike! Strip! Strike!” I yelled, spicing it up with some four-letter words. Yet the high-sticking continued, and the fly kept sliding out. In all, Hardwick pulled the fly out of the cobe’s mouth five times. Miraculously, the fish ate the fly a sixth time. Ken lowered his rod tip and drove the hook home.

We got the little guy boatside in short order, snapped a few photos and returned him to the river.

We South Carolina anglers are blessed with some of the best cobia fly fishing in the country. What’s not to love about these fish? They swim on the surface in clear water, gobble up flies, fight great, and taste sinfully good.

Between April and June every year, the waters that ebb and flow between Edisto and Hilton Head islands attract thousands of lovesick cobia bent on procreation. Smaller males court the larger females, and if she approves, they fertilize the next generation of eggs.

The Broad River, in particular, is a mecca for spawning cobia. Sometimes you’ll see several males trailing a larger female on the surface, doing their best to win her heart. As with most fish, the cobes seem to focus their reproductive efforts around the full and new moons. But the fishing can be good on any day during the season.

Cobia show up all over the South Carolina coast in the spring, not just around Beaufort. While the true inshore fishing for cobia is limited to the southern part of the state, nearshore and offshore waters harbor plenty of fly-worthy fish to target.

Channel buoys are great places to check for cobia. They often can be found in good numbers, swimming circles around a single can.

Charleston’s shipping channel is a famed cobia destination. It was there that I hooked my first cobia, which was also one of my largest: A 50-pounder that wrapped and sheared my 10-weight fly line on the buoy chain, despite our frantic 360’s around the can.

Further out, reefs in anywhere from 25 to 90 feet of water can hold very large fish. When targeting reef fish with a fly, you need to get the fish to the surface to get a good shot.

Thankfully, some of the cobia’s most attractive qualities are its curiosity and tendency to swim up underneath your boat while you float over a wreck. Sometimes the fish will lay in the prop wash, sometimes they circle the boat, and sometimes they just take a peek and bolt. You can have a single fish come up, or you can have a dozen come up.

Deepwater fish can be notoriously hard to entice with a fly or other baits, especially during the major moon phases or when they’ve been pressured. Often times, reef fish will follow your fly but never commit to grabbing it.

Sometimes you can provoke a lock-jawed fish to strike by trying different flies, and by reading the fish’s body language and playing with different retrieves.

Other times, when looking around away from the reefs, you can find groups of cobia migrating north along the coast. These transient fish usually seem more eager to eat a fly, and most of the time they’ll race each other for it. Sometimes they’ll be free swimming, and sometimes they’re mixed in with cownose and manta rays. Sometimes you’ll find cobia flanking giant tiger sharks and sea turtles. Investigate anything that looks “fishy.” Cobia will pop up when you least expect them.

Cobia rank as the largest targets that most Lowcountry fly fishermen cast to in our inshore waters. Fish average from 15 to 50 pounds, with the possibility of a 100-plus pounder, so you’ll need to leave your spot-tail tackle at home.

Ten- to 12-weight rods and matching reels with solid drags are necessary to muscle in a big cobe.

Fish will eat a variety of different fly patterns, depending on where you’re fishing. In the rivers, I love 5/0, fluorescent colored Toad-style tarpon flies, with big marabou or rabbit-strip tails. I’ll tie some of these toads with foam heads, because you can usually get most river fish cruising right on the surface to eat a fly on top.

If I’m fishing in nearshore waters, I prefer heavier, blue/white and black/purple baitfish patterns such as Flashtail Clousers and EP flies. I generally wrap some lead on the hook-shank: Nearshore cobia are more prone to swimming deeper than river fish, so your flies have to go deep when the fish do.

A weight-forward floating line is good for most situations inshore and offshore, and leaders don’t need to be fancy. I typically use 9 feet of 50-pound-test monofilament. A loop knot in the heavy mono will allow the fly to wriggle like it should and get the bite.

While the most rewarding part of cobia fishing often comes in the form of fresh fillets, keep in mind that the larger fish are usually full of eggs and are valuable to the population. I killed a 52-pounder last year, and when the roe sacks spilled out of her on the cleaning table, I felt terrible.

To ensure the fishes’ spawning efforts aren’t disrupted too badly, it’s best to release the bigger females. There are plenty of smaller males to satisfy your appetite.

There are plenty of guides in the Charleston and Beaufort area who specialize in fly fishing for cobia in the springtime (including myself).

Cobia offer a great introduction to using big fly rods and fighting big fish, for both experienced fly fishermen and beginners. This May and June, the cobia should be thick in the Broad River and off the beaches. If you’re a fly angler of any kind and you’ve never experienced the thrill of cobia fishing, you owe it to yourself to get out in the ocean or get down to Beaufort and sample this fishery.

Colt Harrison, a local fishing guide and frequent contributor to Tideline magazine, works at The Charleston Angler. Contact him at 864-380-0490.