Capt. John Irwin of Fly Right Charters brings you this issue's “Captain's Choice” article. Irwin, shown at right with a monster cobia, has been guiding for more than 16 years, and his love of fly fishing has carried him all over the world. For more information or to contact Irwin, visit flyrightcharters.com or call 843-860-4231. Those interested in sharing their own “Captain's Choice” can call 843-937-5568 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spring marks the beginning of many great things in the Lowcountry. The marsh grass begins to turn green again, azaleas bloom, and anglers can finally pack away the heavy jackets and start breaking out the warm weather gear.
Spring also marks the arrival of one of our most prolific and impressive sport fish: The cobia.
In early spring, cobia begin their lengthy annual journey up the East Coast on a spawning migration of massive proportions. Cobia inhabit waters along the Eastern Seaboard, as well as Mexico and South America and require water temperatures ranging from 68 to 86 degrees to spawn.
Prime-time cobia fishing in Florida usually begins in March. Here in the Lowcountry, we usually begin to see the fish in early April. I have seen fish in March, but only after very mild winters. By May, the cobia fishing around Charleston is absolutely gangbusters.
Known for their incredible toughness, cobia are excellent at testing tackle. These fish can range anywhere from 5 pounds up to the 150-pound mark. When you are searching for these guys, you never know what you'll find. So make sure you are prepared for a trophy-caliber fish.
We use numerous tactics when targeting cobia: bottom fishing with live and cut bait, deep jigging with artificials and sight casting are a few. I am a big fan of sight casting — cobia make excellent targets when they're on the surface.
Cobia can be found throughout nearshore waters this time of year, and even in some places inshore. On calm days, it's possible to spot large groups of cobia swimming in open water, but they typically hang around reefs and wrecks.
In light current, cobia will stick close to just about any kind of floating structure. Buoys, sea turtles and flotsam are all good things to check out. In early spring, big spring tides often carry out a lot of dead marsh grass. Large mats of the stuff are a great place to look for cobia. Basically anything floating on the surface is worth a look — this includes your boat, if you've been anchored or drifting.
Reefs and wrecks are usually marked with a buoy, and I will check these first. If I don't find them under the buoy, I may hang around and put out some chum. Often that's enough to raise a fish. Cobia are very curious and will sometimes surface on the sound of a boat alone.
Cobia will readily take large flies and artificials. It's also hard for them to resist live baits such as herring, menhaden and eels.
For casting applications, use a rod with good backbone. Just make sure the rod's not so big that you can't accurately cast a lure or live bait. I use an 8-foot rod in the 15- to 25-pound class, paired with a 5000- to 6000-class reel spooled with 30-pound braided line.
Typically 40- to 50-pound leader is plenty for fish under 80 pounds. You can use fluorocarbon, but it's not necessary. Cobia are not toothy.
Many lures work well for cobia. I have had the best luck lately with Hogey lures. Originally manufactured in New England for striper fishing, the Hogey imitates an eel and comes in a variety of colors and rigging options. The lure has incredible action and seems to be the best soft plastic I have found to entice a bite. (Hogey also makes a small flounder bait that is a killer.)
For cobia, I like the 10-inch Hogey rigged with a tandem hook and no weight. The lure itself is dense and has a nice sinking quality, which is perfect for fishing near the surface.
To fish deeper in the water column, I use one of Hogey's lead darter heads. Paired with the soft-plastic bait, this is a great lure for jigging around buoys and over reefs.
Many other top-water and shallow-running hard-plastic lures also work well in these situations. Cobia are not too selective, and anything big and bad will usually get the job done when it comes to artificials.
Live- and cut-bait fishing can also produce plenty of cobia bites. Live herring, menhaden and eels are great baits, and they're all usually available when spring arrives.
You should step up your tackle when fishing natural baits. I use a heavy, 30-pound class rod paired with a reel capable of holding 20- to 30-pound mono or 50-pound braid.
For bottom rigs, I thread an egg sinker on the main line, then attach a sturdy swivel. I follow this with about 4 feet of 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon, ending with a 5/0 circle hook. Hook sizes vary depending on manufacturer and style. If you can get your thumb between the point of the hook and the shank, it's big enough. A great hook is the Daiichi multilight circle or the Owner Mutu light.
Balloon fishing on the surface also works very well. I use the same leader setup, without the weight, but I stay away from circle hooks in this situation. Regular J-hooks give you the ability to set the hook, and these set-ups can also double as pitch rods if you come across a cobia cruising on the surface.
Fly fishing is very effective for cobia. Ten- to 12-weight rods with floating or intermediate lines seem to work well. Large bait fish, squid or eel patterns are perfect. A leader 6 to 7 feet in length with a bite tippet of 30- or 40-pound-test is ideal.
When casting to a cruising cobia, you want to keep the fly moving. Short strips with frequent stopping can sometimes cause the fish to lose interest. Once you have his attention, keep that fly moving quickly.
Cobia are a good-eating fish, and are frequently taken for food. But they can be successfully released if the fights are kept short and fish are properly revived.
Gaffing is a popular technique for landing these fish, and unfortunately, fish are sometimes gaffed only to find out they are too small to legally keep. Keep in mind that cobia can be landed and safely handled with a Boga grip or large net.
Releasing the big females, especially, will help preserve the species. A single female can produce between 2 million to 6 million eggs and spawn three times a season.
Before filling your fish boxes this spring, please keep conservation in mind. You can help protect this delicate fishery. The future of the cobia depends on you.