The rod tip bounced once, like a good-natured slap to get our attention. A second later, the rod bent violently and the reel's drag started singing its raspy song.
Our first cobia of the morning was buttoned up!
I wrenched the rod out of the holder and handed it to one of my buddies, the one who had not, until that very second, ever tangled with one of these big, brown beasts.
Catching his or her first cobia is something an angler never forgets, and from then on, they'll always be looking forward to May and June for the chance to do it again. It's one of the few times each year when anglers confined to smaller vessels get the chance to go toe-to-toe with such large, tasty and normally oceangoing fish.
Every year, as spring turns to early summer and coastal waters warm up, thick schools of greenback herring return to the Broad River near Beaufort. Pods of cobia follow the herring, hoping to eat and spawn successfully before making an about-face, heading back to sea and migrating northward. Often the fish will take short respite at one of the many artificial reefs or buoys off the Lowcountry coast. But most fishermen know the spawning grounds around Beaufort represent their best chance to catch trophy cobia.
Keep it simple
Fishing for cobia in the Broad River is relatively simple. The rod and reel set-ups usually consist of 15- to 30-pound-class rods married to reels with the capability of handling 30- to 50-pound fish. A good conventional set-up would be a lever-drag Shimano TLD 15, spooled with 30-pound mono, on a 7-foot live-bait rod. A 6000-size spinning reel of choice would also work well when paired with the same style live-bait rod.
People use various fishing techniques while anchored up in the Broad River, but to simplify things, let's say there are two ways to catch cobia: on top and on the bottom.
Bottom-fishing for cobia is not much different than drowning bait under a dock for a spot-tails, or better yet, fishing for catfish. The rig is the same"” a Carolina rig, only beefed up with a 4- to 6-ounce egg weight on the mainline, followed by a 100-pound-class barrel swivel, then 4 to 5 feet of 50- to 80-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 live-bait or circle hook. Lunar tides may push extra water and stiffen an already strong current, so anglers should keep in mind that more than 6 ounces of lead may be needed at times.
The rigs used for fishing on the surface are similar"” just ditch the egg weights.
The common strategy involves casting out four lines, two on top and two on the bottom. Anglers usually put a bottom-fishing set-up off each side of the boat, then two top lines off the stern. You don't need to cast far"” the point is to position your baits so they will be just down current of your chum slick and right in the path of a cobia nosing its way up that river of scent.
Chum is mandatory in the Broad River. It doesn't matter if you make it in the back yard by running frozen pogies through a wood chipper or buy it from a local tackle shop. Just bring some. I'd go so far as to say that without chum, you might as well pack it up and try sight-fishing. There's always the possibility of catching a fish without chum, but the success rate drops exponentially.
Chum can be made of any combination of ground-up fish and crustaceans, but freshly caught oily fish such as menhaden, bluefish and greenback herring routinely produce better results.
After getting anchored up, lower two chum bags off the back of your boat, one on either side. Make sure to use enough weight to get your offerings to the bottom. Then drape another bag just off the boat to make a slick on the surface. Big cobia will often follow this scent right up to the back of your boat.
Rip it up
The Broad River holds a concentration of rips from the S.C. 170 bridge to the Port Royal sound.
Rips mark where the river bottom rises sharply, creating an abrupt change in current. Marked by visible disturbances on the water's surface, these areas concentrate migrating herring, making them easy pickings for cobia that congregate at these underwater buffet tables.
You only need to pick a rip, set out chum and baited lines, then play the waiting game. Do your best to position the boat's stern just on top of the rip, so the baits are on the down-current side of it. We generally give a rip a half-hour before trying a different one, or trying a whole new area altogether.
There are four publicly known areas containing these cobia "eateries": Bridge Rip, Turtle Rip, Cobia Hole, and Parris Island Rip. Fish will be scattered among these hot spots, so just pick one and give it a shot. You can always move to another rip if the action isn't up to par.
Finding these rips is also the key to finding bait. Actually, procuring bait is probably one of the highlights of a Broad River trip for most people. It's a lot of fun! Jigging a sabiki rig with a 2-ounce bank sinker through the middle of the water column usually results in multiple fish on the line, all fighting their belligerent little hearts out.
Though some people prefer using eels, small catfish or blue crabs as cobia bait, I've caught more cobia on herring than all of the above. I suppose that whole"match the hatch" axiom proves true again when it comes to these silvery pieces of cobia candy.
Insight to sight-fishing
Sight-fishing is an increasingly popular way to target cobia here in the Lowcountry. Less persnickety eaters than their nearshore peers, cobia who enter the Broad River often travel in surface pods near the rips, and will readily attack a well-pitched lure or bait.
A great time to try to look for cobia on the surface is right at first light, when the winds are usually calm. Slack tides are also prime times for sight-fishing for cobia.
Slowly motoring a boat up and down the Broad River's rip lines does not seem to scare the fish, and a mindful driver can position the boat perfectly for an angler to deliver an offering to a sighted fish. The best way to do this is for the boat to approach from behind the fish. The fish is less likely to spook, and the presentation of a live or artificial bait several feet in front of the fish will generally draw a bite.
As far as artificial baits go, a good old fashioned bucktail jig will always be a top performer. Other popular artificials include large surface plugs like Zara Spooks and soft baits like GULP! eels.
Sight-fishing in the Broad River also offers fly-casters a great opportunity to catch a huge fish with the long rod. I strongly recommend using a 10-weight fly rod, at a minimum. A large baitfish pattern fly is a great choice.
Whether using live bait, flies or other artificial baits, you should remember to set the hook only when the fish is swimming away from the boat. If you try to set the hook when the fish is headed toward you, you'll most likely pull the lure out of its mouth. Done right, a well-set hook is not going anywhere without surgical extraction.
Of course, if you're using circle hooks, do not try to set the hook at all. Circles are designed to lodge in the corner of a fish's jaw as it swims away.
Enjoy the spectacle
If you head down to the Broad River on a weekend, expect a heavy crowd. Boats will anchor closely over these rips, and the resulting chatter on VHF channels is always good for a laugh.
On the plus side, watching the comedy act of a nearby boatful of newbs attempting to land their first cobia is often more exciting than prime-time cable!
So please respect each other out there, and remember that everyone is there for the same reason, to enjoy themselves and hopefully catch a fish.