I get asked all the time: “What’s the best way to fish for cobia?” And my standard answer is simple: Fish for something else. Cobia can be a hard fish to target. You can sit out there and bob around all day and never get a bite. It’s much easier and way more entertaining to fish for something else, like sharks, and hope to luck into a cobia.
I also believe that we don’t give cobia enough credit. We will usually let other species — redfish, snook and tarpon, to name a few — out-think us. They have brains the size of most edible nuts, and yet we over-think them on a daily basis.
Cobia, on the other hand, we don’t put enough thought into. Let’s face it, they aren’t the brightest-looking fish. They have a dopey look and a dopey swim to them, and they do dopey things — like swim around a marker for hours as if they were going somewhere.
But once you understand them a little better, they seem to be pretty darn smart.
Cobia are a very tolerant fish. They can handle a wide variety of water qualities, salinities and temperatures. Tagged cobia have circumnavigated the globe. They seem to be coming here in better numbers every year.
I have no scientific proof, but I think they are starting to favor Charlotte Harbor as a breeding ground. Makes sense — most of the larger fish I have caught have had roe inside them. Besides, everything else comes here to breed. Why not them?
The first thing to understand about cobia (and any fish, for that matter) is what it likes to eat. Cobia are also known as crabeaters. That’s a clue: Crabs are a favorite food of theirs, as are eels and baitfish. This Harbor is full of all those things.
Yes, we have eels in Charlotte Harbor. In 17 years of fishing here, I have only caught two — but I have hooked many. You probably have too. Ever get that snag on the flats or somewhere you know there’s nothing to snag on? Eel. He has grabbed your bait, gone back into his hole and tied himself in a knot to keep you from pulling him out.
Another thing to understand about the cobia is its nature — what it wants to do, and how it wants to do it. Cobia have some similarities to their distant relatives the remoras. That’s that fish with the suction cup on top of its head that you will usually find attached to sharks. Like remoras, cobia like to “host” off of something else. You can find them following manatees, stingrays and sharks. If you ever see a whale shark offshore, go fish it! Sometimes you will find hundreds of cobia around whale sharks.
Following sharks is a pretty good deal for the cobia. There is no safer place to be than underneath a shark. Nothing is going to mess with you, and you get free food every time the shark eats. This is why cobia will auto-magically appear out of nowhere around or under your boat. They’re just looking for a place to relax, be protected and maybe find an easy meal.
Which brings me back to why I recommend going fishing for something else. Go shark fishing, and you stand a pretty good chance of finding a cobia one of two ways. Either they will come to you and try to adopt your boat, or they will follow up a large shark that you have hooked.
This is where you need to put a little thought into the cobia. If you have one coming to your boat, remember, he’s looking for a place to be comfortable and not be threatened. But what do you do when you see a cobia come to the boat? You’re not ready, you get excited, you bang your way around the boat looking for a rod to put something on and then you and your buddies start throwing everything but the kitchen sink at that poor cobia.
So he simply swims off. He did that because you presented yourself as a threat and not as a comfortable place for him to just chill out. Your fault.
The next time a cobia swims up to the boat, cool it. Hold still, be quiet and just watch him. Chances are he’ll make a few laps around the boat to check you out and then sidle up underneath your transom. Now you can grab a crab, whitebait, or even a piece of chunk bait and quietly walk up to the front of the boat and drift it back to him. That is, after all, what he is expecting.
Sometimes one will swim in circles under your transom, half under and half behind your boat. Don’t be afraid to drop something off the back of the boat to entice him. Just stop for a moment, calm down and think before you do.
Whatever you do, don’t drop that bait between your Power-Pole and your outboard, because when that cobia takes off and you set the hook, you’ll be looking at a broken rod. Ask me how I know. Make sure your line has a clear path when he bolts, because he’s going to when you set the hook.
When I’m shark fishing and hoping for cobia to follow a shark up, I usually have a different method. The cobia is following that shark for food. He picks up scraps when the shark eats. Again, the best plan is to give him what he expects.
So I’ll have a heavy spinning outfit rigged and ready with a piece of cutbait. Don’t cut that bait with a knife, tear it off. Then put it on the deck of the boat and stomp on it a few times. Then I’ll stick it in the livewell or a bucket of water so it doesn’t dry out.
When a shark is hooked and has a cobia in tow, calmly grab that rod, plop the bait in the water in front of the shark and let it drift down the sharks belly. Chances are the cobia will grab it. Sometimes you can throw a whole crab, whitebait or shrimp at them when they’re with sharks, but the cutbait works better. He’s not expecting a whole bait to come from the front of that shark — just a scrap.
My favorite place to accidentally find cobia is on the grass flats. They have figured out there’s some pretty good eating on those flats. Blue crabs, shrimp, eels, and baitfish are what they are looking for. Another favorite food of the cobia on the flats seems to be puffers.
It’s common to see them following stingrays this time of year. It’s mostly because rays kick up all sorts of prey from the bottom, but they also love eating baby stingrays as they are being birthed by the female. It’s like following a Pez dispenser.
I like to drift the flats fishing for trout. Throw any lure you would normally throw for trout, redfish or snook. My favorite is either the good ol’ MirrOlure 17MR or a white fluke rigged weedless on a worm hook. You’ve got something that looks like baitfish and something that looks like an eel.
I’ll just throw and throw while I drift the flats looking for a cobia to come to the boat or just simply swim by. It’s a great method, because the best that can happen is you catch a cobia — and the worst that can happen is you have a great day catching everything else on the flats.
The main thing to remember is to just remain calm when that big brown shape appears. If you don’t, chances are your antics are going to spook that dinner — er, cobia, I mean.
Capt. Cayle Wills owns and operates Bad Fish Charters on Charlotte Harbor. Contact him at 941-916-4538 or Capt.Cayle@ReelBadFish.com. You can also visit him online at ReelBadFish.com or Facebook.com/BadFishCharters.