In late February and early March, cobia start making a showing in Southwest Florida. These fish are often spotted by anglers seeking trout and redfish on the grassflats, or along the beaches. Along the northern Gulf Coast, these fish often school. Here in Southwest Florida, cobia are almost always seen alone or with just one other cobia.
If you spot these fish while you’re running, you can usually stop and go back to them as long as you don’t run them over — they’re not spooky by nature. Try to drift up to the fish, or use the trolling motor. Cobia are not picky about their diets — shrimp, baitfish, crabs, eels and almost any other small aquatic creature is fair game. The best lure you can use is any eel imitation in black or purple. Even a big bass worm will work. With smaller plastics, rig them on a bucktail for a larger presentation.
Most of the fish you’ll spot are in the 15- to 30-pound range. Your snook or redfish outfit is probably suitable for a cobia this size. A 7-foot medium action rod with a 4000 series reel is ideal, with 12-pound mono or 20-pound braid. Cobia teeth aren’t big or razor-sharp, so skip the wire. But a 3-foot leader of 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon or mono is a requirement to survive their abrasive jaws. You can use a shorter leader, but cobia sometimes jump, and you don’t want the fish to land on your running line and sever it.
Cobia make long, hard runs, so you’ll need a reel with a quality drag. These fish seem to tire quickly, but their batteries also recharge rapidly. You may think the fight is over, but once the fish gets to the boat and you try to net or gaff it, it will take off like a rocket and make another run. Be ready for this — set your drag light and anticipate that the fish may go under the boat.
Don’t try to net the fish the first time you bring it boatside. A green cobia in the boat will thrash wildly, and they’ve been known to break tackle, boating equipment and ankles. Let the fish run at least three times before you bring it into the boat. BogaGripping or netting the fish is better than gaffing, unless you’re experienced with cobia and judging their size. Cobia have broad heads and can appear larger than they really are. It would be a shame to injure an undersize fish by gaffing it.
Cobia are also drawn to cover. Charlotte Harbor Markers 1,2 and 8 are notorious for holding these fish, as are the Alligator Creek and Cape Haze reefs. On the reefs, you’ll sometimes have a cobia swim into your chum slick or just up to the boat. They also sometimes will hang out underneath an anchored boat while you’re bottom fishing.
It’s a good idea to hang a bait out there just in case a cobia shows up. I like to dangle a piece of cutbait or dead shrimp a couple feet under the water. Be sure this rig has a dual-drag spinning reel (like a Penn Live Liner) or a conventional reel with a clicker — you don’t want to lose the rod over the side. You can also have a rod rigged with a cobia-specific lure, ready to toss it out the moment a fish shows up.
Because you’ll be hooking these fish literally feet from the boat, a light drag setting is essential. Be prepared to practice your gymnastics skills — once hooked, cobia often run in circles. That means you’ll be running in circles, too — all the way around the boat, dodging other anglers, the anchor line, rods in holders and anything else in the way.
Cobia can also be caught from shore. Laishley Park, the U.S. 41 bridges and the Bayshore piers are popular spots to hook a cobia starting in early summer. Most of the fish found here will run on the large side — about 30 pounds is average. In these locations, bottom fishing is the preferred method and the tackle is heavier. A 4/0 conventional reel spooled with 40-pound mono on a 6.5- or 7.5-foot heavy action rod is a good outfit. Many anglers use steel leaders, because these same areas also hold good numbers of sharks in summer. A chunk of cut mullet or ladyfish soaked on the bottom is a good bait, but a live whiting is the best bait you can get. The biggest cobia will home in a live whiting like no other bait.
Cobia can hurt you in a few different ways. Not only can their rough jaws remove skin from your fingers and hands, but they also have crushing plates in their throats (cobia eat a lot of crabs). In addition, there’s a row of sharp, retractable spines along their back, so no bear-hugging.
If you plan to keep the fish, the best way to handle it is to cut the throat and let it bleed out, then get it on ice as soon as possible. There’s a lot of meat on a cobia — a 25-pound fish should yield about 15 pounds of meat. Filleting one can be a challenge for a first-timer, so it’s best to have someone with cobia-filleting experience show you how; otherwise, you’ll probably waste meat.
Cobia are not an easy to fish to target. You have to be willing to devote the time to seeking one, or get lucky and have one just show up. But catching one is an awesome experience, and well worth the effort of seeking these fish out.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.