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October 26, 2001

Cobia Central

Where world records wait - spring actions sweet off Destins sugar-sand beaches.

I'm sorry, can you repeat that?" I sat in my office, holding the phone a bit away from my ear as Capt. Donnie Brown shouted, the wind gusts blowing across his cell phone making it sound like someone was rubbing a heavy cotton towel over the receiver.

I shouted back. "Yeah. I was just calling to see if everything looks good for coming out there next week!"
"Sure. We...hold on a minute." Now I could hear screams from someone else and make out words about big fish off the bow. "Yeah, sure. We'll be all set. It's blowing hard today, but we've got three cobia to about 80 pounds in the boat already" (it was about 10 a.m.), "and we've got more up ahead." More screams. Some question about "having that bait ready to throw," then, "Listen, I'm kind of busy here right now. But we'll see ya!"

That conversation went around and around in my mind as I drove toward Destin on a misty April evening. Despite high hopes for several days of fishing, wind - especially coming from the worst possible direction - effectively shut the cobia bite down soon after I arrived, but not before I got in one good morning with a group fishing the famed green waters off these sugar-sand beaches. And one good morning's enough to understand why Destin has become cobia central for the northern Gulf.

Despite less-than-perfect conditions, we ended up with a man-size cobia along with some smaller fish. What blew me away wasn't the wind but the when and where of finding that first big boy while cruising on Donnie Brown's 37-foot Harris, the Sea Ya. The time: about 8:30 a.m. We'd been out looking for all of 20 minutes or so. The place: right outside the inlet at Destin - such an easy run that I could see that cobia cruising off our starboard (Gulf) side and on the port (beach) side of the motel I'd left an hour earlier.

That's one of the beauties of fishing off Destin. You don't run to the cobia, at least much of the time; you let them run to you. Our first, best hope was to hook a monster right off on the long wand. Capt. Pat Dineen, a Destin small-boat guide whose Flyliner Charters specializes in putting fly rodders on inshore and nearshore action, had come along on a busman's Monday, looking for a world-record cobe. The images remain vivid as I remember how he got his first shot at a big one that morning:

In a cacaphony of shouts, voices flood down from the sky-high tower so typical of serious Destin cobia boats, as Brown and mates Chuck and Daniel holler locations and directions, gesture wildly to ghosts only they can see, and for which we had to take their word from our sea-level perspective in the cockpit.

"Five o'clock, Pat!"

"Hold on, hold on! I'm going to swing us around"

"Look there's another one."

"Where? Yeah, I see a second. But the other one's huge!"

"Come on, Pat: World record, baby, world record!"

"OK, now, we've got 'em coming around at 1 o'clock."

The skipper cuts the engines; the voices come down to us even more clearly in the silence.

"They're comin' by, Pat," Brown yells. "Get ready. Can you see them yet?"

"No!" Pat yells back.

Then: "Yeah, wait ... Yeah! I've got 'em."

I hop up on the gunwale holding onto an outrigger base to get some height (and stay out of Dineen's false-casts). Perhaps 100 feet out in the choppy green water I see a hulking brown shape cruising dead abeam with one slightly smaller colleague tagging along.

"That's it. Leave it, leave it!" Chuck coaches as the big streamer settled to the surface. "Now, strip it a bit! Let him see it! No, slower, slower!"

But if the cobia see the streamer, they're not interested. They swim on by.

I jump a bit as the corner of my eye catches sight of an eel suddenly leaping up off the deck, headed skyward like a mini-Trident missile. But this is an eel-on-a-string: Chuck, high up in the tower, has yanked him out of a water-filled bucket on deck. He cranks hard on the spinning reel until the eel is near the tip.

"Well, come on, son, or you ain't going to get a shot at 'em!" Brown scolds him.

The cobia are now far astern when the eel goes sailing over our heads. Although it lands much farther from the pair of fish than did the streamer, it doesn't matter: The bigger cobia obviously sees it. This is one show I've never caught before, and I watch it unfold in amazement. The fish turns and rushes the eel - right along top, spraying water as it goes.

Catching up, the cobia shakes its huge head back and forth like an angry dog, determined to get a grip on the writhing critter, now dancing at the surface for its life.

"He's got it!" I hear one of the voices scream, but then the smaller fish dashes in. Perhaps looking for leftovers, cobia junior rather than the behemoth a few feet away - according to one of Murphy's inevitable laws - inhales the eel. Suddenly, Chuck's reel is making beautiful music.

He hands the rod down to Dineen while scrambling down the tower. After a tough battle, the cobia's alongside the boat. Chuck and Daniel are all over it, and with one gaff in the back and one near the tail, they haul the brown beast over the gunwale where it precedes to go wild. All hell breaks loose, the big fish seeming as green as a free-gaffer, scattering anything and anyone in its way until finally subdued by the crew.

Back at the dock, the cobe weighed in at 87 pounds. The fact that the crew was pleased but also disappointed to have gotten this "smaller" of the pair says a lot about cobia fishing off Destin these days.

Towers and Eels Make the Difference
Fact is, in years past, you wouldn't have seen any heads hanging low over a cobia approaching 100 pounds. Now it pretty much has to be well over 100 to raise eyebrows. (Brown points to days last season when not one but four or five cobia well over 100 pounds were weighed in and says quite a few over 130 have been taken in recent years - including a 137 last spring that would have been the current all-tackle world record had the rod not been handed off.)

Why? Brown suspects the fish may be running bigger than they used to. But whether that's reality or perception, there's no denying the importance of anglers becoming much more cobia-savvy than before - as well as more cobia-focused.

Aside from the intensive effort, the success of Destin's spring cobia run can be attributed particularly to three factors: location, towers and eels. Plenty of ports along the northern Gulf offer great cobia fishing, no doubt about that. Destin's one of the very best, no doubt of that either. Some say the best. Pinning down the reason can be as tough as grabbing a squirming eel. One train of thought has to do with the shape of the Gulf here, so cobia naturally funnel right up to the area off and in the vicinity of Destin.

Cobia fishing off Destin and most of the Florida Panhandle has become a highly specialized, period-specific sight fishery, Brown says, and that means you gotta have a tower - and the taller the better! Years ago, you'd see only a few larger boats with towers prowling the green water for cobia. Nowadays, towers dot the horizon off the beaches. Brown says it's because of sight fishing from towers that, "People are spending big money to catch these fish."

Even the little guys get into the act: I watched one angler who'd had a tower built for his small center-console. Maybe he ran out of funds or just wanted to keep it simple - but without any steering mechanism, he'd rigged ropes running back through pulleys to his outboard, which he would pull this way or that to steer while he kept his eyes peeled! But of course, most boats are more substantial and, ideally, have a skipper and co-spotter in the tower and an angler or two plus any additional crew in the cockpit.
The other factor that's helped open up cobia fishing - by opening up their mouths - is the use of live eels, which caught on in a big way about five years ago. (See the sidebar, "Records Will Fall," which reinforces this: Before 1994, not a single cobia record was taken on a live eel; since then eels account for many records.)

Cobia are incredibly opportunistic feeders and at any given moment, any cobia may hit almost any sort of bait or lure. At other times, of course, they can develop their famous lockjaw attitude when they're about as interested in eating as someone recovering from a headache.

Eels, however, do tend to turn cobes on. "They'll work when nothing else will," Brown says. But that's not their only advantage. To say eels are tough fails to do justice to their longevity. Once hooked through the lips and dropped into a bucket of water, they'll be going strong for hours. They can be cast over and over and stay lively. And cobia can't easily yank them off the hook. One disadvantage is that, unlike with much bigger baits such as a 2-pound mullet, smaller cobia also love eels and may the slurp them up before the nearby trophy fish can get to 'em.

Up-and-Coming Cobes Ride Eastbound Waves
Don't assume cobia fishing's on the ropes anytime a wind roughs up the Gulf. In fact, a good breeze creates what some cobia spotters consider ideal conditions - as long as it blows in from the south or southeast. "That's the wind we look for," Dineen says. "They seem to follow it right in."

An eastbound current also brings in the cobia, Brown says, and coupled with a south wind, "They'll come up and ride the waves, right on top. It's easier for them to travel that way." And, of course, easier for Brown to spot them.
On the other hand, when it's blowing from the west, give the cobes a rest - you're not likely to have much luck with fresh westerlies. Ditto a west current, which tends to keep cobia deep rather than up on top.

The third environmental factor calls for good directional sunlight to penetrate the water. Hazy days are tough. Some skippers don't like it mirror-calm either, feeling that such conditions create too much surface glare.

As fond as cobia are of eels, there may be times when they seem to prefer other live baits. That can include mullet or other baitfish or crabs (which Brown usually carries). "Sometimes we'll cast a crab and get a cobia to eat when it won't hit anything else."

If there's a universal artificial for mullet in the Gulf and Atlantic, it would be a brightly colored jig - with chartreuse nylon, not surprisingly, leading the list, though glow orange is a close second. When in close proximity to other cobia hunters, as boats often are outside Destin, look closely and you'll see puffs of orange or green swinging from rods sticking out of towers.

Whether fished bare or with plastic curly-cue tails, the great majority of jigs tossed here will be either a locally popular Ding-a-Ling jig (with the head chopped off at an angle) in a 2 1/8-ounce size or a 3-ounce No Alibi jig with a more traditional full head. Some anglers cast tube lures or plugs with success. Brown fishes baits or lures with a couple feet of 60- to 80-pound mono leader on a light conventional reel with 25- to 30-pound line (except with light-line enthusiasts or line-class record seekers), though sometimes when cobia turn finicky, he'll go down to 20-pound line tied straight to the hook with no leader.

On the Fly: Stay Calm, Strip Easy, Hang On!
But the real sleeper fishery for Destin cobia may be fly fishing. Brown calls this "the greatest fishery in the world" and notes that the word is at least beginning to get out as a greater number of fly fishermen, many coming long distances, are showing up.

"You do have to be prepared to be persistent," he points out. "We'll see 20 or so cobia before we'll hook one up on the fly."

He tries to make sure that, whatever baits or lures are ready, nothing's thrown until the fly caster has had a chance to drop his fly in front of the fish. "The first thing that hits the water should be the fly, then it's up to the fish to eat the offering. If not, after the second or third shot, you can figure they're not likely to go for it.

Teasing can get cobia close to the boat, especially since they're often not particularly spooky. "But we've learned that when you tease 'em with an eel, for example, then they just want the eel" and, again, show little interest in a fly.
Leave the little flies at home, Brown advises.

"They just don't see 'em," he explains. "You need long flies, usually on a 4/0 hook. Ideal cobia fly tackle, he says, is a 10- to 12-weight rod to cast a medium-sink tip or monocore line; the line should sink, but slowly.

When a big cobe does give the fly caster a shot, "The biggest problem is to get these guys [fly rodders] to stay calm!" That means not only waiting to cast until the optimal time, but being able to drop the fly near the fish and then not stripping too fast in the heat of the moment.
Getting a cobia to take a fly is a proverbial half-the-battle effort. The second half's no easy task, either. Most professional cobia skippers can tell you a few "woulda-been" record fish stories from last season when a fish easily of record size is lost to one of the countless glitches that a long fight with a big fish on light tippet often engenders.

Whatever gear you choose to tackle Panhandle cobia, you can figure on a window of about 45 hot days in a season running about two months, total. "Fishing for 'em gets pretty reliable from about March 20 until mid-May," Brown says. During this time, they may be more prevalent some days to the east or west and a run of an hour or so can be justified.

Just an idea of how big a deal cobia fishing's become to northern Gulf anglers is evident in the way some plan their years. Dineen points out that he knows more and more people who take a month off each spring just to fish these cobia. The enthusiasm of Brown, who seldom misses a day on the water this time of year unless weather shuts it down, offers powerful insight into just how much the excitement of sight fishing for Destin cobia can get in one's blood. "I work all year just to do this for 45 days!"