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April 03, 2007

Cobia Challenge

14 experts give up 28 secrets that will put more of these powerful cruisers in your boat

Many coastal fishermen around the world can relate to the shared experience of these tireless hunters suddenly appearing in singles, pairs or small packs behind an anchored or drifting boat - brown shadows darting this way and that to feed their ceaseless eating habit with some hapless hors d'oeuvre hiding beneath the hull.

While often cobia will find you, any serious efforts to nail trophy cobes mean being ready with the right gear and book of tricks. Here's how some of the world's best cobia skippers do it.

1. Be Prepared!
The one refrain most cobia pros sing loud and clear advises anglers to be ready. That means having rods rigged, baited up and set to throw, says Capt. Ed Frekey of Fourchon, Louisiana, who has caught cobia to 76 pounds. Otherwise, "when you find them, it does you no good."

"That's the first thing that comes to my mind," agrees Capt. Clif Jones of Orange Beach, Alabama. "Be prepared for any scenario." Being ready has helped Jones land cobia weighing nearly 90 pounds. "Not being prepared to cast the instant I spot fish from the tower" costs his fishermen more cobia than anything else, Jones insists. "You'd be amazed how often anglers will see cobia, then while they look for the rod, they lose the fish." And that's another tip from this veteran: "Once you see a fish, never take your eyes off it!"

Preparation for cobia doesn't necessarily mean only when you're targeting them either. "A cobia encounter can happen in unlikely places and at any time," says Capt. George Beckwith of Morehead City, North Carolina. "I've seen them aimlessly cruising the Intracoastal Waterway amid a weekend armada of powerboats and jet skis," says the skipper, who has caught cobia up to 72 pounds, "or suddenly appear beneath your 33rd stingray of the day."

2. Throw Big Baits
"Throw out big baits," urges Capt. Donnie Brown of Destin, Florida. Any skipper who has personally broken the century mark, as has Brown with a 103-pound cobe, ranks high on the credibility scale. "Big cobia that often won't touch a smaller bait will suck up a big one" -  reason enough to hold aside a couple of your biggest liveys.
3. Throw the Right Baits
Despite their ferocious growth rates, cobia can be surprisingly choosy when it comes to meals. If you're serious about hooking them, you need to have a good variety of baits and lures at the ready.

"Lots of times, they just won't bite one bait, so you need to have other offerings," says Brown. We'll carry up to six different [types of] live baits, and they might take just one." To ensure plenty of various baits, Brown has three livewells on his 56 Hatteras Sea Ya, two astern and one up front, all 50 gallons. "In one I'll put just eels, in another just mullet and in the third all my really big baits" (eels and mullet).

Beckwith agrees, noting that when looking for cobia, he'll carry several types of live baits, lures and flies.

4. Throw One Bait at a Time
Yes, cobia can be spooked. One way to do that is by letting several anglers toss out different offerings to the same big fish. One bait or lure at a time, says Hickman: "Otherwise, you may confuse a fish,   especially if it's a big bruiser." 

5. Chum and Chum Some More
That's just how North Carolina cobia ace Capt. Brant McMullan, who has caught cobes to 67 pounds, sums up a key factor for success: "Use chum, chum and more chum! Let the smell bring 'em to you." Ditto, says Capt. Brett Falterman of Venice, Louisiana, who considers a supply of dead pogies (menhaden) for cobia chum to be a must. Live chum also works for some experts such as Capt. Scott Bannerot. The experienced Florida Keys pro who catches his cobia in Australian waters these days is a fan of tossing live pilchards.

6. Don't Be Afraid To Go Deep
Anglers spot cobia cruising at or near the surface. However, that hardly means they're always on top. They often feed well below the surface. International fishing writer/photographer/videographer (and Sport Fishing contributor) Al McGlashan of New South Wales, Australia, has caught lots of cobia down under. He takes most of them on liveys and says, "Nearly all my cobia are picked up on the deep bait, which has a breakaway lead to keep it down."

7. Make Your Hooks Circles ...
Live-bait enthusiast McGlashan says circle hooks provide a much higher hookup rate for cobes than do J hooks. (Though, "interestingly, we rarely hook them in the corner of the mouth. Instead, we hook many cobia through the top of the mouth.") Falterman says, "Not only will circle hooks increase your hookup ratio, but increase the survival rate of undersize cobia." But Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Houma, Louisiana, adds a circle- hook caveat: "One of the best ways to live-bait is to use a circle hook," but in a sight-casting situation, anglers who can see a cobia grab a live bait may end up pulling the bait out of the fish's mouth.

8. ... And Make Sure They're Needle-Sharp
"I can't stress enough the toughness of a cobia's mouth!" says Capt. Skip Nielsen, who has caught more than his fair share of cobia while guiding Keys reefs. "Super-sharp hooks are a must."

9. Fish the Right Tackle
This varies depending on how you're targeting cobia, but heavy spinning gear is widely preferred. Brown likes 25- to 30-pound mono that allows long casts. But he also emphasizes the need for reliable reels (he still likes his Daiwa BG90s, though many skippers rely on a variety of fancier and much pricier spinning gear these days). Ultimately, reels and rods must hold up to the demands of pressuring big cobes to boat-side. "Inferior tackle usually results in any trophy fish breaking off," Brown warns.

10. Be Persistent
If you're working a big fish that won't eat, "just keep trying!" says Brown. "We'll stay on one big fish sometimes more than an hour - up to two or three hours for those in triple-digit range. Ninety percent of the time, if they won't eat, they won't eat," but, Brown adds, "you never know."

If anchored or drifting with live baits, you're bound to hook other species. Capt. Joe Shute of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, says, "If you're catching plenty of stingrays, big bluefish and sharks - and seeing the occasional sea turtle - don't leave: You're in the right area for a big cobia! I know it's frustrating to be catching all these trash fish - but cobias hang with these other species." Similarly, says Shute (who has caught cobia as large as 96 pounds), if crabs are requiring you to change baits often, that's OK because cobia are likely to be prowling where crabs abound.

11. Find a Whale Shark
For most savvy cobia enthusiasts, a whale shark represents a potential gold mine. Nielsen mentions that whale sharks, along with big stingrays and large sharks of any species, often include an entourage of cobia. Erwin Bursik, editor of South Africa's major sport-fishing magazine in Durban, says, "The only way we can  effectively target cobia in our waters is by locating a whale shark."

12. Fish the Right Conditions (for your area)
In some regions, a certain set of wind and water conditions spells "cobia," and a contrary situation may well spell "skunk." Learn what works for your neck of the woods. For example, savvy skippers like Brown, who looks for the bruisers that cruise off Florida Panhandle beaches, know that you need a westbound current and a southeast wind. "If you go out in the wrong conditions," Brown says, "you're pretty much going to be wasting your time."

13. Work a Color Change Hard
In many regions, a sharp color change will often attract cobia. That's why Capt. Tony Murphy looks for a good green/blue line off Key West, particularly during March and April when cobia migrate past the lower Keys. "Nothing's more exciting for me than seeing a school of four or five cobia cruising in a V formation down the green side of a color change," says Murphy, "with a monster in front!"

14. Get Tall and Use an Elevator
Implicit in many of these tips is the need for a good vantage point from which to look for cruising cobes. Anglers take lots and lots of cobia while on deck, often at anchor or drifting - and often while not looking for or even thinking about cobia. But serious cobia hunters search from towers, the higher the better. (I've seen small boats resorting to stepladders, though unless flat calm, that's risky business.) Many with high towers will not only spot but cast from them. I recall fishing with Brown when a deckhand would run up and down the tuna tower carrying tackle. Nowadays, Brown uses what he calls an elevator: a simple rope-pulley system so tackle, fresh baits or whatever can be quickly sent up or down from the deck.

15. Put Out a Stingray CAD
Not one to miss a beat, Beckwith figured out that since cobia so often follow stingrays, he could put one out to swim around behind the boat as a teaser. Such a CAD (cobia-attracting device) works. So he often puts down bait to catch ray, then from an anchored boat will tie it off so it swims about 10 feet back, free-lining a live menhaden just behind the ray. Nielsen also uses stingrays as CADs, but not at anchor. Rather, he'll attach a balloon or small float on a long length of mono and monitor it (of course hand-lining it back in and cutting off the ray later).

16. Don't Stop Now
"The most common way anglers miss a hot cobia is to stop [reeling] a jig, trying to let the cobia eat it," says Pellegrin. When anglers are seeing a fish, they tend to react differently from how they would if fishing "blind" - and often rue the result. Once a jig stops moving, rather than eat it, cobia generally turn away.

17. Plot Their Course
When cobia are migrating up or down a coast, often their movements will be fairly predictable. If Brown's following a good one that's not hungry, he'll use electronics to plot a track and speed so if it sounds, he'll have a good shot at being in the right area when the fish surfaces. "They tend to stay on a course, more or less," he explains.

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