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March 13, 2009

The Curious Case of Carolina Cobia

Favored fish flock inshore to Broad River each spring

Denson says he has heard reports of cobia moving into a few systems just south of the Broad - in Calibogue Sound south of Hilton Head, South Carolina, and in Wassaw Sound, east of Savannah, Georgia. But while cobia may appear in various inshore locations, only the Broad features such a directed fishery from April into June.

"When the water hits 72 degrees, they start coming in," says James Pate, an avid coastal angler and customer-service rep for Scout Boats in Summerville, South Carolina. "It's all dependent on water temperature with them. They're 20 miles out in 90 feet of water once it warms up into the 80s."

Typical strategies involve fishing either side of slack tides. And while anglers used to run to the deepest holes and drown baits on the bottom, they now sight-cast on slack high in shallower areas, sometimes with jigs or artificial swim baits and eels. They also target rips in six to eight feet of water or chum heavily at anchor around the turn of ebb or flood.

Pate and his lifelong friend Matt Phifer, who grew up on Port Royal Sound, target deeper channels near hard bottom in the sound at high tide, then head upriver to the Highway 170 bridge over the Broad around the low.

Putting on the Feed Bag
During an outing last May, Pate and Phifer showed me their routine. Phifer lined up the Scout 221 Winyah Bay on some numbers that marked a rocky bottom in the sound. The structure usually holds bait and even black sea bass at certain times. Phifer has pulled 59- and 63-pound cobia from this spot.

After anchoring, Pate hauled out a Chum Churn and began feeding it freshly netted pogies. Pate prefers the Chum Churn to other chumming methods because of the noise the machine makes as he sloshes it in the water. He theorizes that just as cobia curiously approach boats, they also key in on the churn sounds.

For extra measure, Phifer hung a mesh bag of frozen chum off an aft cleat. Soon, a visible oil slick snaked out behind the boat as the tide slowed. A dwindling current carries the scent casually without dispersing it.

Although cobia have earned the nickname "crabeater," they're actually very opportunistic feeders. "They'll eat anything," Kalinowsky says, "cut bait, frozen shad, greenies (threadfin herring), pogies (menhaden), eels - eels are more effective when the cobia can see them. A live eel on top within 25 yards of the fish...he's going to pile on it.

"I've found so many types of prey items in their stomachs - three fully grown striped burrfish, stingrays. ?"

SCDNR's analysis of cobia stomach contents has yielded similar variety: "We've seen horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, pipefish, eels, benthic organisms from offshore and nearshore," Denson says. "But we found no threadfin herring in any fish. We thought we'd see them feeding on those; we use them as bait."