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March 13, 2009

The Curious Case of Carolina Cobia

Favored fish flock inshore to Broad River each spring

Despite the cobia's egalitarian appetite, most local anglers swear by pogies. Phifer hooks the biggest pogy he can find through the nares ("nose" holes) with a 7/0 circle hook and free-lines it behind the boat. He'll let two baits swim up top - one way back - and drop two to the bottom. Some anglers fish live pogies beneath      balloons. Kalinowsky uses both cut bait and live greenies.

He Ain't Heavy
With 30-pound-class tackle, anglers can boat or release most cobia within about 15 or 20 minutes. Phifer uses both conventional and spinning tackle, spooling Penn 320 GTs with 30-pound line and Penn 750 SSm spinners with 25.

Because cobia don't appear leader-shy, he crimps on five to six feet of  90-pound cable leader for his bottom baits, to guard against shark cutoffs, placing a 6-ounce egg sinker above the swivel. For free-lined baits, he uses about the same length of 80-pound monofilament leader and no weight.

When cobia pick up a deep bait, they hit it slowly, mouthing the fish, Phifer says. "On the surface, in the slick, they get worked up and bite harder. The smaller ones even jump."

Cobes usually make a tremendous first run, then slow, turn and perhaps rise toward the surface then dive straight down. As they come toward the boat, they may circle it, head for an anchor line or wrap around the chum bag. As anglers negotiate the various obstacles, they must also start gauging the fish's length.

In the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, state regulations require the release of fish measuring less than 33 inches at the tail fork. Other states, such as Virginia and New York, set a 37-inch minimum. Cobia occur in all tropical and subtropical waters except the eastern Pacific. In all U.S. waters, they're heavily protected with size  limits and daily bags of one to two fish.

No one knows whether anglers are overfishing the Broad River cobia, but with the recapture rate of SCDNR tagged fish at 40 percent, "that suggests the fishing pressure is pretty heavy," Denson says.

To keep from killing illegal fish, anglers must be careful with the gaff. "I don't know of any studies on release mortality," Kalinowsky says, "but one issue that's a problem involves gaffing undersized fish."

New anglers hoping to take home a tasty cobe often misjudge the length of a 15- to 20-pound fish. They gaff it, bring it aboard and find they've stuck a 24-inch cobia.

Kalinowsky suggests buying an extra-large dip net. If the fish looks like it will fit in the net, release it boat-side or bag it and bring it aboard briefly to check. Yes, cobia respond like wildcats let loose in a pillowcase when dropped on a boat deck. But throwing a towel over the fish's head helps subdue it a bit.

Rivers to Oceans
On the late May day I fished with Pate and Phifer, we left Port Royal Sound as the tide ebbed. We motored west toward the Highway 170 bridge, stopping at can buoys along the way. Just south of the bridge, boats anchored in a line along a current rip. The boat traffic looked like South Carolina's  version of Florida's famed Boca Grande Inlet in the middle of tarpon season. We were not gunwale-to-gunwale, but it was not a weekend either.