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March 13, 2009

The Curious Case of Carolina Cobia

Favored fish flock inshore to Broad River each spring

Unfortunately, that particular day on that particular tide, none of the boats hooked up. One by one, each pulled anchor and idled away as dusk fell.

"I've had more luck offshore on the wrecks," Pate's friend, Capt. George Tilton, told me later. "Cobia tend to show a little earlier on the wrecks (early April) and tend to stay on the wrecks after they leave the river (late July). And the majority of fish are bigger; they average about 30 pounds."

Tilton's primary reason for fishing offshore, though: He runs out of Fripp Island north of Beaufort, so the Broad fishery lacks convenience.

Most of the wrecks Tilton fishes lie about 15 miles off the coast along a ledge in 50 to 90 feet of water. Besides cobia, he catches kingfish, sailfish, barracudas and spadefish - a guide's smorgasbord.

"I like to try to get on the edges of the wrecks, anchor up and establish a chum line with one or two blocks of menhaden chum and cut pogy chunks," he says. "Some people use eels and catfish for bait, but I use cobia candy - live menhaden, the bigger the better."

His tackle includes Shimano TLD 20s on 30-pound-class rods. He spools up with 30- to 40-pound-test mono, despite the potential for wreck cutoffs. "An 80-pound cobia might be a different story," Tilton says. "But I didn't lose any fish to the wrecks this past summer."

To the main line, he ties about six feet of 80-pound mono leader; if the fish are finicky, he goes to 60-pound fluorocarbon. Bottom rigs employ a 5-ounce egg sinker above the swivel and a 6/0 short-shank Mustad hook at the business end. He rigs surface lines with 6 feet of leader from the swivel and uses rigging wire to attach the leader to a balloon.

Tilton sends one bait to the bottom, leaves one about 10 feet off the bottom and lets two pay out on the surface. "Most of the fish come up from the bottom," he says. "And then as they come up, they'll bring a bunch of their buddies with them. I also see them come up the chum slick."

As do his inshore counterparts, Tilton fishes slack tides offshore. And if hard chumming doesn't rouse the fish, he revs his engines to attract attention.

"Some trips, we only catch one or two fish, but I had one trip this past year where we caught 25 and kept 10," he says. "Of the 10 we kept, three went over 60 pounds and two went over 50; all the rest were over 30."

Hit or Miss?
While anglers have targeted and caught cobia in the Broad for years, and the fishery seems every bit as  predictable as that along the Florida Panhandle beaches each spring, every year tells a different tale. "It would appear from very limited data that cobia year classes are highly variable," Denson says. "That coupled with weather conditions and angler effort will make each fishing year hard to predict."