For bigger fish, he uses a 2- to 3-ounce bucktail. "You want a lot of hair and a big rubber tail so the bucktail sinks slower," he said.
Like Kelly, Shepard first throws the eel. "A perfect cast lands five feet from the fish's head," Shepard says. When the cobia bites, he instructs his angler to open the bail and let the cobia take the bait for a couple of seconds. Then close the bail and let the line come tight.
"When you throw the bucktail, jig it fast and hard," he says. Shepard has noticed that each cobia reacts differently to the jig. "If they're not super interested, slow it down," he suggests, "do something different."
Stock of the Bay
With Shepard's instructions running around in my head, we continued north up Thimble Channel. Shepard told me the fish first show in late May along Thimble Shoal or Baltimore Channel. "From year to year, they seem to prefer one over the other," he pointed out.
Water temperature plays a key role in finding cobia, he says. A pocket of water that's cooler or warmer than the surrounding bay can hold fish. Look for any inconsistencies such as tide lines, floating debris or color changes. Shepard also prefers at least a little current.
By June, the fish spread out in the open bay. "We just cruise around looking for fins," he says, which is exactly what we did that early June day.
After we tooled up Thimble Shoal Channel, Shepard changed course and headed northeast across Horseshoe Shoal. Almost as soon as we hit the edge of Baltimore Channel, we saw another fish. Shepard pointed toward a raft of small, purple jellyfish that was formed by the edge of a tide line. This cobia was bigger.
Jason Legg took the cast, landing the eel a few feet from the fish's head. The squirming worm sank slowly. As expected, the big cobia didn't let the eel get far. Legg came tight on the line and the fight erupted.
The fish ran and bulldogged then jumped twice, struggling to get its fat, brown body out of the water. Once the fish had spent its considerable energy, Shepard gaffed the 60-pounder and dispatched it with an aluminum billy club to keep the cobia from wreaking havoc on deck.
With the fish photographed and stored in the fish box, we climbed back into the bay boat's tower, and Shepard continued to tell me about cobia fishing in the bay. "Later in the summer, cobia home in on any structure in the lower bay, from bridge pilings, rocks, buoys, to tide lines and temperature breaks," he said.
Toward the end of September, cobia leave the bay, and anglers find some amazing action along Virginia Beach's oceanfront on buoys and tide lines. Shepard said he sees schools of 10 to 50 fish; once he saw a pod with at least 300 cobia.
Shepard and Kelly have recorded outstanding catches from the Outer Banks to Virginia. Each averages 200 to 250 cobia in a season. Last year, Shepard lost count at 400 and Kelly set a personal record with 300. On Shepard's best day in the bay, he caught 19, but last spring he was in on an unprecedented run of cobia off Hatteras - scoring more than 40 cobia in one day.
Kelly's best-ever day came on his first day cobia fishing last spring. "We got to the Hook (inside Cape Point) at 7 a.m., and we were in the meat," he told me, excitement from the day's adventure still vibrating in his voice. "I looked to my left and saw 20, then to the right and saw another 15. There were singles, doubles, triples; they were all balled up. It was game on. We started whacking them."
So many fish and only two anglers. Faced with the chance to have an epic day, Kelly knew he needed help. He called one of his most obsessed clients, and the guy drove down to the beach and swam out to Kelly's boat. The three anglers worked like machines casting, hooking, fighting, unhooking, and casting again until they had caught and released 72 cobia. "I'd never seen anything close to that ever," he reflected.
With cobia fishing improving each year, anglers visiting the Outer Banks and Chesapeake Bay have a shot of seeing something truly special. "Drive around looking for cobia," Shepard said, "and you won't believe your eyes."
Sight-casting for cobia might be the simplest fishing experience ever conceived. "Just drive around all day and look for fish," Virginia Capt. Ben Shepard says. Rigging for these fish is easy too.
Two outfits cover all your cobia needs: a heavy-action spinning rod with a stiff tip for casting a bucktail, and a lighter stick with a slower bend to toss an eel. Both rods should measure at least 7 feet; reels should hold enough 50-pound braid and generate enough drag to tire a 100-pound cobia.
To rig the bucktail rod, use a Bimini/Albright connection to double the main line, and attach 3 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon and a brightly colored 2- to 3-ounce bucktail. To the jig hook, add a rubber twister tail in pink, orange, chartreuse or white; the tail prevents the jig from falling too fast. For the lighter rod, use the same length of 40-pound fluoro and an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hook.
When Shepard encounters small cobia, he chooses a medium-action spinner that's limber enough to throw a 1/8-ounce bucktail.
Cloudy skies don't keep cobia enthusiasts off the water: When the sun hides, Shepard and North Carolina Capt. Aaron Kelly break out a block of menhaden chum and drift their live eels through known cobia hangouts.
About the Author: Ric Burnley is a writer, photographer, teacher and father based in Virginia Beach. For more information on fishing the mid-Atlantic, check out his website, www.fishcrazy.info.