With rapidly warming waters along the coast and the first baitfish migrations starting to show up, April is a great month for Panhandle anglers.
Cobia is the big news this month, as the “brown torpedoes” show up anywhere from just outside the green reef - the first bar off the beach - to several miles offshore. The fish winter in South Florida and the Keys, but in April they come in pods of two to occasionally a half-dozen, traveling slowly and steadily just below the surface, east to west along our shores.
The big excitement in cobia is that they can be sight-fished, that is, anglers in tower boats seek them out and present a lure or live bait just ahead of them. The take can often be seen as well as felt, and with fish that may weigh anywhere from 20 to 80 pounds, the excitement generated is considerable. The state record, 130 pounds, 1 ounce, was caught near Destin.
Cobia can also occasionally be caught from the Panhandle piers, which extend directly into their migration route. They’re most often spotted from the east side.
Cobia are usually not picky eaters, but they can get that way after a few hundred miles of having lures thrown at them during the spring migration. Live eels, finger mullet, pinfish or small crabs are the best offerings, but plastic eels, in particular the one made by Savage Lures, can also be effective. Cobia that have not been worked over by anglers also regularly take noisy topwater lures and bucktail jigs.
Some area baitshops stock live eels during the cobia runs. There’s a bit of an art to handling these slick, squirmy critters. Best tactic I’ve seen is to drop them on to a dry newspaper and let them wiggle a bit until the slime is absorbed. They can then be gripped long enough to put a hook through the jaw. Use a relatively small hook, 2/0 to 3/0 in medium wire—they’re fairly delicate baits.
Getting the relatively light baits in front of the fish requires a medium-heavy spinning rig, typically an 8-foot rod, 4500 size reel and braided line testing 30 to 40 pounds. A couple feet of 40- to 50-pound-test mono tied in with a double uni-knot acts as leader, and most use 4/0 to 5/0 live bait hooks for mullet, crabs and pinfish.
Cobia can also be caught where they’re not visible. They regularly stop along their migration route to feed around buoys and markers as well as wrecks and reefs, anywhere that attracts bait. Sinking a live pinfish close to any of these structures throughout April is highly likely to connect with a cobia - if a kingfish doesn’t latch on first.
Cobia, like dolphin-fish, also tend to follow hooked buddies to the boat. It appears they think all the rolling and splashing is feeding activity and they want in on the action. If you have a second rod rigged and ready, you can sometimes simply drop it in front of a trailing fish and boat a double-header.
Cobia can be strong fighters, but sometimes they come to the boat easily. Don’t be fooled; the ones that don’t fight in the water save their punches for the instant they hit the deck. A 50-pounder can pretty much tear a center console apart if allowed to get off the gaff before he’s buttoned down in the fish box. Best tactic is to stick them with the gaff and swing them directly into the box, then sit on the lid until the fish gives out. The hooks can then be removed in safety.
Cobia tournaments add an element of competition—and a chance to make some money—to the fun of chasing cobia. There are a number of these events in Panhandle waters each spring. Here’s a partial listing:
Harbor Docks Cobia World Championship, March 30-May 5, entry $400, $7,500 first prize; www.harbordocks.com
Crab Cruncher Classic, April 11-15, entry $750, $15,000 first prize; www.harbordocks.com
Destin Cobia Tournament, March 1-April 30, $500 entry or $250 for boats 30 feet and under; www.destincobiatournament.com
Destin Flathead Classic, April 25-28, $500 entry or $250 for boats 26 feet and under; www.boshamps.com/destin-flathead-classic.com
Cobia are delicious on the table, which means that pretty much every legal fish that comes aboard goes into the cooler. This was not a problem when there were only a few hundred anglers along the entire west coast who knew how to catch them, but these days there are thousands, many with specially-rigged tower boats, and the fish run a gauntlet all the way from Key West to the Mississippi Delta every spring.
Cobia numbers are definitely down, and the state has been tightening harvest regulations as a result. Only one fish per angler per day is now permitted, with a minimum length 33 inches to the fork or center of the tail, and there’s also a boat limit of two.
For more on the species, visit www.myfwc.com