Aggressive and opportunistic, cobia are some of the ocean’s most formidable predators. Highly prized targets found roaming coastal waters around the entire state, these powerful adversaries go by many aliases including ling, lemon fish, crab eaters, brown clowns and cobes. No matter what moniker you choose to shout out when you spot a brown bomber cruising the surface, you better get ready because the spring run of cobia along Florida’s East Coast is exploding. Fortunately, my home waters of Port Canaveral offer what are arguably the most exciting, demanding and hardcore sight fishing opportunities in the entire state.
Mention sight fishing in a watering hole full of old salts and it is highly likely tall tales of tipping redfish overcome the conversations. However, hunting cobia in the open ocean is big game sight fishing at its finest. Sure, redfish can be hard to fool, but cobia are determined predators that don’t give up even once they are in the boat. Often seen shadowing manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, hanging near floating structure or free swimming on the water’s surface in hopes of scavenging an easy meal, cobia have plenty of big fish attitude so you’ll need to prepare accordingly. What’s most exciting about this fishery is their shear size, with fish in the 25 to 50-pound range common captures.
These fish are incredibly powerful, thrash violently and create some serious chaos once inside the boat.
The annual spring run of cobia begins once area water temperatures reach the upper 60s to low 70s. This coastal migration starts in South Florida and the Florida Keys, where cobia ride out the cooler months of winter. And since this annual springtime movement of cobia heading north is relatively predictable, anglers in all sorts of watercraft can be seen scanning the near-shore depths. What gets the interest of most people is the fact that these fish can pop up anywhere from outside the breakers along area beaches to a couple of miles offshore. With easy access you don’t need a big boat to get connected and on calm days you can certainly score in a flats skiff. I’ve even seen kayaks and stand up paddleboards mixed in with bay boats, center consoles and big game sportfishers.
As with all sight fishing endeavors, an elevated perch will greatly enhance your ability to spot cruising fish. While I’ve scored on my skiff, I prefer to chase cobia in a 22-foot Pathfinder bay boat that’s equipped with a tower and upper helm station. With this platform I can spot fish from much farther away, while having ultimate boat control to put my anglers in position to cast at approaching fish.
When it comes to selecting the ideal offering you should be aware that cobia can be super finicky. While you won’t have any shortage of targets to cast at, the hardest part is getting them to eat. One day they might prefer jigs over crabs, while other days they might want nothing but live finfish. Yet once you think you’ve got them figured out they’ll turn their noses at everything you toss their way. Keeping this in mind, it will be in your best interest to outfit yourself with a variety of offerings.
Common live baits used for catching cobia include croaker, jumbo shrimp, pogy, blue crab, finger mullet and sardines. For artificial entusiasts, topwater plugs, poppers, subsurface lures and a variety of swim baits will work, but it’s hard to beat a bucktail jig tipped with a soft plastic eel or curly-tail grub. When presenting artificial offerings to cruising fish you want to employ a fast retrieve and let the fish race after your lure all the way to the boat. If you give the fish too much time to investigate the fake, they normally turn away from it. You want your offering to look as natural as possible, so keep it moving at all times. Since these fish are very curious and show no apparent fear, it’s not uncommon to have cobia swim up to your boat and beg to be caught, which means you need to always be ready to fire out a cast.
A common mistake that I see all the time is what happens after a boat spots a manta ray, leatherback turtle, or school of free-swimming fish. While finally locating your intended target is no doubt exciting and intense, it’s pretty obvious when a boat sees something because they will often go full throttle racing toward the fish. This will do nothing but send every boat in the vicinity racing in your direction. A fleet of boats steaming your way will push the fish deep and no one will have a chance of catching anything. If you approach at a steady speed without throttling up or down, most of the time you won’t attract the attention of nearby anglers and the ray or turtle will stay up on the surface.This brings me to my second common mistake often witnessed during the annual springtime cobia run.
When you spot a ray or turtle with cobia in the mix, you want to avoid casting directly over it to reach the cobia. Instead, cast 10 feet to either side. Once your jig or bait hits the water it will make a splash and should get the fish’s attention. If the cobia are interested they will investigate the commotion, which will hopefully result in a hook up. If you don’t entice a strike make another cast just a little closer.
The third mistake I see too often is anglers simultaneously bombing a single fish. By presenting too many baits you risk confusing the cobia, which will make them swim away with a big headache. I always instruct my anglers to take turns casting. If one angler makes a bad cast have another ready to fire out a bait or lure, taking turns back and forth until one hooks up.
Because of the incredible sight fishing opportunities and impressive size of the targets, die-hard fly fishermen are attracted from around the world. However, not too many people in my area care to catch cobia on fly. No one wants to waste their time fishing for them with a flimsy fly rod, they simply want to catch their limit and go home. While catching cobia on conventional tackle is exciting, I personally enjoy the adrenaline rush associated with a cobia trailing my fly up to the boat, smashing it, and ripping off fly line well into the backing. Talk about a thrilling experience!
When targeting cobia with a fly rod, I prefer to use an 11 or 12 weight loaded with floating or intermediate sink tip line. Leader systems don’t need to be intricate and I’ve had great success with 6 to 8-feet of 60 lb. monofilament. To get a cobia’s attention any large popper, bunny strip, or baitfish pattern will get you connected. The main thing to remember when fly-fishing for cobia is that you need to keep the fly moving at all times. If the fish has too much time to look at your fly they will usually nudge it with their nose and turn away. Your goal is to create a reactionary strike, so presentation is crucial and a fast strip is required. If you can’t strip the fly fast enough, try a two-handed stripping technique by tucking the fly rod underneath your armpit and stripping with both hands.
Once you’ve got your prize to the boat the real fun begins. These fish are incredibly powerful, thrash violently and create some serious chaos once inside the boat. Take extra caution when boating green fish because they can be a real terror.
While the spring cobia run can be extremely enjoyable, show courtesy to anglers fishing in the same area. Remember that this isn’t a competition and we all share the same passion. With a little common sense and courtesy everyone can take fish home for dinner. If you’ve never experienced this epic migration you owe it to yourself to get in on the incredible action. Chances are once you get tight you’ll come back for more year after year.See you on the water.