Come mid-March, anglers along the Panhandle have one thing on their minds—intercepting migrating cobia as they move westward along the crystal clear waters of the Emerald Coast. But as big and ruthless as hefty cobia are, they can at times be uncooperative and extremely finicky in regards to preferred forage. Because of this, seasoned cobia killers know they have to be outfitted with a wide variety of natural and artificial offerings to capitalize on brown bombers cruising the near-shore waters.
While there are trophy cobia approaching the triple digit mark landed along the northern Gulf each spring, Destin is ground-zero for the action, with seven piers within a 50 mile range and miles of prime cobia coastline. Although many cobia have been coerced with artificial offerings, nothing beats live bait when trying to pull a fast one over a jumbo lemonfish. Not to say that these fish are as smart or as skittish as keen-eyed tuna or temperamental snook, but cobia can be incredibly stubborn to coerce regardless of your preferred method of approach.
Although the best bait is the one your target chooses to eat on that particular occasion, day in and day out seasoned vets perched high in towers across the Panhandle agree that the very best bait is a live American eel. Available from tackle shops across the region, these freshwater eels really turn on stubborn cobia that seem to refuse everything else. While typical live offerings like mullet and pinfish work well at soliciting strikes, eels are preferred because they are incredibly durable, can be presented multiple times, and are difficult for fish to yank off the hook. Live eels are best rigged with a 5/0 to 7/0 hook and placed in a pitch bucket so the slimey critter is ready to go when a dark shadow is spotted cruising just below the surface. This fishery is all about preparation because you have to make each and every opportunity count—you might not get too many.
Once you are rigged and ready to go, the idea is to cruise in the same direction of the migration—west—at a speed just fast enough to overtake fish cruising the surface. Because effective sight fishing requires the sun to be glaring from behind you, it’s not always feasible to cruise west. When this is the case you might want to cruise as slowly as you can in the opposing direction. When a fish is spotted and it’s time to make a cast the idea is to free-line your live eel in front of the fish. After casting a live eel it will likely swim straight for the bottom. This is why most artificial eel imitations feature a lead head to help the lifeless bait appear like it is naturally swimming toward the seafloor. From here let the bait do the work and when your offering is consumed, let the cobia eat for a few seconds before locking up and coming tight.
If your initial presentation is refused, keep trying until you find something the fish wants to eat. However, it’s important you don’t overload the fish’s senses or spook your target by simultaneously casting multiple offerings. Rather, give each bait a chance and wait for the fish to actually refuse the offering before presenting a different bait or lure.
If and when your live baits are ignored it’s time to toss out a bucktail jig. Most cobia hunters have spinning rods rigged with 1 ½ to 3 oz jigs in chartreuse, green and orange. After you toss a jig to a cobia retrieve it near the surface so the fish can easily see it. Once a cobia turns on your jig and gives chase don’t stop reeling or it will immediately lose interest. After a few attempts you’ll quickly realize that cobia are intensely curious fish and show little fear of boats. They have been known to follow hooked fish up to the boat where they often linger to see the action.
No matter what offering you choose when the opportunity arises, you’ll have a much greater chance of success if you fish during optimal conditions. With the fish moving west, ideal conditions exist when light southeast winds prevail.
Cobia also have wide ranging diets and no matter what you keep in your livewell and tackle bag you must be prepared. This is big game sight fishing at its finest and your rods must be rigged, baited, and ready to throw at all times. When you come across particularly picky fish, show them numerous offerings and hopefully you’ll present something that turns them on. Good luck and be sure to show anglers in the area some etiquette, as sight fishing leviathan ling along Florida’s Panhandle is more popular than ever before.