These fish hang in the warm water outflow of the coal fired power plants, where they enjoy a more comfortable temperature than what is available in the rest of the bay. The price these fish pay for that luxury is relentless pressure from anglers trying to conjure up a cobia dinner. The big ling (a species of the cod family) are highly regarded as table fare, and justifiably so.
This makes the Apollo Beach outflow a popular spot in between late October and early March. Many anglers are willing to try for cobia, but few enjoy the success of charter captains like Chet Jennings who has recently made a reputation for himself catching cobia. On one Sunday in late October he boated 15 cobia well outside the confines of the power plant. While everyone else was jockeying for position around the mouth of the inlet, Capt. Jennings was travelling with pods of cobia and hooking up often using live shrimp. It is a tactic he has perfected through carefully matched tackle.
Starting with rods, Jennings employs 8-foot, one-piece St. Croix Tidemaster rods
. The rods are rated to 17-pound test, which provides enough muscle for most cobia, and the extra length allows precise casting of 3/8-ounce jigs which are tipped with whole live shrimp. Jennings has gone to 30-pound PowerPro fishing line
, a small diameter microfilament line that it's more sensitive than mono and ten times stronger. This unique braided line has no stretch or memory with a much smaller diameter than monofilament that will significantly improve those long cobia casts.
"If you can get a live shrimp in front of the cobia close enough for the fish to see it, nine times out of ten, he's going to eat it" says Capt. Jennings.
He locates the fish from the elevated tower of his skiff by cruising across a flat at idle speed. He points out that he is not always looking for the cobia themselves. Giant eagle rays are often easier to see, especially with their tendency to leap clear of the water every now and again. Cobia enjoy the close company of the biggest rays, and sometimes, you will see as many as six fish travelling with a single ray. Other times, you will not see the fish at all if it is beneath the ray, so Jennings casts around all the big rays that come within range.
When either fish or rays are spotted, Jennings shuts the engine down and runs his trolling motor. Cobia are not spooked easily early in the season, but they eventually catch on to the fact that purring outboards equal danger.
Making a good cast is important. The cobia has to see the bait, and water clarity around any hot water outflow is never very good. When the fish sees the bait and puts it in his mouth, a hard hookset is required. If you can't see the fish when it takes the bait, you should feel the weight of the fish before setting the hook. Cobia eat blue crabs for a living and are subsequently very hard mouthed fish. A well-pointed hook and a stiff rod will do the job.
Cobia are not totally predictable. I have seen them chase a live pinfish and not catch it, and then shut right down, even when the exhausted pinfish lays within easy reach. Some anglers trim the fins and tails of pinfish with scissors for just that reason. Another time, I hit a cobia right between the eyes with a jig. It scurried off 10 yards, where I threw a plug rigged on a different rod, and it ate it. Sometimes they will swim circles around the boat and hit nothing, and other times they will eat everything that moves. Sometimes cobia run like torpedoes, other times they shake their heads like saltwater catfish and come to the gaff with hardly any fight. I guess you just have to be there.
Once an angler hooks a cobia, relentlessly pressure the fish. Some touch is required here; cobia are very powerful swimmers to approach with inshore tackle. This is not a fish you can bully or turn at will. On a hard run away from the boat, just keep the rod bent with one eye on spool capacity. A big cobia will easily run out a couple of hundred yards of line in no time, and when that happens you need to be able to pursue. If you anchor to fish, this means using an anchor ball with a quick release.
A rod-length leader of 60-pound fluorocarbon is recommended to keep the fish's tail from chafing the lighter line on straight away runs. The farther the fish gets from the boat, the more the angle between the line and the fish decreases. If a cobia gets his tail on ten-pound test monofilament under this kind of strain, you lose. This makes a good case for using a long rod and keeping the rod tip high when the fish is running straight away.
Here in Florida, cobia must be 33 inches to the fork of the tail to be legal. Marginal fish should not be gaffed, but keep in mind that even short cobia are very powerful and should be handled carefully. Even a 15-pound fish can wreak havoc in a cockpit cluttered with tackle. A 60-pounder can cause utter devastation, and perhaps even break bones. Be advised that cobia are seemingly tireless and will often go crazy at being struck with a gaff, even after a long battle. Such fish should be boated very carefully.
If you will be in the Tampa area October through March and would like to talk cobia with Capt. Jennings, he can be reached at (813) 645-1195.
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