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Close Encounters with Cobia  at Cabela's

Close Encounters with Cobia

Author: Capt. Fred Everson

Deep waters may hold the biggest fish, but the unique environment of Florida's flats finds some very big fish in water so clear, so shallow, so devoid of cover, a guppy could scarcely pass unseen.

Art Paiva, with a cobia hooked in two feet of water off Apollo Beach, Florida.
In spring, this environment is invaded by an uncountable host of stingrays; quite literally thousands of them, winging their way through the shallow waters over sun-bleached sand flats. Frequently lurking in their very shadows, swims a sinister looking fish - long, brown, and ominous - dorsal fin erect, pectorals fanned out like wings. They swim in graceful, slow motion that could easily cause cobia to be mistaken for sharks.

The first cobia I ever saw on the flats startled me. A long freshwater fishing background, where the "big ones" are seldom two feet long, makes sighting a three-foot fish in clear, shallow water an awesome experience. I hope the novelty never wears off.

I made a cast to that fish as soon as the surprise subsided, and it followed the jig back to the boat. Another cast produced the same result, and the third cast hit it in the head. It bolted in response, but resumed its slow cruise after a short dart. I switched to another rod with a Bomber Long A. The cruising cobia turned to this presentation and followed again. It finally put the lure in its mouth, not so much like a strike, but more similar to a retriever picking up a downed bird.

I set the hook and the torpedo was out of the tube and headed for the horizon. The realization that I needed to loosen the drag came to me just as the line popped with a crack that sounded like a rifle shot. A day later, I cruised the same sand flat in search of a rematch, and spotted two cobia more than 100 yards away in the calm, clear, shallow water over a sand flat. I kicked the electric trolling motor up to full power and quietly closed the gap.

I was ready with a Bomber on a long, powerful, rod and 20-pound test Ande mono. I laid the first cast in front of the fish, and the largest fish turned on it. There was a bump, but no take. A second cast had no effect, but on the third try the line came tight and the drag started to scream. It was 20 minutes before I got close enough to see the fish again, and was sorely disappointed to see my plug sticking out of the tail of a 50-pound cobia. Before I could decide what to do about it, the fish found a crab trap and broke me off, saving me the painful job of having to do it myself.

A few days later I had a really slow day. The tide was good, weather was perfect, but I couldn't find any fish that wanted to eat. In desperation, I cruised the same sand flat for cobia. It only took 20 minutes to find a lone fish lazily making his way over the bright, sandy bottom. A perfect cast brought the lure right across the cobia's nose and it hit. But cobia are hard-mouthed customers, and minutes later the hook pulled out.

The next fish I encountered followed an artificial back to the boat, where I was ready with a big rod rigged with a live pinfish. Ten feet from the boat in two feet of clear water, we watched as the cobia circled the bait three times before finally pouncing on it. After half a dozen strong runs, this fish finally came to the gaff. It never left our sight through the whole fight. After half an hour, the big fish was pretty much played out, and did not wreak havoc in the boat, as green fish are inclined to do.
Chet Jennings battles a cobia with a fly rod on the East Bay flats.
Boating cobia can be a risky business if you don't have an appreciation of exactly how much muscle lies under that brown skin. Some big fish come to the boat quickly and do not offer the usual dogged resistance you come to expect from cobia. Beware of these fish. They sometimes do not begin to fight until you stick 'em with the gaff and throw them into the bottom of the boat. Then it really hits the fan. Graphite rods can splinter like so many toothpicks, and tackle boxes spew their contents as the crazed cobia thrashes about in a tangle of fishing lures and broken rods. It ain't pretty.

Tarpon tackle is hardly overkill for big cobia. My favorite for tackling cobia is the Shimano Baitrunner and a rod with some serious backbone. Anything less than 20-pound test line is pretty minimal - even on the open water of the flats. Veteran cobia specialists like a six-foot leader of 60-pound test. If the fish can get his tail on the line above the leader, the game is pretty well up.

Fly-fishing enthusiasts will find the cobia an ideal opponent. Their propensity to cruise just under the surface makes them an excellent sight casting candidate. Cobia require 12-weight tackle, assuming that you want to keep your rod intact. Anything lighter is an invitation to lunch at the frustration diner. Everyone has eaten there, but the fare isn't very palatable. Flies that imitate eels, minnows, or crabs work well.

As the weather and water temperature warms, cobia move off the flats and into deeper water. They like to hang around structure in the summer months - range markers and buoys are favorites. They circle these marks on the surface where they can easily be seen and casted to. Once hooked, they tend to run for cover, which means you get broke off a lot on structure.

Generally speaking, cobia do not jump, but the exception occurs. They may thrash the surface a bit at the beginning or the end of a fight, but mostly they rely on sheer pelagic power. Indeed, few inshore fish can match the cobia for brute strength and staying power. All that in a sleek package that likes to swim around in the shallows and on the surface where it is easy to see. Pretty endearing features for a saltwater gamefish of this size.

Author Note: Capt. Fred Everson is a licensed professional fishing guide working the shores of Tampa Bay for Snook, Redfish and Trout near his Apollo Beach home. A native of New Jersey, and longtime resident of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, Capt. Fred has been writing about hunting and fishing for more than 20 years.

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