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Beach Blanket Cobia

3/3/2009

Cobia are curious to a fault, and generally gravitate to boats and commotion like moths to a flame - not that there's anything wrong with that! Pitch a frisky live bait in front of their snout and they'll provide a great fight, some impressive pictures afterward — especially if it's a big one, and plenty of superb dining. Cobia are definitely "feel good" fish!

However, after turning away from a perfectly-presented live eel, it became evident this cobia didn't read the same manual! A case of semi-lockjaw and series of blunders proceeded to sweep us all up on a long, dragged out mission to catch this defiant fish — a quest which spanned 55 minutes just to hook it!

I was on the bow of the Orange Beach, Alabama-based 62-foot charter boat "Necessity", captained by Ben Fairey. At my disposal were several 20-pound class spinning outfits and a variety of live baits. Riding way, way up in the nose-bleed section of the vessel's super tall tower was the captain himself, Patrick Ivie and Harry Vernon III. Their job was to spot fish migrating along the Alabama coast and put me within casting range — a job they did exceptionally well. On deck with me was Shane Toole and Herb Malone.

This particular fish was spotted by the "tower team" well before any of us on the bow, not unlike all the other cobia we encountered. Granted, small boats and center consoles catch a lot of cobia here, yet big boats with tall towers hold a huge, unchallenged advantage; this fishery is all about height and keen eyes.

I grabbed a 20-pound spin outfit rigged with four feet of 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader and an Owner 7/0, in-line, Tournament Mutu circle hook. I impaled a live eel onto the hook (through the eye sockets), and stood ready to cast — once I felt I could deliver the bait five or so feet in front of the cobia.

Fairey brought me within casting range, and I made a good one. I twitched the eel to make sure the cobia noticed it. It did, and aggressively swam to the startled eel. Oddly, just as I anticipated the take, the cobia turned away and continued swimming west. What the heck?

Fairey brought me within casting range of the cobia again, and again, and again - all with no results. "Switch baits!", Fairey shouted from the tower, and a vermillion snapper (over the 10" Federal length limit) was next to go out.

The cobia charged the snapper, but the hook fell from the bait when the fish chomped on it! DAMN! We just ended up feeding a filet mignon size meal to a fish we were trying to catch! We were disgusted. Was that to be our only shot at this cobia? A determined Fairey continued stalking the fish and we again presented it with another live eel, then a pinfish, a grunt, and then a blue runner - without a trickle of interest. I even tried a Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser top water plug in between the live baits, only to get a couple half-hearted follows. Fairey had me switch to a leaderless, 20-pound test spinning outfit, with a 6/0 Owner circle hook tied to a short double line.

I baited with a live hardhead catfish (dorsal and pec fins clipped off), and made a perfect pitch to the fish. The cobia immediately charged the catfish, grabbed its back (of course, the hook was in the bait's head and dangling out of the cobia's mouth), chomped down hard and spit it out — as if it just wanted to crush the bait! It ignored the crippled and dying catfish from that point on.

A mullet was next to go out, and the fish ate it! I wound tight to set the circle hook, but the fish spit the bait! This time we all knew we were done. I blew it! A dejected Fairey quipped something about us having our chances and that it's best to find another fish. I wanted just another cast or two at this now totally disinterested fish, to redeem myself. I baited with another vermillion snapper, but the cobia picked up the pace and kept out of casting range. Fairey stayed on its trail.

Up ahead, I noticed several cow rays. The cobia swung in behind the rays and settled down enough for Fairey to move in, and me to make a cast. Surprisingly, and obviously excited over the rays, the cobia slurped down the snapper as if it hadn't eaten in a week. I wound tight, the circle hook set, and the cobia took off in a blaze!

That cobia put up a great fight on that leaderless 20-pound spinner, and I even contemplated releasing it once it neared the boat. But after all it put us through, coupled with the look I got from everyone when I merely mentioned "release", there was no doubt it was coming home for dinner! It was gaffed, iced down and weighed back at the marina. It scaled 54-pounds - nearly a pound for every minute we chased it — and that doesn't include the fighting time! Talk about a crazy, memorable catch!

The revival comes to town
Cobia time off the Alabama Gulf Coast is huge. From the very first sightings of cobia — usually by the second week of March - and until the last few trickling of fish bring up the rear of the parade around the beginning of May, the beachfront here becomes a mighty busy place.

Alabama offers exceptional offshore fishing for marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin, great nearshore fishing for king mackerel and bottom fish, and excellent inshore action for redfish and seatrout, yet cobia steal the spotlight during the spring. Credit that with them being the first pelagic species of the new year to arrive off the coast, prime sight fishing opportunities, short runs and relatively low fuel bills to reach them (most action occurs within 10-miles of the beach, and between 15 and 30 feet of water), accessibility for most small boat anglers, enough fish to keep lots of anglers happy, and, of course, delicious eating.

The duke of cobia
When it comes to catching cobia, Captain Ben Fairey has been on top of his game for decades. He has this fishery dialed in better than most, and a passion for pursuing these fish like few others. Fairey, who operates out of the Orange Beach Marina, produced the current Alabama state record cobia of 117-pounds, and the heaviest cobia caught during their 2008 season — a whopping 90-pound, three-ounce fish. Simply put, he knows his way around this neighborhood.

Fairey and I were scouting for cobia and shooting an episode for my ESPN2 television series around the end of April, right after the full moon. The game plan was to slowly cruise in a west/east fashion over migratory zones used by these fish each spring, as they swim up and around the Florida panhandle and west toward the Texas coast. These fish are on the move, foraging on bait along the way, opposed to later in the spring, when they tend to gravitate toward structure.

The keys to capitalizing on these fish were in full play during our trip. Fairey set out toward the west in the morning, to an area he saw fish the previous day. He was also looking for clean water and to keep the sun to our backs, all to maximize visibility. During the afternoon, he'd head back east, again putting the sun to our back.

At minimum, there were two men in the tower, and usually three. It was their job to scan far out and deep into the clear emerald water, looking for migrating cobia - which could either be right at the surface or well beneath it. Of course, we'd all be on the lookout in the cockpit and bow, but had virtually little chance at seeing a fish before the tower crew locked in on one; That's the difference between living in the penthouse and on the ground floor.

There were a number of outfits at the ready in both the cockpit and bow - mostly spinners with 20- and 30-pound test line, to take advantage of double- and triple headers. Both stations, incidentally, sported live wells and a variety of frisky baits. Some spinners were rigged with 50-pound test fluorocarbon leaders, whereas a few simply sported a circle hook. We'd have the option of switching over to a lighter leader — or none at all, if a cobia refused to eat. Many times a pressured — or full fish - shuts down and ignores a bait; To turn the tables, it may take a few different baits, each presented on a small hook tied directly to the fishing line, or onto a light leader.

Fairey prefers 6/0 and 7/0 Owner, in-line, Tournament Mutu circle hooks. Should a stubborn cobia require scaling down to a light leader - or none at all, the eye of the circle hook, providing it latches properly in the corner jaw or lip of the fish, should remain outside of the fish's mouth, and keep the light fishing line away from its raspy dentition. Sometimes Fairey will drop to a 5/0 hook with small baits. Bottom line: you can get away with lighter terminal tackle and still catch big fish by using circle hooks.

Should Fairey opt to tag and release some cobia, in-line circle designs avoid hooking fish deep and gravely injuring them. To perfect their hook-up ratios, Fairy and gang have been experimenting with bridling their circle hooks, which keep them fully exposed and with little risk of turning back into a bait. Bridling also keeps a bait and hook intact while casting.

Fairey shares the tower with at least one spinning outfit rigged with a jig. He uses this outfit to tease in a fish from afar, or to catch a second or third fish by the boat. On our trip, this outfit was reserved only to excite and "tease" any long-range cobia back to the boat and within casting range of a cockpit, or bow-based angler. This is teamwork at its finest.

Perfect cobia conditions materialize when the wind blows from an east/southeast direction, and the water surface temperature reaches 70-degrees. Plenty of sunshine is also a big help, and Fairey likes a solid three- to four-foot sea, which gets these fish on top and in the waves, where they're easily spotted. A cold front, a distinct possibility in the spring, will turn this fishing off like a light switch. If the fish have been pushing hard before the front, fishing should be fine the day after one blows through. However, during that second and third day, influenced by dropping water temperatures, the fish seem to head deep and remain out of sight.

To say our trip went well would be an understatement. We uncovered numerous single cruising fish, catching several of them. During one afternoon, spotting, hunting down and catching fish was fast and very repetitive — with quality size cobia.

If you're looking to pit your casting skills against a formidable and often very approachable opponent, make sure you get to the Alabama Gulf Coast for Cobia Run '09! The fish are here. To catch them, you just need to know where to look and a handful of tricks to push them over the edge. You need to get tall too! And as often is the case here, the best seat in the house is aboard Captain Ben Fairey's Necessity!

Where are all these cobia coming from?

Jim Franks and Read Hendon are fisheries biologists with the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, in Ocean Springs. These gentlemen have long-studied cobia migratory patterns and growth rates, and head up a cobia tagging program funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Sportfish Restoration Program and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Their studies show that the cobia migrating past the Alabama coast generally winter off South Florida. As spring nears, these fish begin heading north along the Florida coast and eventually westward, reaching Panama City, Destin, and Pensacola in March, and then Alabama around mid-March. Mississippi and Louisiana see the fish in April and May. Some of these fish will make their way to Texas, but, it's believed, there's a western group of fish tied to Mexico and Texas which fuels the Lone Star state fishery.

Hendon and Franks believe these cobia eventually scatter out and hold over deep structure off the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coasts through the summer, prior to regrouping for their return migration back to South Florida for the winter. Interestingly, these fish aren't encountered close to shore during the reverse migration, but rather appear to follow deep contours along the shelf. Some of these fish will even winter in the northern Gulf, perhaps at depths between 150- and 300-feet. Both biologists admit that not much is known on the migratory paths taken by these cobia on their way back to South Florida, outside of the fact that they do indeed return there, as tagging studies continue to show.

Growth studies indicate that a 100-pound class fish is approximately 11- to 12-years old, a maximum life expectancy for cobia. Fish over 60-pounds are nearly all female.

Want to participate in the cobia tagging program and receive your very own tagging stick and tags? Call Read Hendon at 228-872-4202, or E-mail him at: read.hendon@USM.EDU

Cobia Run '09

Now is the time to get ready for Cobia Run '09 off the 'Bama coast, especially if you want to charter. Captain Ben Fairey can be reached via his cell: 251-747-5782, office: 251-981-4510, or through his website: www.captben.com.

For more on "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing," visit www.georgepoveromo.com.