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Hilton Head cobia

3/3/2009

The rip was picture perfect — a sharp, aggravated sea on one side, and relatively calm water on the other.

Captain Jim Clark and I were soaking a pair of live baits on the bottom — ala chunking style — right along the edge of the rip. I was aboard my Mako 284, MARC VI, and enjoying post-card perfect weather. All of a sudden, the port-side rod bent down, and we were hooked up with a fish!

Jim readied the landing net, as I struggled to play this tough fish through an even tougher current. I'd gain a few feet, and then the fish would run off 20 feet or so, and turn sideways to the current. Every foot of line gained was an accomplishment, and we soon had a beauty of a fish in the landing net.

It was a Broad River cobia — precisely what inspired me to visit Hilton Head Island, South Carolina!

When one mentions cobia, thoughts usually gravitate to sight fishing along the beach, wreck fishing and looking for sting rays, which these fish often travel with. However, talk about chunking along rips, and people immediately think "striped bass". That is, unless you're dialed into the fishing around Hilton Head. And if that's the case, you know that soaking live baits and even some dead ones along the rips is one of the best ways to catch these highly sought after fish in the Broad River.

The Broad River plays host to one of the biggest cobia spawns in the U.S. Each April and May, countless schools of cobia traverse the River system as part of a spawning ritual. In turn, this migration sets up some of the hottest and most consistent fishing for cobia along the east coast.

The game focuses along the rips, which form when a strong current washes over shallow bars within the river. The resulting turbulent water displaces crustaceans and bait fish from their havens, setting up a feeding orgy for cobia. Think of these rips as cafeterias just off a major interstate; when you're hungry, you know exactly where to go. It's really no different for the cobia.

Captain Jim Clark operates his Stray Cat Charter Service (843-683-5427, www.straycatcharter.com) from behind Charley's Crab restaurant, at the north end of Hilton Head Island. Jim is unquestionably one of Hilton Head Island's premier and most colorful captains, and he's been at this game for a very long time — the last ten years professionally. Jim operates a twin-powered 27-foot catamaran, Stray Cat, and his specialty is cobia fishing. However, he's equally skilled at catching tarpon, king and Spanish mackerel, grouper, snapper, and amberjack.

I had heard about the Broad River cobia run for a number of years, but it was Jim who had convinced me to come north with my MARC VI and give it a whirl. I launched my boat at a nearby ramp, and kept it at Jim's dock during my visit in early May. My crew and I stayed at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa (www.starwoodhotels.com), which was a short drive to and from my boat.

Our plan was to meet at the marina around 6:00 a.m., load our gear, ice down the drink coolers and fish boxes, take on chum, and fill our live well with bait. An hour later, on average, we were speeding to a rip in the Broad River.

There was no missing these rips, but the key was finding the ones that held fish. This was where Jim's expertise came into play, since he had been fishing them right up to the day prior to my arrival. Precision anchoring is also a must, as one needs to be on the calm side of the rip, yet close enough to the turbulent water to soak baits.

The tackle set-up was quite simple. We fished three outfits — two Penn Torque 200 reels filled with 30-pound test monofilament line, and one Penn Torque 200 reel filled with 30-pound test braided line. The reels were paired with the new Penn Torque graphite-composite jigging rods. We used about five feet of 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader. In this case, we slipped an egg sinker onto the braided line, then added a barrell swivel. From there we joined the leader to the barrel swivel, and a 13/0 in-line circle hook to the leader's opposite end. We'd impail the hook through either the nostrils or eye sockets of our bait, which were herring, whiting, pogies and even a bluefish. We'd flip out our baits, let them reach bottom, engage the drag, put the outfits in their gunwale rod holders, sit back and wait for the strike.

Jim is a big believer in using scent to lure in these fish. So much so, that he would load a large mesh onion bag with cut up menhaden and a ten-pound downrigger weight. Prior to lowering this bag to the bottom, he'd stomp on it for a few minutes, to further crush the bait and get their internal fluids oozing. It's certainly not a pretty sight (both Jim's dance and the resulting mess), but one can't argue its success. We dropped ours to the bottom, hoping for good results. Of course, when we hooked a fish, someone had to retrieve this bag, to avoid the fishing line making contact with the chum sack rope.

Jim was first to score, as his rod bent and line peeled off the reel. Initially, his cobia rose to the surface and leapt into the air. It then setteled down and opted to run hard, rest, and run hard again. We were at anchor, and had a lot of water running underneath us. Add in the spirited fight of a good-size cobia, and catching these fish certainly isn't a walk in the park.

When Jim finally led his fish nearly into netting range, it changed tactics and dove to the bottom. It then headed back out behind the boat and with the current, making ol' Jim fight it nearly all over again. We finally had a beauty of a cobia in the net! My goal was to keep just one cobia to take home with me to South Florida, for dinner. Fortunately for this cobia, it was too early in the game to keep a fish! We turned it free.

My turn came soon enough, and I had my hands full — and a lot of fun — with another beauty of a cobia. This was the one that would come home with us, so Jim slipped a gaff under it and deposited the fish into the ice chest. We scored one more fish on this trip, which we released.

What I found intriguing, aside from catching these cobia along the rips, was the amount of big sharks that also invade the River, obviously bird-dogging their food supply — the cobia! At one point on our trip, Jim anchored on a spot close to the inlet. He mentioned that a lot of sharks could be here, but that we stood a shot at catching a big cobia. He was right — not about the cobia, but rather the big sharks!

One brute of a shark picked off my bait, and I fought the fish for close to an hour, hoping it would bite through the fluorocarbon leader and save us all some time and energy. As luck would have it, the circle hook lodged in the corner of its mouth, with the hook eye and leader riding on the outside of its jaws and away from danger! This one was played right to the boat before we could release it.

The cobia run in the Broad River off Hilton Head Island is indeed world class. It's somewhat of a dependable fishery from a weather standpoint, because you're inshore, and not as susceptible to a tough wind that would make it nearly impossible to fish. And when you look around and see the boats lined up on the rips — much like they do in the Northeast when there's a big chunking bite on striped bass going off — you get a very good idea just how popular this cobia thing really is around these parts! It's big!

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