Rig a plastic eel to match your quarry’s favorite forage.

This 12-inch plastic eel is rigged with 6/0 hooks, a length of No. 9 wire and a 1-ounce sliding sinker.

If you look at what anglers are trying to feed cobia these days you’d think that these fish must live on a diet of something resembling psychedelic feather dusters. But a few years back I discovered that the big ling are partial to a very different kind of lure, as well. They go bananas over plastic eels and other slinky, soft-plastic lures that would look more at home on a bass lake.

In fact, in some places, cobia are called “eel-eaters,” and a few years back on a Panhandle pier, I learned why. I went to the pier to test a pearl-gray 12-inch plastic eel a tackle manufacturer had sent me. It was during the spring run of fish along the Panhandle beach, and with plen-ty of targets for everybody, the eel whipped the standard feather and bucktail jigs hands-down. In fact, the first time it hit the water, the fish raced to get at it, ignoring the barrage of conventional jigs falling all around them. I’ve since learned that it works pretty much statewide for the big brown fish.

There are several effective ways to catch cobia on plastic eels and worms. Fishing around the rays at Homosassa, anglers use 10-inch black plastic worms of the sort used by bass anglers, and simply thread them on the back of a 1⁄2-ounce jig. The cobia usually strike the head of the lure, and they get hooked more often than not. These anglers feel that the extra action provided by the free-swinging tail brings them more strikes. The baits tear up after one fish, but they’re cheap and easy to replace.

My own favorite setup adds an extra hook to get the short-strikers. It takes a bit more rigging, but makes a more durable lure. With a 10- to 12-inch eel or worm, I use a length of No. 9 wire to attach the stern hook. This not only has plenty of strength, but the stiffness of the 95-pound wire makes it easy to thread through the center of the eel. I make a tight haywire twist against the eye of a 6/0, No. 3407 Mustad hook and break off the end flush. I then insert the wire into the belly of the eel about five inches from the tail, and push the wire forward until it emerges out the nose of the bait. You have to keep the wire centered carefully and keep the eel straight or the wire will get off-center, causing the bait to rotate as it runs through the water.

Thread a second 6/0 Mustad into the worm from the head, right beside the wire, bringing it out in the belly so that it lies flush along the hook shank. Attach the wire to the eye of the lead hook with another haywire twist.

For casting weight from piers, I use a 1-ounce barrel lead, which I slide on a couple feet of mono leader, attached to the lead hook with any good knot. (It’s also possible to use a 1-ounce jighead for the lead hook, which eliminates adding the sliding sinker.)

It’s best to use 30-pound tackle and 60- to 80-pound-test mono leader for the strength needed to handle big fish from the boardwalks, and we do get some monsters cruising the “green reef” in the Panhandle in spring, with 60-pounders not uncommon. Several IGFA line-class records over 100 pounds have been landed here. Fishing from a boat, much lighter line and leader will do the job, and you may not need as much lead.

The lures do sometimes spin a bit, so I usually add a swivel to prevent line twist. Best way to fish the lures is usually with a drop-and-rise action, letting it fall in front of the fish, then swim back up as you raise the rod and crank the reel. It’s not a bottom-jigging bait in this application, but more of a swimmer.

In fact, sometimes when you spot a pod of fish, you can trigger a real race after the bait by tossing it well in front of them and then cranking it as fast as you can turn the reel handle. You’ll be amazed to see cobia making like attacking barracuda to run down the lure!

The eel also works well around channel markers and buoys when there are no cobia visible on the surface. All of these markers hold pods of bait below, and that, plus the natural attraction of cobia to cover, often holds fish around these structures.

The trick with mid-water fishing is to use a weighted eel and let it flutter down as close to the pilings as possible. Let it go all the way to the bottom, keeping a close eye on the line for any lurches that will indicate a fish has grabbed the lure. If you don’t get bit, hop the eel away from the structure, reel it in and try at a slightly different angle, working over each of the pilings in turn.

You can also catch fish deep at times by casting uptide beyond the marker, letting the bait drop 6 to 10 feet, and then swimming it past the pilings as close as possible. Keep it moving at a good clip on the first few casts; with the eels, the fish often seem triggered to strike by a faster retrieve than that usually used with conventional jigs.

Cobia are not the smartest of fish under any conditions, but with soft-plastic lures they sometimes seem particularly dense. Once they bite one of the lures, they’ll often attack it again and again, so if you miss the hookset on the first hit, put the lure back in the same spot immediately and you’ll often connect.

You may get some strange looks when you pull out your “bass” lures for a shot at cobia, but those looks will go away in a hurry the first time you put the eel in front of a fish. – FS

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