American eels, and eel like lures, prove irresistible to spring-run cobia.

Excellent cobia baits, adult eels are downright fascinating in their own right. Here two adult eels lounge in a Florida spring.

The end of the pier bristled like the business end of a porcupine.An army of anglers crowded the rails with rods raised and ready for action. Many wore hard hats for obvious reasons. This was a wild crowd with dangerous weapons in their sweaty hands.

It was late March and the cobia run was on. Almost to a man, each angler dangled the mandatory big white bucktail, leadhead jigs—standard lures for cobia.

Traditional jigs for sight casting.

Only one was different. I came with a long rod rigged with a 15-inch plastic eel with a big barrel lead at the head end for casting weight. A pair of large hooks on a flexible wire leader had been threaded through the body; one at the tail, one just behind the head.

A tackle manufacturer had sent me a handful of large unrigged plastic eels to try out. What better chance to see what cobia, often called ling in the Panama City area, thought of a good old American eel?

Before us the seas shifted their green planes of water easily. No breeze. To the east everyone saw the targets, black silhouettes standing out strongly against the water. The cobia swam slowly just below the surface, traveling on their annual migration westward. If they continued on track they would run smack into the pier-full of panting anglers.

As the black squadron eased closer they began to spread out. The water around the pier swarmed with baitfish. It looked as though they were coming in for the feed.

Rods raised over shoulders. Reel bails clicked open. Trigger fingers quivered against taut monofilament.

The air swooshed, mono flew, reels whirred, leadhead jigs arced into the glare of the rising sun. They splashed down like an explosion of shrapnel.

The cobia reacted as you might expect: They spun around and streaked out of that war zone fast.

Next thing I knew the air turned purple with expletives. The army of casters now worked frantically trying to untangle themselves from the giant bird’s nest of lines they had created.

Like me, some anglers had not cast. The fish were now scattered, but interestinglythey turned and were easing back in toward the pier as though curious to learn what the commotion was about.

Once again they were within casting range but most of the anglers were still untangling their lines. There was nothing for the rest of us to do but cast out and try our luck.

A cobia comes to the net.

A cobia grabbed a bird-sized jig to my right. Another took an offering to my left. Then I cast. When my eel landed and did a couple wiggling dives, three cobia swam quickly toward it. The closest, a 64-pounder inhaled it. The rest is history. That day I could have sold my only eel lure for a small fortune.

I wrote the eel manufacturer, explaining how I had rigged it. Four months later when I re-visited the pier in July, the tackle shop woman who I had told to contact the eel-maker handed me a handful of packaged, pre-rigged long gray eels. Laughing, she said, “You won’t believe how many ling these lures have caught since you were here last.”

From the walls of tackle shops across the Gulf Coast, rainbow-colored jigs in fancy feathers stare down at rigged plastic eels and live ones. And each year anglers fling whatever they favor at the big-shouldered fish and the fun starts all over again.

But any angler who has ever experienced the feeling of tossing a long eel out into the briny where he can see the reaction it causes among a school of cobia, knows the thrill he gets when several zero in on it. An eel to a cobia is like catnip to cats. The fish seldom can resist such a treat.

Plastic eels and long-cast spinning tackle.

And it’s not just a Panhandle deal.

Tampa Bay anglers riding the flats one day as they returned from a snook huntingoperation spotted a large cobia cruising the shallows. They quickly rigged with live herring and offered them to the loner.

Oddly, the cobia completely ignored the fresh fish. Finally, in desperation one of the anglers grabbed an 8-inch plastic worm, skewered it on a livebait hook, suspended it from a float and fired it out to the fish.

The cobia swerved and inhaled the offering. It turned out to be a 55-pound catch. From that day on that angler alwayscarries a large selection of plastic eels, worms and any other look-alikes with long, slender wiggly characteristics.

When northeastern seaboard anglers named these fish eel-eater instead of something else, they knew what they were doing. But most of us don’t know much about this slippery character. No wonder. He avoids daylight and prefers to slither his way through the deep in darkness. When they find the elusive creatures, cobia target them fast.

If anyone doubts that Mother Nature has a sense of humor, take a look at what she does with the American eel of our placid lakes, rivers and streams. Whenever eels get the itch to spawn, she makes them leave their cozy freshwater habitats and start a journey of many hundreds of miles that will take them far out into the mid-Atlantic Ocean into the mysterious area of the Sargasso Sea.

Each autumn from Greenland to Central America this exodus occurs. Lakes, creeks, rivers and bays throughout this entire range are busy thoroughfares for the American eels (Anguilla rostrata) that are all headed in one direction: back to where they were born in the Sargasso Sea.

That’s why we call them catadromous, meaning creatures that spend most of their lives in brackish or fresh waters but migrate back to the deep sea to reproduce. Eels are the only species of fish in the Americas that do this.

Keep live ones on wet newspaper in an ice chest. This slows them down for hooking. They’ll warm up and swim plenty fast when they see a 75-pound cobia.

Exactly how they do it is unknown. Scientists speculate that they use the sun, moon, stars and magnetism as guidance for their homing system that brings them back to the distant place where they were born as many as 30 years earlier.

Though this is the end of the life cycle for these eels, it’s the beginning of a new cycle of long-distance voyaging for their progeny. Eels come from different distances, but they all arrive on time to spawn with each other.

Once this occurs and eggs hatch, billions of tiny eel larvae resembling transparentlittle willow leafs are broadcast into the orbiting ocean currents. There, they are able to orient themselves and change direction in the water column as ocean currents draw them back to continents. Some get pushed south, others west where they are picked up by the Gulf Stream and largely dispersed along our continental coasts much the way autumn winds scatter leaves.

Those that don’t make it to our shores continue northward on the Labrador Current and find their way onto the coasts of Nova Scotia and Greenland.

After this, the juveniles change from their leaf-like shapes to a more mobile form of glass eel. Now they are totally transparent and lack pigmentation, but are stronger swimmers more able to direct their progress as they move into coastal waters. There they seek out and swim into estuaries where they become pigmented into a form called elvers. At this time they are about 2.5 to 5 inches long. Instinctively the elvers swim hard up rivers during flood tides and hide beneath bottom structures when the tides ebb.

They move upstream continually with each tidal cycle, gaining strength as they go. Gradually, these elvers turn into yellow eels, the fourth stage of their development.These are the eels we see replicated in our eel lures because they are the type that apparently appeal to our coastal predators.

Scientists say that it may take years for these eels to spread through our waterways, some traveling hundreds of miles with stops and starts depending on the migration barriers along the way. Some stay in bays, coastal rivers and tidal habitats. These tend to be males that remain only a few years before returning to the sea again. Others swim far inland into freshwater environments, going up rivers and streams to the very headwaters. They may live in these areas for the next 30 years. Eels that swim far inland are believed to be mostly females that may grow to over four feet long, much larger than males.

Typical approach: Spotters up on top, caster on the bow.

Florida spring divers are familiar with the yellowish-gray large eels that often inhabit the depths of spring caverns. They lie around under the limestone ledges looking like snakes. But they are perfectly harmless.

When the urge to spawn comes, these eels turn from yellow to blackish bronze; their eyes enlarge, and they fatten and develop a thicker skin. At this time they become silver eels, the fifth and last stage of their lives. These eels avoid light and usually wait until the darkest nights to descend rivers. On such nights when clouds obscure the moon and rivers swell with runoff, the silver eels move through the depths and begin their lengthy journey toward the sea and their deepwater mid-Atlantic rendezvous.

 

Panama City Beach cobia angler fires an eel bait.

 

At the end of these long migrations, usually about mid-winter, millions of eggs are cast out into the sea and fertilized. Soon afterward, the silver eels die where they were hatched and their leaf-like progeny sail off on the ocean currents to begin the cycle again.

As do other coastal tackle shops, Half Hitch Tackle at Panama City keeps an abundance of live American eels available mainly for their cobia fishing customers. The average length of these eels is 14 inches. They sell for $3 apiece and stay lively in salt water. Anglers buy them anywhere from two to two dozen at a time. Last spring a customer bought 100 of them weeks before the cobia even arrived. Anglers often tie off live boxes of them to their boats and docks until needed. A variety of artificial eels are also available that look life-like. The yellow Firma eel carries head and tail hooks with a heavy spoon attached at the head for good in-water action. Berkley Gulp! eels, with built-in scent, are sure to turn some heads this spring.

Guide Mike Haisten of First Cast Charter out of Panama City keeps his eels lively in a live box in his koi pond.

Eel alternatives, available 365 days a year.

After that he calms them down with a cold treatment. He places them between folded newspapers over a layer of ice in a small cooler. They stay alive but stop squirming. Holding the slippery fellows with a rag enables him to rig them easier.He hooks them under the chin and out between the eyes. Flip casting the eel in front of cruising cobia does the trick. Others snug a loop of Dacron line around the bait behind the head and secure it to the hook shank or eye to keep the critter on. End tackle is a 5/0 hook uni-knotted to three feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader ending uni-knotted to a swivel.

Some anglers rig their eels on squidding spoons for casting weight and side-to-side action. Others rely on casting the relatively light live eel on 50-pound-test braided line which has the diameter of 12-pound mono. The cobia rod they prefer is a 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rod with a fast tip.

Cast well ahead of your quarry and retrieve slowly. Keep your tip up. When you feel a bite, drop your tip as in a tarpon jump and “bow to the king.” When the line comes tight again, set the hook. If the line goes slack, bow again, then tighten up and be ready to set it hard.

Cobia can’t resist a lively eel. Once they chomp down on it they don’t let go. After that, just hang on! You may be there awhile. – FS

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