Curious cobes look for company on Gulf Coast grassflats.
Sorting through stingrays, looking for the right one that might hold cobia, is like sorting through the mail looking for checks—lots of junk to sift through before you find a prize. And that’s how it was on a calm Tampa Bay afternoon as Capt. Ernie Rubio answered “wrong kind” to every ray I pointed to as we slow-motored our way along the margins of a grassflat just off a seawalled St. Petersburg shoreline.
Rubio was standing on his center console to gain a height advantage, steering the boat by reaching back with his bare foot, gripping the wheel between his toes. We were looking for cobia, and to find them on the flats starting in early April and lasting through the summer, one need only find a southern sting-ray “mudding” through the grass, flapping its wings, creating a vacuum vortex that sucks bottom-hugging food items up out of the grass. Other rays like bat rays and cow-nose rays were plentiful, and big skates drew a glance, but they were all true-to-form non-producers.
We were looking for a real southern ray, one with a cobe or two hard-wired to its back waiting to chase crabs or small fish skittering from under the flapping wings. If we were really lucky, we would come across a conga line of cobia following a big leopard ray or manatee, each cobia darting to the front to sniff out a meal, then falling back in line.
Finally, I spied what I thought might be the right brand of stingray. With a lazy flutter of its wings, this lone ray was moving through air-clear, 2-foot-deep water, slowly flapping his way across the top of the grass without stirring the mud. I focused and pointed with my rod toward the ray, and Rubio answered my silent gesture with, “That’s what we’re looking for.” But, I saw no cobia. Nada. Junk mail.
I glanced back at Rubio with a disappointed wrinkle on my face and let my arms go limp, but as soon as he noticed my lack of action he barked a frantic machine-gun command: “Put the bait on his back! On his back! Put it on his back!”
Seems that Rubio forgot to explain to me that since the cobia’s dark brown color closely matches the color of the southern ray, they’re quite difficult to see when outlined against the ray’s back and will stand out best when seen against green grass or white sandy bottom. Rubio’s experienced eye had found our quarry.
I obeyed his command and flipped a live sardine onto the ray’s back and watched as the sardine dashed away from the ray. In an instant the sleek brown shark-like figure that I had overlooked torpedoed away from the ray, gobbled the bait, and quickly returned to riding shotgun on the ray’s starboard wing. I set the hook hard, and after enjoying a couple of long and powerful runs on 20-pound spin gear, I thumb-lipped—then released—the juvenile 30-inch “brown bomber” and the day was sufficiently under way. It was nearly noon.
Chasing rays for cobia is one of the few fishing adventures when you don’t have to dynamite yourself out of bed at O-dark-hundred. Quite the opposite. Cobia are hard to find until the sun gets up a ways. Earlier that morning, I had felt out of place sitting at Gandy Bait and Tackle, swapping lies with the regulars till 10 a.m. when my guide finally appeared. But Rubio soon explained that we would have been wasting our time in the hours where the sun is at a low angle to the water. Most fishermen that I know wouldn’t be caught dead wading around the flats at two in the afternoon, when the sun’s glare tends to chase snook and redfish into deeper water. But cobia don’t seem to be put off by shallow water and bright skies, opting to follow their meal tickets onto the flats whenever the sun is high and higher tides flood the grassy flats of Tampa Bay.
If the sun is a friend to cobia fishermen on the flats, wind is their worst enemy. This is sight fishing at the extreme and a riled-up surface makes it darn near impossible to see the fish. When the perfect circumstances of clear water, bright sun and calm surface come together in April, May and June, Rubio and most other West Coast inshore guides think cobia on the flats.
Cobia fishing is partly responsible for the recent popularity of inshore tower boats, with the height advantage of a tower greatly increasing the distance of sight as well as the ability to see through surface glare with polarized sunglasses. Panhandle cobia fishermen have long understood this and any self-respecting cobia hunter from the Big Bend to Pensacola has added a tower to his offshore boat. The make-do height advantage Rubio gained while standing on his center console was only temporary, as he was having a tower built for his boat the day we fished. The following day he invited his friend and full-time cobia guide Capt. Ed Walker to bring his tower boat along to compare cobia catches that could be made with and without a tower boat.
“It’s a lot safer than standing barefoot on a slippery center console, not to mention much higher,” said Walker from his tower. “Lots of inshore guides have followed the lead of Panhandle fishermen and gone to tower boats.” Walker says he has spotted cobia on rays as small as a medium pizza, so he’s convinced the tower boat is the only way to go when cobia hunting.
“As for the other rays, I’ve never seen cobia on cow-nosed or bat rays—never,” says Walker. “On a spotted eagle ray, occasionally, but seldom on the flats. Now a manta ray, there’s a cobia magnet if there ever was one. Problem is, I haven’t seen a real manta ray in the Gulf in 15 years.” The last true manta ray Walker saw was at the Indian Rocks Pier, and when it swam the length of the pier, everyone with a rod hooked a cobia.
No sooner had Walker mentioned manatees than we came upon a mother and her calf, lazily moving along a sandy bottom in 12 feet of water. I spotted them first, and said, “There’s a mother and two pups, but I don’t see any cobia with them.” Walker and Rubio echoed each other as they sprang into action, grabbing for tackle. “That’s not two pups, that’s a pup and a 40-pound cobia.”
Rubio and I quickly had a live bait in the water, right on top of the trio of dark shadows. Walker followed with a pink 8-inch plastic eel. For half an hour we pitched every imaginable bait in front of that big cobia and couldn’t draw a strike. It came up for a sniff several times, causing us to drool at its size as it swam circles around the bait, even nudging it at one point, but lockjaw had set in and there was nothing we could do to get that fish to eat.
Earlier that day and on the previous day, every one of the 22 cobia we spotted hungrily attacked our offerings. Live bait or lures—it didn’t matter. But this biggest of the lot just wouldn’t eat. We conjured and reckoned and guessed what role the manatee was playing in this mystery, but will always have to wonder at the answer. Why did the cobia on the manatee turn down an easy meal but his brethren on the rays gobble every bait?
Cobia are opportunistic feeders, not particular at all. Their favorite foods are crabs, eels, pinfish, and in the northern Gulf, hardhead catfish. Anglers have reported finding spiny puffers and fairly large stingrays in the guts of cobia, which proves that venom and spines don’t seem to affect them at all. Cobia are just drawn by natural curiosity to gather into little pods and follow anything larger than themselves, including a boat. When trolling around wrecks and reefs, savvy anglers will assign one of the party to watch the stern for curious cobia that swim through the propwash and become easy targets for a quick bait.
When I told my story of the big cobia on the manatees to Karen Burns, a biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, she didn’t seem surprised. “Yep! That’s a cobia for you. They are definitely weird fish—the only fish in their family, I might add. Maybe no other family member would have them. Their eating patterns are really very weird.” Burns refers to cobia as “mud suckers” because of some of the stomach contents she has witnessed. “We found branches and sponges and mud, mixed with sea horses and pipe fish, as if they were vacuuming the bottom. In South Carolina, we found them full of hatchling turtles, small stingrays and skates, and lots of stingray barbs, in stomachs lined with scars from previous wounds.”
And if cobia feeding habits cause Burns to wonder, migration patterns “make me pull my hair out!” Mote has been involved in a cobia migration study since 1991, and over the years, 755 fish have been tagged. Eighty-six of those tags have been returned, and surprise to say, 40 fish moved less than 100 miles and 23 didn’t move at all. That means that only one-third migrated more than 100 miles. Burns says that while it is possible that some of the apparently non-migratory fish may have migrated and returned, these numbers still indicate cobia have nowhere near the migratory tendencies of kings, Spanish mackerel and bluefish, which are well known for massive migrations with few stragglers.
Jim Franks is a biologist from the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Mississippi in Ocean Springs, and as the Director of The Cobia Research Project is recognized as the leading authority on Gulf Coast cobia. Franks has focused his research work on cobia for over 14 years and has attended numerous tournaments to study catch results. Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Franks is heading an angler catch-and-release program that has tagged over 12,000 cobia, so when this guy talks cobia, anglers pay attention. He agrees with Burns that scientists have yet to get a handle on cobia migration.
According to Franks, the migration of cobia from their wintering grounds near the Florida Keys to the Panhandle takes place in late March and April, so the fish found inside Tampa Bay in May and June are probably not headed north, but instead move offshore to spend the warmer summer months. April fish may be headed north. “They’re not spooky of shallow water so they move inside the Bay while its still cool, looking for food,” says Franks. “Since I have no tag returns from the Panhandle that originate inside the Bay, that’s just an educated guess as to where they go.” Franks says there is more and more conjecture amongst biologists that there is a stock of nonmigratory fish—individuals, not a subspecies—but again, that has yet to be confirmed. Adding to the mystery is the fact that in winter 1998-1999 many fish were caught all winter long in the northern gulf. “Perhaps yet another effect of El Niño?” asks Franks. “We think of cobia as a migratory species, and yet some members may not migrate, and we don’t know why yet. There are a lot of small fish up here, too. Many are undersize in the northern Gulf, which may indicate they never migrated.”
Capt. Johnnie Walker of Sarasota is responsible for tagging and releasing more than 80 percent of the fish in the Mote study, and agrees with the scientists about the mysteries of cobia migration patterns.
“We get big schools—50 to 100 fish—on the inshore artificial reefs, 200 yards to three miles off the beach, which makes me think the main body sticks close to shore during the migration. We see a few singles inside the harbor, especially around markers, crab buoys and manatees. They follow manatees and get into a feeding frenzy when the manatee starts to root around, spooking pinfish and crabs. But for some reason, our cobia in Sarasota Harbor and adjoining bays don’t follow the rays like they do in Tampa Bay. I’ve caught most of my cobia on the nearshore reefs, not in the bays. Maybe it’s because our grass patches are not as expansive as they are in Tampa Bay. Sarasota Bay is really a deeper bay than most—10-foot depths are the norm. So our artificial reefs are where we find the cobia.”
Walker uses a big chugger with the hooks removed to chum in a school of cobia. One follows it and the rest follow behind, right back to the boat. Any bait handy gets pitched to the lit-up fish and the fight is on. “You always want to have one rod rigged for cobia,” says Walker, “because when you pull up a reef fish like a snapper or grouper, chances are a cobia will follow it up from the reef.”
You may stumble across cobia any time of the year in Tampa Bay—an errant fish or two might be hanging out at a power plant or around a range finder—but if you want to target these rowdy vacuum cleaners of the sea with a good chance of taking home some tasty fillets, check out the flats on a calm sunny day and bets are on that you’ll find some, following the right kind of rays. FS