Last year, the spring cobia run in Destin was epic. Huge numbers of fish rolled through on their way to the spawning areas to the west. We logged over 250 fish on Gordon Gill’s 55 Hatteras Never Better from the 1st of April till May 10 when we finally called it a season. With so many fish seen each day, we had many opportunities to try catching them on a fly.
The first thing you need is a proper platform, a cobia boat. On the Florida Panhandle, a cobia boat can come in many shapes and sizes, but the one factor they all share is a tower. Whether it’s a step ladder strapped to a small boat, or a 40-foot aluminum masterpiece on a Merritt, either way you need to have some height to spot these fish.
The next challenge is convincing hardcore cobia warriors that fly fishing is fun. Some guys never get over the thrill of watching a cobia turn on a colorful jig. Other anglers welcome a new pursuit. If you’ve mastered the jig, maybe it’s time for a new challenge.
Trial and Error
Teaching the mechanics of fly casting is beyond the scope of this article. I’m going to assume you have access to an instructor, or at least books or videos on the basic skills. Back issues of Florida Sportsman deal with many of the ins and outs of fly fishing, including different casting methods, types of lines and even fly-tying techniques (the February 2011 issue, for instance, had a good Fly Fishing Seminar on weighting flies, which I think is vital for cobia).
Here I’m going to relate some of the finer points of chasing cobia along the beaches. It’s much different than fishing for them on a wreck, or in a chumslick behind the boat. These fish are moving targets. You have to get in the right spot, and present something that will attract their attention. Some days it seems cobia will eat anything, but lots of times they are finicky.
Last season, we started out casting small sailfish-style flash patterns with lots of color to free-swimming cobia. This didn’t work out. We then switched to throwing jigs at them in an effort to tease them into eating, after which we’d present the sailfish fly. Well, we caught one, just one. So back to the drawing board, or should I say the fly-tying station, we went.
Out of Destin and other Panhandle ports, the preferred natural bait for cobia is a live freshwater eel. It’s deadly; our hookup rate is around 90 percent with eels. So why not tie an eel fly? Studying one of these critters at home, I began pulling out my boxes of fly-tying materials. Starting with a 7/0 longshank hook (Owner 5192-171 black chrome finish), I wrapped the already heavy hook in .025 lead wrap (these are heavy flies). I built up an eel head shape (kinda) with brown chenille over a set of lead dumbbell eyes. The long body was tricky. I used brown and white wool strips with some flash material. The result definitely looked like the real thing.
The next morning I showed my half-dozen new eels to the gang. Let’s just say they humored me! I rigged a 13-weight and a 10-weight fly rod with my two best creations, and returned my model to the live tank (at four bucks a pop these are pricy guys!) In the first hour of fishing, we boated three 40- to 50-pound cobia on spinning tackle. With four of us onboard, we only had one more to limit out. The next fish, we decided, would be caught on a fly rod. We soon found a lone cobia, about 25 pounds, cruising the bar. Justin, the mate, fired a jig to the fish from the tower. He teased the fish close enough for me to make a cast about a yard in front of the fish. The cobia ate the fly! We were so excited that we forgot about the jig; the cobia hadn’t, however—he ate the jig too! Justin went slack on his spin outfit and let me catch the fish; not exactly IGFA legal but the sinking eel pattern seemed to be the ticket.
We started chasing the free-swimmers from the bow, and this would’ve worked well if we’d had stripping baskets. Without the baskets we would get the fly line wrapped around everything from cleats to anchors; moving to a cleared aft deck helped matters greatly. With the guys in the tower shouting instructions—distance, direction the fish were swimming and most important, “You’re on!”—our success rate went up considerably.
Some other things we learned: Keeping a little free line off the reel helps you keep from getting reel-wrapped when you came tight on a fish. Cobia suck the fly in and you have to be quick setting the hook or the fish will just blow the fly right back out again. Once they find out your offering is a fake, that’s pretty much it with that fish. Setting the hook on the first bite is critical, I think.
Casting these big eel patterns takes some work. These are not bonefish casts, for sure. You must strip off about 20 feet of line and make a big roll cast to get it started, then horse-whip it in the direction of the worked-up fish. This is a team effort. From the tower, one angler draws in the fish with a jig or live eel, while the fly fisherman below him loads up to cast.
Cobia are bulldogs that will shake their heads, dive to the bottom, and make some impressive runs. After the first fish I retired the 10-weight for the 13-weight. I would highly recommend anyone really serious about throwing flies at Panhandle cobia leave anything smaller than a 12-weight at home, as these fish are true tackle busters. I use a straight 4-foot Gamma 100-percent fluorocarbon leader in 20-pound-test (the highest line weight tippet IGFA allows), with a weight-forward floating line. The short leader lets me cast the heavy fly about 40 feet with fair to good accuracy. A big tip is to toss a live eel in the water (with a circle hook attached—remember, four bucks a pop) and watch how the eel swims off. Ninety nine percent of the time, the eel swims head down, trying to distance itself from a set of white lips. To simulate this, let your fly sink and just twitch the rodtip to make your fly dance a bit—don’t strip, let the fly slowly sink away. Bam! You’re on!
Over the next few days, with owner Gordon Gill onboard, we managed to do okay. Our best day with the fly rods was three legal fish and a few small guys. Being entered in all the month-long tournaments, we never messed with anything big, but I’m convinced that a good woman angler, fishing out of Destin for a few weeks this spring, could break every cobia fly tippet record in the IGFA book. The men’s records will be bit harder.
When word got out that we were having some pretty good success, we handed out a few flies to Justin’s brother who runs a 50-foot G&S, the Pappi. Kevin had a guest who was an expert fly fisherman. The first morning they caught five nice fish off a fish-aggregating device. They teased the fish with a hook-less live eel, then switched the fish to the fly. The fish ate them every time!
Cobia love to hang around buoys, piers, drifting debris and bottom structure of all types. Also, if you see a big turtle or group of rays there’s a good chance there will be cobia with them. If a group of fish shows, odds are good they’ll be competitive, resulting in even more aggressive fish. With both Kevin and I sharing information, we were getting the game dialed in. The only problem was, it was now May and the end of the run was only days away.
So where does this leave us in our quest for big cobia on the fly, and maybe getting our names in the book? The spring run is now weeks, if not days away, and a new rush of fish will soon be heading down the bars of Panama City to Pensacola. I’ll be waiting for them with my 13-weight fly rod in hand. – FS
The action peaks in late April with water temps 67 to 69 degrees. Last year, our best days were with a light southwest wind. Fish will be anywhere from right off the sand bar in 8 feet of water to about a half mile offshore in 50 to 60 feet.
Bucktail jigs in 2 to 4 ounces are the standard casting lures. March through May, local shops including Half Hitch in Destin stock up on countless jigs in every color combo on the planet. For teasing cobia, this year we plan to cut the hooks off a few jigs.
Destin, Pensacola, Panama City and Mexico Beach are all within striking range of the fish.
Minimum size is 33 inches fork length, and bag limit is 1 per person, no more than 6 per vessel. For cobia obviously of legal size that we plan to retain, we use one of several gaffs we keep on the boat: 6- and 8-footers with 4-, 5- and 6-inch hooks. Many fishermen prefer a sturdy, wide-mouth net, especially for controlling small fish or fish which are to be tagged and released. – C.D
By Corky Decker
First published Florida Sportsman March 2011