Eels for Cobia

By Corky Decker
All about a first-rate cobia bait.

American eels are popular baits among Florida Panhandle cobia fishermen.

Up until a few months back, all I knew about eels is that they cost five bucks a piece and I have spent thousands of dollars feeding them to cobia.

Reading up on the American eel, I found that they are pretty interesting. It seems everything likes to eat them, not just those beach-cruising cobia in the Florida Panhandle. The eel will spend almost its whole life in fresh or brackish water, traveling pretty much to the middle of the Atlantic (Sargasso Sea) to spawn and die. It’s kind of the opposite of Pacific salmon, which also spawn and die, but at least they don’t expect a bunch of newborns to find their way across the Atlantic to some stream on the east coast of the U.S. When Alaskan salmon do their thing (finding their way to a stream) they are fully grown and have a bit of time under their fins.

So, at the stage of being abandoned by its now-dead parents in the middle of the ocean, the eel is called a grass eel and is between 1.5 and 2.5 inches long. As this tiny critter is bee-lining back to the States, everything swimming or flying bigger than 2.5 inches is trying to eat it.

Second Stage: Elver. The eel has survived long enough in brackish water to grow between 3 and 9 inches. They now move into fresh water, and largemouth bass are like, “All right!” The eel now has a bit of color, a greenish brown. Striped bass will chase them right into the fresh water, and mergansers chow down on them.

Third Stage: Ol’ Yellow. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission calls them “sexually immature adults.” What that means I have no clue (and no, I don’t recommend you Google the term) but they are now yellow and fishermen can now catch them in eel pots, from Maine to Florida and sell them to me so I can now feed them to Panhandle cobia and hopefully beat the Moaks in a tournament.

Stage Four: Who cares…

Okay, so now we are all eel experts, but still it would be good to know a bit more, so I expanded my research by telephone and spoke to some real eel guys. Tony Martin is Harbor Docks’ fish guy. And Harbor Docks, in Destin, is like the world capital of cobia fishing. It’s home to the Cobia World Champion season-long event and the Frank Helton Crab Cruncher weekend tournament. Harbor Docks is Destin history. The office is Buddy Gentry’s mother’s house. The food is the best to be found in the area and owner Charles Morgan is one of the top 5 cobia fishermen on the planet.

Tony buys all the fish for Harbor Docks. He is a Yankee like me. I like Tony. Tony buys as many as 15,000 eels for the Destin cobia fishing season, so Tony knows a lot about eels. Tony has a standing order for 10,000 eels starting them coming anytime mid March until he yells stop sometime around the first of May, when the last fish go by us to the westward. Tony wants his eels 16 to 24 inches, two- to four-count per pound. That is the size preferred by the white-lipped cobia. Tony has paid both by the pound and by the eel. It is a state secret to what his deal is, but they cost you 5 bucks, and Tony never runs out of eels. We love Tony.

Only thing more wriggly is the quarry itself; a sturdy landing net is recommended.

Tony buys his eels from the eel guy, Marty, from Holland Seafoods in Arapahoe, NC. Marty buys from 150 fishermen up and down the east coast to the tune of 800,000 pounds a year. That is a whole heap of eels and Tony our hero back in Destin is a small (but important) customer of Marty’s. I was told the fishery has been pretty stable the last ten years, and the majority of the eels are sent overseas to Europe.

The larger eels are more expensive, and they are graded into three classes: large, 1 pound and up; medium, 200 grams to 1 pound; and small, under 200 grams. The harvest season is usually March till the water warms up in early summer. Short and sweet, catch them when you can, and right on time for the Panhandle cobia to migrate on through!

This is the preferred method for hooking up an eel, a.k.a. slime ball:
>>Grab the creature with a dry paper towel behind the head with your left and (if right handed), now hold on to him, but don’t kill the bugger.
>>Take a 5/0-7/0 circle hook and get enough meat and about an inch of hide, and stick the now very mad eel in a bucket of ice water and hold onto him till he forgets about you sticking a hook in him. He shouldn’t ball up for the ride into the tower; I like having my tower water with ice just to keep him mellow, he’ll come to wake up pretty quick, hitting the warm Gulf in front of a wad of cobia.
>>Use 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader 2 or 2 ½ feet long. Spool up with good quality 30-pound-test monofilament on a bail-less spin rig (Panhandle classic). Find a pod of brown, shark-shaped fish idling along at the surface of the Gulf, somewhere between 100 yards and 1 mile off the beach. Throw that eel in front of them. It will get eaten. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2016