April 20, 2022
Heading north out of Sebastian inlet, we were running and gunning with our eyes peeled, looking for weedlines and debris we hoped would hold tripletail. Ten or so miles into the run, Stephen Ferrell and I started spotting giant manta rays on the surface. As most fishermen would do, we pointed the boat in their direction to look for cobia, which often accompany the big rays.
Stephen said in prior weeks he had seen the rays, just no fish on them, so assuming the same, we motored by the first ray at a quick pace. No fish. Onto the second ray, and as luck would have it, we spotted a cobia. At this moment, our plans of tripletail fishing went out the window. We dropped the trolling motor on Ferrell's 24-foot bay boat, grabbed our pitch rods rigged with jigs and positioned the boat. With a well-placed cast, Stephen convinced this fish to come out from under the ray and eat his jig. I got the net and we boated the fish in quick fashion. Into the box it went.
Most of us already know about cobia: great fighters, willing to eat most offerings and awesome tablefare. Sight-fishing is an exciting way to target them. Sometimes you'll find free-swimming cobia, but often the fish are following large rays.
Dr. Tim Mullican of the Georgia Aquarium is the head of the manta ray project at the aquarium. For a number of years, he and his team have been documenting these animals along a stretch of the east coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Flagler Pier. Researchers fly a small plane known as the Air Cam, which can maintain flight at speeds as slow as 55 mph. With an open cockpit in front of the wings, the Air Cam is perfect for documenting and photographing rays cruising the surface. Most of their sightings were within a half-mile of the beach and in depths of 5 to 50 feet of water.
These giant, slow-moving creatures can grow to have a wingspan of 18 feet wide and to weigh over 1,000 pounds. Although a huge animal, they are filter feeders that feed on larval shrimp, zooplankton and phytoplankton. Mullican stated that these gentle giants can typically be found around the pogy schools along northeast Florida from March to May as well, not feeding on the little silver fish, but on the same tiny food sources the pogies are eating. Early research concluded a life-span of 20 years for the manta ray, but ongoing studies suggest it could be longer.
There are still many questions to be answered on ray migration that Mullican and his team are studying, but they have noticed a correlation in migration and water temperature. Rays tend to head north from South Florida, and seem to make it around the Matanzas Inlet when water reaches 68 to 69 degrees. They will hang around this area until water hits 80 or so degrees and then move off. Tagging studies have shown some of these animals will predominantly stay in one area along the coast and others will migrate. Some are thought to go down into the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan Peninsula. No studies have shown a correlation of bottom structure (reef lines, continental shelf, etc.) and the ray's migration patterns.
Mantas are a late-maturing animal. The females must reach 15-foot wingspan before sexual maturity and then will only give birth to one or two pups a year. Mullican didn't point to any specific threats to the populations, but nevertheless encouraged anglers to be careful around these creatures. “We have seen prop scars on the backs of these animals while flying above,” says Mullican. So while running the coast, always keep your eyes open for the cobia's best friend.
Sometimes these giants are easy to see, as they breach the water, sometimes jumping 6 feet into the sky. No one has come up with a formal explanation for these aerial displays but some theories have been made—a few being that they are trying to remove parasites, evade predators, just being in happy mood, or even trying to attract a mate, like elephants trumpeting in the woods.
In previous years it was believed that there was only one species of ocean going manta ray, the giant manta (Manta birostris). In 2009 Andrea Marshall, a conservation biologist, concluded that there are actually two more species, the reef manta and the Caribbean manta. The giant manta and the Caribbean manta are the two species spotted off the coast of Florida, although distinguishing between them can be tough. The Caribbean manta is slightly smaller than the giant manta, but the only true way to tell is by the markings on the bottom of the animal. You will notice some coloration differences between individual animals of all species. Some have a black and white pattern, some are almost totally black and some are almost totally white. There's no rhyme or reason behind this, just genetic mutation.
Typical tackle used for the cobia consist of an 8000 sized reel paired on an 8-foot, heavy-action rod. Fifty-pound braid and a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader will cover your line needs. As for lures, the majority of the time the fish aren't too picky. Jigs, big soft-plastic baits, lipped plugs, even topwaters will work. Chances are, if you give the fish an opportunity for an easy meal, they will take it. A 12-weight setup will suffice for the fly guys. Big streamer patterns with enough weight to sink below a cruising ray will do the trick.
That day off Sebastian, I saw the rays doing something I'd never seen. There were 20 to 30 rays in a mile or so vicinity circling on the surface. Come to find out, we happened to be in a food-rich area, and the rays were feeding on zooplankton found on the surface. It was easy to hop from ray to ray without powering up the outboard. After tussling with the first few fish, we positioned ourselves on another ray with a fish on it. This fish was significantly bigger than our first catch. This cobia surely validated the old saying, “They don't get big by being dumb.” The fish refused all of our offerings, jigs, plugs, live pinfish and even hand sized live shrimp. In frustration we pulled away and gave the ray some space, but mad esure to keep it in sight.
We got another keeper to the boat in the meantime, and after 30 or so minutes we decided to chase the “big girl” again. This is when Stephen decided to pull out his fly rod and give it a shot. He had a weighted bunny strip fly that was 6 inches or so long, resembling a squid. We placed the boat perpendicular to the cruising ray to ensure a good cast. He laid the fly down, let it sink under the ray's wing, and that got the cobia's attention. With quick, brisk strips of the fly, this fish bolted from underneath the ray to chase the fly, following it from 40 feet away, to where his leader was almost in his guides, and destroyed it! It was chaos until the fish was landed; the fish quickly cleared Stephen's line and immediately took him into the backing. The tug of war went to a vertical up and down battle for the last 10 minutes of the fight. Short pumps attempting to lift this heavy fish from the depths ended up pushing the rod past its limits, snapping it in two places.
There we stood, with Stephen fighting this fish with 5 feet of his 9-foot fly rod gone, me running the trolling motor and the fish not giving up. Finessing the fish until it tired out was our only option. Luckily she gave in and I was able to net the fish and bring it aboard. Multiple high-fives and yells of excitement ensued after the catch. Not only had Stephen managed to finish a lop-sided fight, he'd convinced a fish, that at first seemed to have lock-jaw, to eat. The trick was manipulating the fly quickly to entice the fish to strike. Sometimes cobia will eat anything that lands nearby, but not always.
When conditions are right, and you're finding those big rays, you can pretty much count on it that eventually you'll see cobia. It might take a live bait, a jig or a fly to persuade the fish to bite. Or, you might simply need to change your retrieve to trigger their predatory instincts. It's all part of the game.
When it comes to cobia sight fishing, elevation is the name of the game. You want to be elevated as high as possible to see these fish. Standing on a cooler is a great way to gain some height. Some boats will have elaborate platforms on their front deck, sometimes up to 6 feet tall to really gain some distance when scanning the water and to be able to look down into the water better. Half helm stations on 22- to 26-foot bay boats have become very popular for applications like this. The captain is able to run the boat from a birds-eye point of view and he can then instruct the angler when and where to cast.
So you're running the beach and you can see the tips of the manta ray's wings break the surface. What do you do from there? First, determine which way the ray is headed, motor to where you are able to perpendicularly intercept the ray, keeping 30 or so feet of distance to not spook the ray. Cast your bait of choice 10 feet in front of the ray, allowing time for it to sink to the cobia below the ray. Many times an off cast, outside of the ray's wingspan, will not do the trick. Accurate casts are a must. Be careful when casting at these rays; if you don't feel confident, don't make the cast. The anticipation and excitement of sight fishing a cobia can take over and you can end up hooking the ray. Don't do that.
Stephen Ferrell and I got lucky when we chased the rays, because we had them to ourselves all day. The chances are, though, you will come across other people looking to do the same thing. It's always nice to show courtesy to fellow anglers when looking for fish. Always keep a good distance between you and a boat that is on a ray. Ruining a shot for someone else is never a good thing and should be avoided.
Apply the Golden Rule to this action-packed style of fishing— do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and everyone can have a good time. FS
First published Florida Sportsman April 2015