Catch The Georgia Cobia Migration
Spring has sprung, and with each passing day the water temperature warms. With it brings an opportunity that few anglers have and even fewer take advantage of—migrating cobia on the backs of manta rays.
Cobia are a formidable fish with their strong tail kicks and head shakes. They will double over a rod to the gunwale while making a beeline to any structure nearby.
When the cobia migration peaks off the Georgia coast, targeting them can be easy on the best days, so long as the weather cooperates.
There are two primary ways to target the cobia migration. We’re going to discuss the tactics, strategies and tackle used by Georgians and up and down much of the east coast.
The best part about cobia fishing is that most of it can be done with spinning tackle. Any offshore jigging rod or spinning rod will work. However, an ideal setup would be either a 6-6 or 7-foot rod, for casting long distances while sight fishing, paired with a 5500 or 6500 Series reel.
Spool the reel with 30- or 40-lb. test, depending on your preferred methods of fishing. If you primarily want to sight fish, you will want lighter test line on a smaller reel and longer rod in order to cast farther.
I target springtime migrating cobia by both sight fishing and offshore jigging, so my cobia tackle is a compromise of both tactics. I use 6-6 Redbone medium-action jigging spin rods paired with a Penn SpinnfisherV 6500 reels spooled with 40-lb. Diamond braid. I have four identical setups just like this, and I have two more that have 7-foot rods.
The night before going cobia fishing, I like to tie on a 15-foot leader of 50-lb. monofilament directly to the braided line using an FG knot. Throughout the day, if I have to retie a new leader, I will use an Albright knot because it’s easier and faster to tie on the water.
You can use fluorocarbon if you prefer it; however, I like the mono for this application for two reasons. One, cobia are not picky nor line shy, so there’s no need to hide your presentation. And two, because the braid lacks any stretch, the mono gives some shock absorption to the rig.
Jigging And Bottom Fishing Lures And Rigs
For jigging, I keep it simple. I have two or three rods with different bucktail jigs and two rods with live-bait rigs.
I have an assortment of 4- to 6-oz. bucktails in white/blue, chartreuse/white, all white and all chartreuse. My personal favorites are the Wahoo Jigs bucktail and Alien Jigs. You don’t have to tip the jigs with anything, but it’s advantageous to put a small piece of cuddle fish on the hook to give it some scent. Squid works well also, but squid can be easily pecked off by grunts and seabass.
For dropping live baits down, I like a knocker rig or a three-way swivel rig. A knocker rig is very basic—you need a 7/0 circle hook and an appropriate egg weight for the depth and current you are fishing. For a three-way rig, I like a bank sinker on a dropper loop with a long leader to a circle hook. I fish the knocker rig straight under the boat, and the three-way rig I try to get it away from the boat while drifting.
While bottom fishing offshore, our boat will have two live baits on the bottom and everyone else spreads out dropping different jigs down. Once we get a bite, we will start to switch some of the jigs out so that everyone is using something similar, but still slightly different. I don’t like to ever have more than one of the same jigs in the water.
For live bait, we cast net for menhaden—also known as pogies or bunker depending on your geographical location. We also jig for threadfins on sabiki rigs, or any grunts we happen to catch. They all will work, but cobia seem to like pogies the best.
A typical day in late April starts with us on the beach at daybreak cast netting pogies if available. Once we have the livewell filled, or as we say ‘blacked out,’ we will plot a course offshore, mostly concentrating our cobia efforts around public wrecks and reefs.
The ideal day would consist of three or four hours offshore in the morning bouncing from wreck to wreck, never spending more than 30 minutes at any one spot without a bite. We are looking for bait on our Simrad screen and 68-degree water. If you find both of those over high relief structure, you will likely find a cobia.
Sight Fishing And Looking For Rays
As the day progresses, I’m patiently waiting for the sun to get high enough in the sky and I’m hoping for minimal wind and cloud cover. When conditions are right, around lunchtime we will run to the beach and start looking for rays. A lot of guys have towers on their consoles, some will even strap a ladder to the bow, but we’ve done just fine standing on the gunwale. A good pair of sunglasses and a slight elevation change is all you need to see the rays.
Once we get to the beach, we look for pelicans diving, water temperature and color, or for any rays free jumping. Those are things to give us a starting point.
We like to focus our efforts in about 40 feet of water. We will take all six rods and cut off the heavy jigs and live-bait rigs we were using offshore. I let the crew “pick their poison” out of the tackle bag. I prefer a 2- or 3-oz. casting jig with a white curly tail grub. Any bright florescent color will work. In my experience the color is irrelevant to the cobia, but something bright helps us see the jigs in the water when trying to present them in front of a fish.
Once we are near the beach, everyone is on high alert because if you blink, you’ll miss a jumping or cruising ray. You have to be prepared as they will pop up right next to the boat, and in many cases a ray will have more than one cobia fish swimming along with it.
I like to have four rods rigged and ready to go, with one of those having a bare circle hook and a small egg weight in the 1/2- to 1-oz. range depending on the wind. Every now and then a free swimming cobia will appear in the prop wash, and this rod serves as the pitch bait rod. I can very quickly pin a live pogie through the nose and get it in front of a fish if needed. The key to this tactic is being prepared. Your opportunities will be short lived, so you have to capitalize when they happen.
If you are lucky enough to spot a big ray with cobia at a distance, you want to position the boat so that the ray is quartering to you. This allows the angler to cast beyond the fish and the ray without fear of spooking the fish or snagging the ray on accident. Once the lure hits the water I give it a two count and start cranking as fast as possible. I want to run the lure across the back of the ray, and once it gets in front of the ray, I let it sink. This will almost always induce a strike from any fish that are swimming underneath the ray. While the lure is sinking, it’s critical to pay very close attention. Often times a cobia will follow the lure as it sinks and strike it on the fall. It’s not unheard of to lift the rod tip up and feel the fish on.
Experienced anglers will attempt to double and triple up if the chance arises. I must warn you though, if you hook into a solid fish, it’s wise to use a net rather than a gaff. Cobia are notorious for bending and breaking gaffs. I’ve also noticed that they tend to be much calmer in the boat if they are not gaffed. By using a large net, this allows the angler to measure the fish and release unharmed if it is not of legal length.
In closing, I urge you to keep an eye on the weather and coastal water temps this spring. Once you see it creeping close to that magical 68-degree mark, it’s time to start hunting for a migrating manta ray.
If you follow these tips and tactics, you will certainly be more successful on your next trip.
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