Cobia! They’re Storming Georgia’s Beaches

Sight fish outside the surf-line in June for cobia cruising the beach.

Ron Brooks | May 25, 2011

Boats rigged with towers make it easier to spot manta rays and cobia from a distance. Many boats like this can be seen cruising the beaches during the cobia migration. However, a tower is not a necessity for spotting cobia.

The beach-runner cobia have arrived off the Georgia coast, and they can be caught several different ways this month.

We call these fish “beach runners” because we catch them in sight of the beach. But you need to be aware that they will be found anywhere from just behind the breakers to as far as a mile or more offshore this month. We went in search of cobia in May, hoping to find some that you can catch in June. They were just beginning to show up along the southern portion of the state, following the baitfish migration north. During June, you will be able to find them all along the Georgia coast.

Before I tell you about our trip, I need to talk to you about these unusual fish. Cobia are in a class all by themselves — literally. They have no close relatives scientifically speaking, and quite frankly they behave like no other fish. At one point they appear to ignore every bait presented to them, and then in an instant they turn on and strike anything that comes close to them.

This time of year, they like to run the beaches in search of food. Larger cobia are often mistaken for sharks, while smaller ones look very similar to a remora — the pilot fish that attach themselves to sharks and other large fish. They are following the northward migration of baitfish, mainly pogies (menhaden shad). The shad are following the water temperature changes. When the water reaches around 70 degrees, look for the pogie pods to be along the beaches and for the cobia to be right there with them.

As cobia roam the beaches beyond the surf line and breakers, their dark brown silhouettes can be seen at some distance from almost any size boat. More often than not, they will travel in pairs or threesomes and usually will be following some other species of fish. Some anglers have rigged their small boats with sighting towers that place them up high off the water. The dark shadows of a ray or a cobia are more easily detected from high in the air.

Manta rays are the cobia’s favorite traveling companion. Cobia often practice what many anglers call “riding the ray” — that is simply swimming along just over or under the back shoulder of a slow-moving ray. They seem to identify with almost any object in the water, including a boat, and their curiosity plays an important part in anyone’s fishing plans this month.

It’s interesting to note that manta rays feed on plankton, so we are not sure why the cobia seem to be so fascinated with them. While biologists are stumped as to the reason, they certainly are not following them for food!

Cobia appear to be slow swimmers, not really interested in high-speed bait chasing, opting instead to scavenge off a school of large redfish. But don’t let their lethargic appearance fool you. Once they are hooked and realize they are hooked, it can be Katie bar the door!

Catching cobia this time of year can be relatively easy and can be done from almost any size boat on a good day. Even kayaks get into the action from time to time.

The process is simple, really. Head to the beach and plan to fish anywhere from just outside the breakers and the surf line out to a depth of 40 to 50 feet. Get as high in the boat as possible and look for anything dark in the water. Mantas have a peculiar habit of jumping from time to time for no apparent reason. Keep an eye out for a breaching ray. But be aware that these mantas can be much larger than the boat you are riding in — sometimes exceeding 20 feet from wing tip to wing tip.

You will need a calm day for this type of fishing so that you can see the dark shadow of a ray from a distance. Once you find a ray, and they are comparatively easy to find this time of year, simply stay in visual contact. Stay far enough away to avoid spooking the ray, yet close enough to see any following fish. Have a bait or lure ready to cast as you idle along watching the ray.

When a cobia shows up, you will see him on the surface. The trick now is to get ahead of the ray/cobia combo, shut down the engine and get ready to cast to them.

A Texas-rigged Gulp Eel imitates one of the cobia’s favorite foods, the American eel.

The cast has to be gentle and needs to be far enough ahead of them so as not to spook them, yet close enough that the cobia will see the bait or lure. Live bait needs to be directly in front of them, while a lure needs to come at a right angle to them, across their path and within their sight range.

If the first cast does not draw any attention, sit still and let the combo continue past your boat. Once they have moved a distance away, start your engine and repeat the entire process. Sometimes multiple attempts are required to draw a strike, particularly with a lone cobia on a lone ray.

In a situation when several cobia are following one large ray, the picture can be quite different. There will be competition among the cobia, and it will not be unusual for several of them to be fighting over which fish can get to the bait first!

A large bucktail jig with a live pogie hooked through the nose is just the trick to get a long cast to a cobia. These also work great fished under a school of pogies that are on the surface.

And don’t be surprised if this school of cobia comes to and identifies with your boat. They may swim just under the surface in several circles around you boat. I have had them actually nose around and bump the boat or the outboard. They seem to be rather stupid when they behave like this, and they usually ignore a bait presented to them. This is when a live bait splashing right on the surface can drive the school into a feeding frenzy — right there at the side of your boat!

Lures for these cobia range from Gulp Eel baits, to large jigs, to topwater plugs. Many cobia anglers favor long black eel imitations because an eel is a favorite food of these beach runners this time of year. Eels make a spawning run up rivers and creeks every spring, and the nearshore surf usually has an abundance of them.

Other anglers favor jigs in every color combination imaginable. The theory about lures “matching the hatch” in color scheme is thrown out the window for cobia. Experienced cobia hunters seem to prefer bright colorful jigs that take advantage of the cobia’s natural curiosity.

Most cobia anglers will keep a noisy topwater bait close by as well. The lure has to be well made and able to handle quite a beating, so freshwater bass lures need to stay home. Often a popping, rattling lure on top of the water will draw a strike when even a live bait won’t.

As for live baits, the menhaden shad (pogie) is by far the preferred bait for beach runners. Huge schools of pogies are in the surf along the beaches this time of year, and it is for the most part these shad that the cobia are following. Later in the year when the cobia disperse to offshore and nearshore wrecks and reefs, a variety of live baits will work, but for now, go after the pogies.

That’s not a shark fin. It’s a manta ray’s wing-tip. Cobia will often follow rays off the beach.

In the open sandy bottom of a beach, there is little structure to which a cobia can run when hooked. Consequently, the tackle can be as heavy or as light as an angler prefers. Lighter tackle is easier to cast and easier to make a bait presentation, but a 40-lb. cobia hooked up to a 15-lb. spinning or casting outfit means a very long battle. If you are into long fights on light tackle, by all means bring it on. But, if you prefer to get a fish to the boat, you may want to opt for 25- or 30-lb. tackle. Even then, these fish fight long and hard.

If you can’t find a ray anywhere — and there will be days like that — you can still attract a cobia to the boat. On our trip to locate some cobia, we ran into that same problem. In addition, the bait (menhaden) was small and scattered. We could not locate a big pod of pogies. A small cool front had passed the day before, and the water temperature dropped back into the 60s. That drove the baitfish south and scattered them.

If this happens to you, you can do what we did the day; we went looking for cobia. I had a chum bag in the boat and had purchased a block of frozen chum just for this possibility.

I anchored the boat about a half mile off the beach of Cumberland Island and put my chum bag in the water, tied off on the stern. While we sat and waited, the chum slick began taking hold, and you could see it as it meandered behind the boat. It took about 45 minutes for something to happen.

I looked back into the chum slick, and cruising right toward the boat were two fish — both cobia and both in the 30-lb. class. Editors do not want to hear this, but before I could get a picture of them, they sounded. Remember, there was no bait to be caught this day, so we were relying on artificials. On one heavy spinning rod I had a large, white, bucktail jig with an 8/0 hook. I hooked a dead pogie I had frozen from a previous trip to the jig. On the other heavy spinning outfit, I had a 12-inch, black Gulp eel bait, Texas rigged with an 8/0 hook. We had the reels spooled with 25-lb. test monofilament line and a 5-foot fluorocarbon leader.

My partner grabbed the eel bait, and I grabbed the jig. After what seemed an eternity of waiting, the pair surfaced again and began circling the boat. At times they were too far to reach with a cast, and at other times they were right at the stern of the boat. They seemed totally disinterested in either of our baits and totally unafraid of the boat.

As if someone threw a switch, it happened. One of these twins took the Gulp bait and the other tore after the jig. We had a double on!

Cobia are funny fighters. The more pressure you put on them, the harder they seem to fight. Let up on the pressure a bit, and they seem to let up on their fight. But don’t let them fool you. The fact that they are not fighting does not mean they are whipped. On the contrary, they are gathering strength my friend.

We had a circus of sorts going in the boat at that point. Two anglers, each with a fighting fish, were circling each other. One angler is trying to get to a camera to get a picture; the other angler is trying to find a gaff to use on his fish; and, both anglers were crossing over and under each other, round and round the boat.

We planned to keep one fish that day and release any others we caught, but before we could get one in the boat, they both came unbuttoned. I believe we allowed too much slack in the line on both fish during the three-ring circus. The fish simply came unhooked. Whatever the reason, we brought home no fish that day.

We came home empty-handed, but with the right preparation and good decisions (like don’t go after a double hook-up), you can bring home some fine-eating cobia this month. It’s that time of year. Cobia are on the beach this month, and they are looking for food. Look for the bait pods, and then look for the rays. What better way to spend a calm morning than drifting off the beach waiting for a flotilla of cobia to come by.

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