Editor’s Note: Captain Ben Fairey of the charter boat “Necessity,” based out of Orange Beach Marina, holds the Alabama state record for cobia with a fish that weighed 117 pounds and 7 ounces caught in 1995. He’s one of the most-relentless cobia fishermen on the Gulf of Mexico. Fairey prowls the beaches from Panama City, Florida, to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in search of the brown bombers that make their annual migration in the spring each year.
Question: Ben, how long have you been fishing for cobia?
About 37 years. I fish for other species out of Orange Beach, but cobia is my love.
Question: When do the cobia start showing up at Orange Beach?
They usually begin to show-up about the third week of March and still are around until the middle of May.
Question: How do you find them, and how do you catch them?
The weather conditions determine how many cobia we locate, and how many we catch. Sometimes cobia show-up better east of Orange Beach, and at other times you’ll find more cobia west of Orange Beach. Since we haven’t had severe winter weather this year in this section of the Gulf Coast, I expect the first cobia to appear about the third week of March. We’ll continue to catch them off the beach by sight fishing until the second or the third week of May.
Question: Ben, how do you find the cobia?
The really-serious cobia fishermen have towers on their boats because the higher off the water you’re located, the easier spotting cobia is. We also wear polarized sunglasses and big-brimmed hats to keep the sun off our glasses. We actually spot the fish first. They will be migrating from east to west, coming from Florida and heading to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Once we see the fish, we’ll get the boat ahead of the fish and position ourselves so the cobia will come within casting distance of the boat.
Question: What kinds of baits are you casting to the cobia?
We use a wide variety of baits. But the live eel flown in from the East Coast seem to be the most productive. We’ll also use pinfish, vermillion snapper and catfish. However, the eels are somewhat expensive at $3.00 each, and you have to buy a dozen at a time.
Question: Ben, what are the ingredients for a good day of cobia fishing?
You must have plenty of sunlight, clear water and wind blowing from the southeast. When that wind comes from the southeast, the cobia can get up in the waves and catch free rides on their migration from the east to the west. The worst wind is a hard wind blowing from the southwest or the west. We also don’t want any cold weather for the best cobia fishing.
Question: Ben, what are some common mistakes people make when cobia fishing?
You want your boat to be in neutral as the cobia approaches, because if it’s in gear, you’ll spook the fish. You never want to put your boat in reverse. Those changes in the pitch of the engine will spook the cobia and drive them down to the bottom. I always try to stay offshore or to the south of the fish and a little bit west of the fish, so the cobia are coming toward us. We want to be like a fast-food restaurant. The cobia just motor by and pick up something to eat. We don’t ever want to change the direction the fish are moving toward.
Question: Ben, how do you decide which bait to throw to the cobia?
We’ll pick a bait and throw it to the cobia. If the cobia refuses that bait, we’ll choose a different kind of bait to throw. Many guys cast jigs to cobia, but I don’t. Most of my anglers are fairly-inexperienced cobia fishermen. When you’re fishing with a lead-headed jig, the weight of that jig often will cause the cobia to come off the hook more quickly than if you’re fishing with live bait and the hook tied directly to the line. We use circle hooks. When a cobia gets hooked with a circle hook, the fish usually will stay on the line much better.
Question: Ben, what do you expect to catch on an average day of cobia fishing from the middle of March to the middle of May?
You may see from 25 to 30 cobia in a day, but the limit on cobia in Florida is one fish per person, with a maximum of six per boat. In Alabama, you can have two per person, per day. We do plenty of tag and release, tagging numbers of fish during the season. Our fish will average from 35- to 55-pounds each.
Question: Ben, how close to the shore and how far out do the cobia usually run?
The fish can show up from within 50 yards from the beach all the way out to 10-miles offshore. As the migration begins to build, and more people start fishing for cobia, the cobia will move further offshore. If this area has a fair amount of onshore wind, we’ll look for cobia a little closer to shore. Each day, we keep up with where the fish are found. The next day, we’ll start where we’ve seen them on the previous day. For instance, on Monday, if I find the cobia 300 yards off the beach, on Tuesday morning, I’ll begin fishing 300 yards off the beach.
Question: What pound-test line are you using, Ben?
I use 30-pound-test line because you have to be able to cast a pretty-good distance to reach the cobia. I don’t use any leader. I tie my circle hooks directly to the line. You get more bites with lighter line and less terminal tackle than you do with heavier line using swivels and leaders. I fish with a 10-foot custom made rod, so I can cast a long way, and a Van Staal reel, which is the finest manual pick-up reel. These reels were made in Germany for a while, and they cost about $800 each. But they’re worth it.
Question: Ben, what are you predicting for the season this March?
We’ll have a really-good season this year, and you’ll see more people fishing for cobia because you can’t catch as many snapper as you could in the past. Since snapper season doesn’t start until June, you’ll probably see many of the saltwater fishermen fishing for cobia this spring.
To learn more about cobia fishing or to fish with Captain Ben Fairey, call (251) 747-5782, or call his booking agent, Stella Fill, at (251) 981-4510, or visit www.necessitysportsfishing.com