One of the most anticipated migrations in the northern Gulf of Mexico is in full swing, and if you’re down on spring break, all you have to do watch the boats going up and down not far from the beach looking for the prized cobia.
Cobia, also known as ling and lemonfish, are swimming along the Alabama coast en route to spawning grounds amid the numerous petroleum platforms off the Louisiana and western Mississippi coasts.
Sight fishing is the most common practice for cobia, especially during the spring. To take advantage of this migration, Alabama anglers will head out and cruise up and down the coast at 4 or 5 knots to try to spot the dark brown, torpedo-shaped fish that can weigh more than 100 pounds but most often fall in the 40- to 50-pound range. Alabama has a two-fish per person daily creel limit with a minimum size of 33 inches fork length, which is measured from the fork of the tail to the tip of the nose.
Weather and water conditions determine how well you can spot migrating cobia. Many cobia boats will utilize “tuna” towers to get up high for a better vantage point. If you spot a cobia, or a group of cobia, it’s time for action. If you’re heading toward the fish, cut the engine and drift. Have a rod rigged with live bait if possible and toss it in front of the fish. If you are going the same way as the cobia, ease past the fish and set up to make a cast when you’re well past the fish.
Whether the cobia will take the bait is anybody’s guess. Most the time, if the bait is alive, the cobia will eat it, but I’ve seen fish absolutely turn up their noses at anything tossed their way, whether brightly colored cobia jigs to a fresh, live eel. If the fish won’t eat a live eel, it’s probably not going to eat at all, so head out and try to find another fish.
If you can’t find live eels, cobia will also eat saltwater catfish (hardheads), cigar minnows or large live shrimp. Some people have a great deal of luck with a live blue crab hooked in the corner of the shell. If the fish are particularly hungry, you can toss out a cobia jig with a feathered skirt and try to imitate an injured baitfish. Occasionally it works, but it’s best to have live bait when you head out.
When rigging for cobia, most anglers prefer an 8-foot rod with decent backbone and a reel capable of holding a couple of hundred yards of 30-pound test main line. Tie on a barrel swivel and add about 3 feet of leader material, either 60- or 80-pound, depending on water clarity. When the fish get skittish later in the season, it’s wise to use fluorocarbon leaders. Hook size should be 7/0 for traditional hooks and 7/0 or 8/0 for circle hooks. If you’re using circle hooks, give the fish plenty of time to get the bait and just reel down on the fish to hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. Never jerk a circle hook or you’ll likely jerk it out of the fish’s mouth.
Be patient when you hook the fish and give it a little time to tire itself out. You don’t want a freshly caught cobia thrashing around in the back of the boat.
If it’s your lucky day, cut the fish into steaks and throw it on the grill. Baste regularly with a lemon-garlic-butter sauce. When the fish starts to flake, take off the grill and enjoy one of the best-eating fish around.