Anglers go a little crazy for cobia fishing when they migrate through the Alabama coast.
The March morning provided the group of people standing at the end of the long, long fishing pier at Gulf Shores, Alabama, a gentle breeze and pleasant conditions. The clear water of the Gulf below the deck of the pier showed sheepshead, whiting, and other smaller structure-oriented fish.
However, the anglers at the end of the pier kept their eyes and attention focused on the Gulf farther out away from the pier.
The later-arriving anglers didn’t say much after their short greetings to the folks already present on the pier. Each angler carried to the pier rail a long rod with a reel that held a lot of 25-lb line. Most of the lines here at the end of the pier had colorful two-ounce jigs attached. Also, most of the jigs had long plastic trailers.
All eyes were on the waters of the Gulf, and when the sun came fully up, the glare on the water made the looking more difficult. Not an angler here at the end of pier cast a line. The whole group was simply watching and waiting. Some anglers might say it was a peaceful scene, almost boring.
All at once, the whole situation changed.
An angler stood up straight and made a very long cast into the Gulf. As he rapidly worked his jig back toward the pier, the other anglers shuffled around and got ready to cast, too.
Unfortunately for them, they wasted their preparation efforts.
The angler who cast first made a sharp jerk of his rod. Then, his rod bent over and his heavy reel started to make that sound that anglers love to hear. Far out in the Gulf, the clear green waters displayed a big, dark-colored fish that ran swiftly toward deeper water. The angler held on since there was little else he could do, and the long brown fish ran and ran and ran.
It took 20 minutes for the angler to work his fish close enough to the pier for everyone to see clearly just what had taken his lure. The four-foot-long fish rolled in the water and made one final run for freedom.
The line held, the hook held, and another angler in the pier lowered the landing gaff. As he gaffed the vanquished fish and slowly raised it to the deck of the pier, a crowd of anglers and tourists began gathering. He swung the massive fish over the rail, and a cheer went up.
A smiling and satisfied angler carefully removed his lure from the jaw of the big fish and began his victory walk back down the pier. Cheerfully dragging his cobia to the concession stand where he could find ice for his fish. He needed a place to sit and recover from his struggle. Small children ran alongside him amazed. The other anglers on the pier looked enviously at the angler and his big, brown fish.
Then, the other anglers at the end of the pier went back to their search of the clear Gulf waters. They hoped that their turn was next.
The Northern Gulf is blessed with a number of very good piers, and all have good spring runs of cobia. There are piers at Panama City, Fort Walton Beach, Navarre, and Pensacola in Florida. However, for Alabama pier anglers, the choices are limited in number. The only really long pier in Alabama that offers good spring cobia fishing is the magnificent pier at Gulf State Park.
Although we don’t have many long fishing piers in Alabama, we may very well have the best pier on the Northern Gulf Coast.
The Gulf State Park Fishing Pier is very long (1540 feet), and offers superior concession stand and restroom facilities; it’s fully handicapped accessible. The admission is very reasonable—only $8.00 per visit—and some of the most knowledgeable veteran cobia anglers to be found anywhere are in constant attendance at the pier once the big brown bombers start to show up in spring.
When Do The Cobia Arrive?
Now, this is the million dollar question, isn’t it? If we could put an absolute dead-certain arrival date for cobia on the Northern Gulf Coast, we could make a lot of money selling the information to eager anglers.
Cobia chasers by the hundreds spend lots of time on piers and boats searching for the first cobia arrivals in spring. Unfortunately, so far, no one can predict exactly when the cobia will arrive. However, Dr. Bob Shipp of the University of South Alabama says, “Cobia spend the winter in the South Florida and Caribbean area; almost all leave the Northern Gulf. These fish are very migratory. They follow a rigorous pattern. They show up in Panama City and then Destin in mid-March, and then they’ll be here in late March. When Gulf water temperatures rise into the upper 60s, the cobia will show up. Generally, the cobia will be at the Gulf State Park Pier from late March into April.”
Dr. Bob continues, “The cobia come here to spawn. Once they arrive at their destination, which might be off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, they scatter offshore to spawn. Cobia grow very fast, and the baby cobia (from eight to ten inches long) will start showing up off the Alabama Coast in late summer.”
What Kind of Tackle?
Rigging for cobia from Alabama’s wonderful fishing pier is a very important point. Although it’s possible for a Gulf Coast visitor to hook a cobia with the same bass rig that works for pond and stream freshwater fishing, it’s very unlikely that a full-grown Gulf Coast cobia will be landed by such light tackle.
Remember, these cobia are big fish and very strong. Fifty-pound cobia are not at all rare, and 35 pounders are common.
Most pier-cobia regulars have custom-made cobia rods. These rods address the specific needs of fishing for the brown bombers from the high decks of the pier.
Chris Vecsey works at Sam’s Tackle in Orange Beach. He has spent a lot of time fishing from Gulf Coast piers. He sells fishing equipment for a living, so he knows quite a bit about the kind of rigs needed for March cobia fishing.
“Pier anglers need to look at eight or nine foot long rods,” Vecsey says. “Not many companies make a rod specifically designed for cobia pier fishing. Thankfully, the Star Company offers good rods for cobia in their Deluxe and Stellar Rod series. For reels, I recommend the Penn Spinfisher in 6500 or 7500 Series and the Shimano Spheros 14000. These reels should be loaded with 25- or 30-lb line, either braid or mono. They also need a 60-lb mono or fluorocarbon leader.”
Pier fishing for cobia is one of those fishing situations where long-distance casting is of primary importance. A short rod won’t give good long-distance casting performance. This is the reason most cobia rods are nine feet long.
This length of rod allows long, long casts. Some days, every inch of distance is needed when the passing cobia are swimming a good distance away from the pier. It takes some practice for most anglers to be able to use such long-distance rods well.
Chris Vecsey says, “You need to be able to accurately cast 75 yards and more. This is especially important for first-cast throws. Far-casting will catch more cobia. This is where spending a little more money on a quality rig and setup will result in more cobia caught.”
Most cobia pier anglers use the simplest of all artificial lures for casting to passing cobia. Large leadhead jigs that can be cast a long way are the favorite choice of many pier anglers.
“I am a huge fan of orange and red jigs. Also, a little black on the jigs is good, too,” Vecsey says. “I use a plastic grub as a trailer on the jig and the GULP! Eel is great. All of my cobia last year came on jigs with GULP! Eel trailers. The color of the eel is not important.”
So, How Do We Do This Pier Cobia Thing?
It’s really simple to pier fish in March for cobia. You haul or roll your equipment to the end of the pier, stow it in a safe place, and take your rod and reel and jig to the rail and watch, and watch, and watch.
The cobia will be moving from the east toward the west, and many times, they can be seen a long way off in the clear Gulf water. Quite often, the cobia is seen as just a dark shadow on the water.
Cobia anglers soon learn to pay attention to any dark movement or shadows in the water. This is because these tend to turn into big cobia. When you see the fish, all you have to do is cast in front of it. Then, the fish eats the jig and the fun begins. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
It’s not that easy. Sometimes sunlight and surface conditions make seeing the cobia quite difficult. At other times, for whatever reason, a cobia seems to have lockjaw and won’t eat anything. But, this is rare. Most of the time in springtime, cobia are very hungry and eager to eat. And they are not shy about devouring a brightly-colored jig which appears in front of them.
Sometimes the cobia will strike and miss the hook. Nonetheless, generally, when a cobia wants to eat something, it eats it.
The biggest situation that March pier anglers looking for cobia have to deal with is this: you won’t be alone. You will have lots of company at the end of the pier. When the cobia start migrating through Alabama coastal waters the end of the pier becomes a very popular place to be.
“It goes without saying that good manners and patience are important when big cobia start swimming past the pier.”
Anglers have to find a good place on the pier rail and occupy it as others come and go and fish around them. It goes without saying that good manners and patience are important when big cobia start swimming past the pier. Anglers need to be polite and give each other room.
If an angler calls “First shot!”, he or she needs to be allowed to make the first cast without having a few dozen “friends” cast over his or her line. Also, anyone who casts a lure at a cobia that and angler hooked and is working to the pier should expect to receive some very sharp comments about his family and personal life.
A good pair of polarized sunglasses helps the angler see the fish first, so he can make the first cast. A rod that allows very long casts is good, of course. A bright-colored two-ounce jig completes the gear.
The only other requirement for catching big cobia from the Alabama Gulf State Park Fishing Pier is time—lots of time. Cobia fishing is a waiting and watching game. Anglers who are serious about catching a trophy cobia will need to spend a lot of time on the rail watching for the big dark fish to slowly pass by.
Gulf State Park Fishing Pier Rules
Anglers ARE REQUIRED to have a state saltwater fishing license.
Alabama residents 65 and older are not required to have a license.
Reduced charges for children below 12 years of age are in place.
Non-resident anglers have reduced annual pier fishing license—$11.00