“Cobia fishing is a lot like deer hunting,” an angler said. “You look, wait, and sometimes see one. Then you have to be ready!”
Every spring, the Gulf waters start to warm and when they do a wonderful thing happens. One day toward the beginning of spring, these strong dark-brown fish start making their way past the condos and beach houses on the Alabama coast.
Having traveled a long way up the coast of Florida from their wintering waters off the Florida Keys on their way to Louisiana, these big fish have faced a lot of anglers on their annual migration.
Once these big browns—we’re talking about cobia, of course—reach Alabama, they face perhaps the biggest obstacle in their journey. Some very good anglers mark their calendars and arrange the rest of their lives around the spring passage of the big cobia through Alabama waters.
We are lucky to have these cobia specialists help the rest of us anglers out. Five of the best cobia anglers on the Alabama coast have shared their cobia fishing tips, experience, and knowledge with those of us who need help in finding and catching one of these magnificent game fish.
Equipment for Cobia
Let’s start with gearing up for a cobia season. After all, it’s the one part of the cobia equation that we anglers have some control over.
Captain Chip Day advises anglers to get a seven-foot-long, medium-heavy spinning rod with a good reel that has a very good drag system. Any of the major reel brands will work. The reel needs to hold at least 200 yards of line.
He highly recommends The Rod Room in Orange Beach for anglers who want a custom-made cobia rod. The folks there specialize in making top-of-the-line cobia rods that suit the individual angler.
Captain Ricky McDuffie says anglers can use 25- to 30-lb test line, even on really big cobia. Since the migrating cobia will be in relatively shallow water, anglers can keep up with hooked cobia that make long, strong runs and follow them in the boat because the fish can’t go deep and break off the light line.
Most of our panel of cobia experts fish live bait on circle hooks. Captain Ben Fairey, who holds the Alabama state record for cobia with an almost 118-pound monster caught in 1995 says, “A cobia hooked on live bait with a circle hook is easier to keep hooked up than a cobia hooked on a heavy jig.”
Captain Ricky likes circle hooks, as do most of our helpful guides in this article. “With a circle hook,” he says, “even if the cobia misses getting hooked on the first strike, if the angler free-spools the bait, the cobia will often return and take it again. J hooks often partially hook and then pull out, which spooks the fish. Circle hooks either hook solid or pull free.”
One of the most important parts of a cobia angler’s equipment might seem to have little to do with actual fishing, but it is crucial. Our panel of experts was unanimous on the importance of this piece of equipment.
“Get the best polarized sunglasses you can find,” says Captain Mike Rowell. “On bright bluebird days, I use a grey lens. On cloudy days, I use amber-colored lenses which help brighten what I see.”
Captain Ben Fairey agrees. “Cobia anglers must have really a high-quality polarized sunglass,” he says. “I like the rose- and amber-colored lenses because they really bring out the brown color of the cobia in the water.”
Wind and Water Conditions
Now, we’re looking at a crucial element of springtime cobia fishing that we anglers have no control over. We can’t make nice days appear when we need them. We anglers just have to take what comes each day and work with it.
When asked what comprised a perfect cobia fishing day, weather-wise, the experts were in total agreement. A day with clear skies, along with a southeast wind, and even a little chop to break up the glare of a flat-calm sea is best. Thankfully, we get a lot of these perfect cobia days in the springtime.
“The southeast wind brings the fish closer to shore,” Captain Mike Rowell says. “The southeast wave action lets the cobia ‘surf’ along the waves on their migration. A two-foot sea is just about perfect.”
Captain Bobby Walker tells us, “Since we’re always sight-fishing for cobia in the spring, we try to keep the sun to our backs while we’re looking. We will often run out of Perdido Pass and head east toward Pensacola early on a cobia trip. Then we’ll fish with the sun behind us as we motor back west. In the afternoon we’ll run back east from the first rigs near Fort Morgan and have the afternoon sun at our backs going home.”
“Captain Ricky McDuffie says that if a scheduled cobia fishing day is overcast or even foggy, all is not lost.”
Captain Bobby adds, “The closer to Pensacola we go, the clearer the water usually is. Many days, the water down at Pensacola Pass will be much clearer than the water here in Alabama.”
Captain Ricky McDuffie says that if a scheduled cobia fishing day is overcast or even foggy, all is not lost. “On a cloudy day, the cobia will still be on top of the water, but we just can’t see them as well,” he says. “We still catch them. We concentrate on fishing in closer to shore where the shallower water makes it easier to see the fish.”
Bait and Lures for the Big Brown Fish
When it comes to selecting bait for the big brown bombers, there is a lot of agreement among our experts. Cobia can be crazy (and make cobia anglers crazy, too) when it comes to presenting them with bait.
On certain days they’ll eat anything that comes in front of them, and other days they won’t hit the best live bait or lure. Cobia anglers have to be ready to do whatever is needed to get the fish to bite.
“We’ll have several different baits ready to throw,” Captain Chip Day says. “If the cobia doesn’t take the first offering, it may take different live bait.”
The universal first choice for our panel of cobia experts is a live eel.
Captain Ricky McDuffie says, “Most tackle shops get eels by the pound. They are shipped in from the East Coast way up north where they catch them. A good live eel will see a cobia coming and run from it. This excites the cobia, and it will chase the eel down and devour it.”
An advantage of live eels is that they are tough and live well in bait buckets and other holding facilities. A bit of advice from several of our experts: don’t just dump the live eels in an open live well.
They are very fast and very slippery and very difficult to catch for use on a cobia hook when they are free to swim in a big live well. Instead, put the eels in a small minnow bucket that is allowed to float free in the live well. The smaller space of the minnow bucket allows quick grabs and quick casts when it becomes necessary.
Captain Mike Rowell adds, “Eels are the standard bait, but we use live mullet and pinfish. When cobia are in the mood, they’ll eat anything that will fit in their mouths.”
Even hardhead catfish are good cobia bait. “Hardheads work!” Captain Ricky says. “Cut off the fins so they can’t lock them up when the cobia eats. In fact, most cobia that we catch and clean will have hardheads in their bellies that they’ve eaten before we caught them.”
It never hurts to have a rig set up to throw a jig to passing cobia. “Heavy four-ounce jigs that can be thrown a long way are good,” says Captain Day. “I like pink colors on my jigs. Sometimes, a jig can present the cobia with more action than live bait, and this can trigger a strike by the cobia.”
Cobia Fishing Tips: The DON’TS
When asked to relate the biggest boo-boos that anglers make when going after cobia, our panel of experts—all of whom are professional fishing guides who have seen a lot of mistakes made on cobia trips—gives us a lot of advice on what not to do.
Captain Ben Fairey says, “Practice casting with the rig you’ll be using. That’s vital. These fish are migrating, really moving. You have to be able to cast in front of them. They don’t have eyes in their tails. You can’t hit too close with the cast, either. Not practicing so you can’t cast where you need to cast is a big mistake.”
Captain Mike Rowell says that a big mistake many cobia anglers make is not paying close enough attention to the water, and not having good sunglasses and a good hat for shade. “A lot of people climb up in the tower with me and want to work on their suntan or look at the girls in their bikinis,” he says. “You can’t do both—looking at the scenery and also looking at the fish.”
When asked what he found to be a big mistake cobia anglers make, Captain Ricky McDuffie says, “Too many people try to throw too close to the cobia. It spooks them. Throw past them and ease the bait back in front of the moving fish.”
Captain Chip is emphatic about the biggest no-no for cobia anglers. “After looking for a long time and finally seeing a cobia, don’t spook the fish! Throw ahead and make it count. You may only get one shot at the fish.”
Cobia Fishing Tips: The Do’s
When asked what their single piece of best advice for cobia anglers—both new and experienced—all of our cobia guides offered a wide range of great ideas.
Captain Ben Fairey says, “The number-one thing is experience and being able to see the fish. You really must have good polarized sunglasses.”
Captain Mike Rowell’s best advice is to be disciplined and concentrate on looking for fish. It’s easy to get distracted. You need to be rested and stay focused on scanning the water. You simply have to see them before you can catch them.
“You’d better have a lot of patience,” Captain Bobby Walker says. “Have your gear ready. Put your bait out in front, let him take it, and when the line draws tight, start cranking like crazy. Bow him up really good. ”
Captain Bobby continues. “Try to have three people up in the tower looking. One looks at each side, and one looks up front. Don’t look at the horizon, look closer to the boat. Look for a big, brown object. You’ see sharks and turtles, and then you’ll see a cobia. Once you spot one or two of them, you’ll know what you’re looking for.”
Captain Chip Day’s best advice is simple. Short four-hour chartered trips are tough for cobia fishing. These short trips are just not long enough to find fish most days. Cobia fishing takes time. Cobia may bite hard at some point during the day for an hour or so, and you’ve got to be there when it happens.
Finally, a very helpful bit of advice comes from Captain Ricky McDuffie. “Get on a boat!” he says. “You don’t always have to charter a whole day’s trip. Go around the marinas and talk to the captains. Many days when we don’t have a charter, we’ll go fishing with just ourselves and the deckhand. We’ll often take someone if he pays a share of the gas. Since we don’t have to burn a lot of gas while cobia fishing, it may only take $120 or so for an angler to get on a cobia trip. This way, the beginning angler gets the experience of a cobia trip without costing a lot of money. If we’re really catching fish, the angler will get a chance to fish, too.”