Throughout the Panhandle of Florida and most of the Gulf Coast, Cobia is the king of Spring. They are the biggest fish inshore besides the summer tarpon and sharks, capable of easily reaching over 100 Lb. Cobia will show up as the water temps reach about 69f, the cobia migrate up the coast from their wintering grounds in the Florida Keys. They swim up along the coast usually within a mile of the beach. These fish are on a mission to go north then west along the coast. Heading towards their spring and summer spawning grounds in the Northern Gulf. All the while the cobia are feeding heavily, especially the large females. Bulking up in preparation for the spawn.
This voracious nature makes them very willing to bite at anything presented to them. Be it a colorful cobia jig, a live eel, or a ruby lips. As long as the water temperature is right, the majority of the time they will eat anything you throw at them. The way to target cobia is to just look at the water and try to find them. This is almost purely a sight fishing endeavor. Either by boat or from the pier, you have to watch the water and try and find them swimming along the surface. This trip was on a boat, so I’ll cover pier tactics at another time in another article.
This trip was originally supposed to be a 48-hour Tuna trip with Captain Tyler of the Nothin Matters. But the weather and airlines had other plans for that day. So, as a consolation, we decided to go out looking for Cobia. The weather was windy and a bit cold with a front having just rolled through that week, but the water was still warm so the cobia should still be around, maybe out just a bit deeper than usual. For this weather, I would definitely recommend some Grundens and a good wind-resistant jacket. Especially if you’re going to be up in the tower all day getting blasted by the wind.
We had a late start due to the last-minute issues that happened with the original trip. So, after slowly coming out of the harbors in the no-wake zone. Captain Tyler opened her up and we started hauling out to the west to head to the most likely area to hold fish. The stretch of coast from Okaloosa Island Pier to Destin Pass is colloquially called the “Dead Sea.” So, to not waste any time we made a 10-mile run towards the Santa Rosa Island Tower. On that run, the mates were prepping and rigging to be ready to fish as soon as we got to the tower. There were several rods sent up to the tower, a couple with jigs and the rest rigged with live eels on circle hooks. A couple of rods were left rigged and ready down on the deck with circle hooks as well, ready to have a ruby lip put on and tossed at a fish.
Once we reached the tower the hunt was on. The mates were ready and up in the tower looking for Cobia. They were all very eager for a Cobia today for they had lost one the week before right at the boat. They really wanted to have that first fish of the season under their belt. Down on the deck of the boat, we had a single trolling rod pulling a white Rapala X-Rap. Hoping for possibly a king or Spanish mackerel while we were out there. Anything to increase the chances of catching something that day. Because the fact of the matter is cobia fishing is pretty boring 98% of the time. You are out there just looking around trying to spot a brown spot out in the gulf. Catching a cobia is not a guaranteed thing.
We were instructed to reel in the trolling rig if a fish was spotted and we were off. For a long time of scenic sightseeing in the gulf. We spent about 5 hours just cruising before spotting the first fish. It was honestly incredibly odd to go that far trolling an X-Rap without running into anything.
From the Santa Rosa Island Tower, we cruised west at about 6 knots per hour. We passed other boats fishing as well, but didn’t see much going on. Even the piers we passed looked like nothing was going on. We went all the way west to almost the opening of Pensacola Pass, and from there we doubled back to the east. There was a false alarm when a big sea turtle surfaced, cobia follow other large marine animals such as sharks, turtles, and rays. But other than that it was uneventful until we were nearly back at the Navarre Pier. A cobia was spotted from the tower and an eel was pitched at it. But it didn’t eat it, so a jig was tossed next. The fish was interested in the jig and even followed it to almost the side of the boat, but it would not commit and strike the jig. So, a ruby lip was hooked up and thrown at it, and that was the ticket.
As soon as the ruby lip hit the water the cobia was on it and trying to inhale it. We saw the cobia go belly up swallowing the grunt and knew she had the bait. We kept the reel in free spool so the cobia had plenty of time to completely swallow the ruby lip. After just a bit the bail was flipped and the circle hook did its job. The first fish of the day was on and the fight was on. After feeling that hook in the corner of its jaw the fish bolted for the bottom, taking drag and dogging down deep. Before running straight back up to the surface with some headshakes. Then, immediately make a beeline towards the boat. Then, running around the transom of the boat to get gaffed by First Mate Jesse.
After all that excitement was done, it was back to more of the same. Cruising at a leisurely pace back east towards Destin. More trolling a lure with no hits and staring at the water. We passed by Navarre again and then the Santa Rosa Island Tower and entered the “Dead Sea.” A stretch of water that’s supposed to be not worth the effort to fish for cobia. but that wasn’t the case today. We finally had a hit on the trolling rod. Of course, though it hit right as I went to let some more line out, instantly making a giant bird’s nest of the reel. It was a 5 Lb axe-handle Spanish mackerel that had to be handlined in.
After the mackerel was on ice, we were on the move again. We ran into the second Cobia of the day a bit west of Okaloosa Island Pier, a larger fish in the mid-40s. This fish was more aggressive and hit the jig that was thrown at it by the First Mate Jesse. This was a much longer fight though, after an initial run this fish went deep. It kept digging towards the bottom and trying to get under the boat. We saw color a couple of times as the fish got near the boat, but as soon as it got close to the surface the fish would bolt and try to go deep and under the boat again. But finally, we got this big girl to the surface and stuck a gaff in her. We managed to get our two fish limit for the day, it was time to go home.
Of course, there was some showboating and pictures being taken, maybe some bragging and taunting the other cobia fishermen on the Okaloosa Island Pier. Once that was all done, time to ice and clean up the boat. Packing away gear and putting live baits back in the well. We were off at full speed back to the harbor, to take some photos, clean some fish, and say goodbyes.
For a day that had started with such a low, finally catching a cobia after 10 years of trying was a good consolation prize. Not every trip is a slam dunk, some days you can be out there all day and not see a single fish. So, to get a vessel limit and the first fish of the year for the boat is about as good as it can get. I want to close out by thanking Captain Tyler, and the mates Jesse, Devin, and Pitt.