The cobia are on the move in their annual westward migration. Throughout late March and the month of April, boats cruise the beaches of Alabama and the Florida panhandle looking for the large brownish backs of cobia moving west along the surface. For this type of sight fishing, it’s best to have a bright sunshiny day and to be as high above the water’s surface as possible.
This results in some odd configurations including homemade wooden or metal towers built onto boats and step ladders strapped inside boats, all in hopes of being able to better spot the cobia swimming. We have even seen some enterprising soles set up tall step ladders in the shallow waters just off the beach.
This requires a certain degree of obsession with fishing given that each year mako sharks weighing hundreds of pounds are caught near shore. I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat dreaming of spotting a shark, like the 600lb beast caught off Destin this year, swimming between the shore and me perched atop a rickety ladder.
When it’s warm and calm, this type of fishing is about as easy as it gets. But when the temperature is in the 40’s and the wind is blowing 20 knots, it’s a far different story. Being in a tower like the one we have on Vixen, 35 feet up in the air in four to six foot or even eight foot seas, is an adventure which ranges from exhilarating to terrifying.
*** [Published in the Sun Herald on Apr. 28, 2013, p . 6B] ***
I have heard of two separate instances where an angler was flung from the tower , managing to catch hold of the tower leg with one hand on the way out to keep from falling. This is why some refer to towers by the nickname “catapult.”
On one trip, Capt. Eric Gill and I were in the tower when I let go of the railing for a moment to fasten my jacket. A large wave struck us at the same time and sent me sailing across the tower seat into Eric, pinning him between me and the tower. It knocked the wind out of him, though at first I feared that I had broken his ribs.
When we spot a cobia, we will often pitch a jig from the tower to keep the fish interested, though sometimes it will bite the jig. If we do hook them this way, we lower the rod on a rope trolley that runs from the tower to a cleat in the cockpit where we then fight the fish from the deck. Otherwise, an angler will cast a live bait, either an eel or baitfish, to the cobia. If the fish is “well-behaved” it will roll on the bait and we have a hook up. If it is “ill-behaved” it will either ignore the bait entirely or worse, pick it up and run for a minute before spitting it, a maddening experience for the frustrated angler.
As the fish migrate west of Mobile Bay, I’m not sure if the bay outflow pushes the fish further south, or if the barrier islands somehow affect their behavior, of perhaps the migratory patterns are just different, but the successful fishing tactics change. While it is possible to see fish in the shallow waters of the barrier islands west of Mobile Bay, the Mississippi Coast, and even Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands, typically they do not appear in the numbers seen east of the bay.
Rather than cruise the waters in search of cobia, anglers fishing for cobia off the Mississippi Gulf Coast generally anchor in an area like the Horn Island bar and chum. The approach here is to lure them to the boat rather than chase them along the beach. Though I have never fished for cobia using this strategy, some of the Vixen team have in the Gorenflo cobia tournaments, for instance. I understand that this approach requires lots of chum, a great deal of patience, and beer—plenty of beer.
Sight fishing west of the bay is generally most successful around structure such as channel markers or oil rigs. However if the fish are not spotted at the surface, jigging for them will often prove successful. On one trip, we were bottom fishing with dead bait and could not limit out on snapper for the cobia. After catching 13 that day, I found it hard to be too upset about not getting our limit of snapper.