CHUMMING for COBIA
Unlike most of our migratory inshore and near shore fish, the cobia is actually found all over the world, making it one of the best-known species of fish on the planet. Although the popular cobia is easily recognized most everywhere, it is referred to by many different names including the ling, lemon fish, and crab-eater. These brownish-colored, stealthy scavengers follow the temperate water conditions up the coast, usually making a quiet entrance into the Chesapeake Bay area early in the summer.
Cobia present an appearance distinctive exclusively to its own species. A long, smooth frame with a broad, sloped forehead, allow the cobia to easily glide through the water in search of its meals. The fluid movements and lean body-make of the cobia is most likened to that of a sly prowling shark, and is therefore often mistakenly confused with these completely un-related hunters. Growing to sizes to over 100 pounds, cobia are a guaranteed recreational favorite, offering an impressive battle, often manipulating even the most skillful angler on multiple guided tours around his own boat trying to keep up! Once defeated though, the quality table-fare afforded to the whole crew from one substantial fish is well worth the sweat-provoking exercise. In the state of Virginia, lucky anglers landing trophy-sized cobia at fifty-five pounds, or releasing a fish stretching to at least 50 inches, are suitably rewarded with an attractive state citation plaque.
WHEN and WHERE
Once present around the bay area, cobia can show up most anywhere…often surprising surf and pier anglers, trollers, drifters, bottom anglers, casters, and even wreck pounders with incidental cobia encounters. During their entrance, cobia will cruise low in the water along shallow shorelines, shoals, and structures in search of small fish, crabs, and eels. These scavengers will also happily mirror rays, skates, turtles, and other carnivores during their travels, in hopes of procuring any scraps leftover from their feasts.
The most productive early and mid summer method for targeting these foraging carnivores is most certainly chumming the shoals of the lower Chesapeake Bay. Many shoal options abound in the lower bay for this technique. Some of the more popular cobia holding shoals include those lining the Eastern Shore, the Grandview and Buckroe Beach areas of Hampton, and the Middle Grounds and other shoals along the span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel.
Most shoal chummers prefer to man their cobia hot spots during daylight hours, although it is possible to catch these brown beasts after sunset, along with other shoal scavengers such as red and black drum. Once you reach the shoals, drive slowly, searching the bottom for a water depth ranging between 8 to 20 feet for anchoring. Choose a location sufficiently spaced from other boats and structures in anticipation of long, unyielding runs requiring plenty of room.
Cobia chumming basically requires equipment and tackle in about the 30-pound class range. My personal preference includes a set of combos consisting of conventional style reels, such as TLD 15s, spooled with 30-pound test line and 6-7 foot live-bait or boat rods made for handling fish pushing up to over 60 pounds. A typical fish-finder rig is a good option for terminal tackle, which is prepared by placing a sinker-slide donned with an appropriate sinker above a stout barrel-swivel and tying on at least 4 feet of 80-pound monofilament leader material. Using a 3-4 ounce egg sinker instead of a sinker slide will offer better castablitiy, if so desired. Be sure not to skimp on the length of your leader, often skirmishes with these strong, determined fish can lead to frayed lines, so ensure you’re leader takes the brunt of the abuse, not your 30-pound test line. Adding a 3-4 foot segment of doubled line above your leader will add a little more protection against fraying or breakage. As for hooks, I will typically opt for an extremely sharp 7/0 to 8/0 conventional offset hook, as opposed to circle hooks with cobia. These fish have extremely hard mouths, entirely lined with tiny-sandpaper teeth…including their tongues; therefore a strong hook with a razor-sharp point is a must.
BAIT and CHUM
Since the cobia’s diet is so varied, there are many great options for bait, but as always the fresher the offering, the better. Some of the more popular cobia enticers include fresh bunker, peeler crabs, live eels, and live spot and croaker. My personal favorite choice is fresh menhaden, which can be purchased in flats at local tackle shops, but be sure to call ahead to verify they have plenty in stock. Whatever your choice of bait, have an ample supply of it, since extensive chumming will attract undesirables to your spread from miles around.
Chum consists a mixture of mostly ground menhaden frozen in bulk containers or bags for future use. Placing this frigid concoction over the side of your boat in the warmer water causes the solid mass to slowly dissipate, releasing a very oily slick, which can be seen on the surface for many miles. I always take at least two large buckets of chum for cobia fishing. Supplementing your chum slick with occasional chunks of bunker can also prove helpful. Toss the chunks up current near the boat. Ensure your chunks are not frozen or they will tend to float instead of sink, and thrifty seagulls will be happy to take those floaters off your hands.
Keep in mind, when initially searching the shoals for an optimal cobia spot, be mindful to avoid other boat’s chum slicks, you will certainly hear some choice words yelled in your direction if you forget.
To prepare the menhaden for the hook, start by cutting off the head and tail, and dividing the remaining body into about 3 to 4 inch segments, guts and all. Work the hook through the body portions of the bunker, ensuring the barb of the hook is exposed, and that the shank lays flat against the bait. You can discard the tail, but use the head with about ½ inch of remaining body attached, hooked up through the chin if the bait-stealers are out-in-force. If adding eels to the mix, using a dry towel is helpful to hold the eel while hooking it through the nose, or the tail.
Be prepared to have plenty of company with critters sampling your offerings, so check the baits often and keep them as fresh as possible. Because your uninvited visitors will include an assortment of small sharks, skates, and some very respectable giant cow-nosed rays, take along plenty of extra hooks. It is already frustrating to spend quality fishing time untangling crossed lines from these aggressive bandits, but lost hooks with insufficient back-up, will certainly shorten a shoal trip in a hurry.
As soon as you are satisfied with your anchored position, begin the process by placing your chum over the side to get your slick started as you prepare your bait.
Set out four baited rods by casting two of the baits out away from the boat, while dropping the other two baits on the bottom, right behind the boat. Place the rods in the holders, back off the drag, and turn on the clicker so that the current does not pull the line. This gives the cobia the opportunity to seize the bait and begin to swallow it before he feels any resistance. Once the clicker sounds, quickly pick up the rod, turn off the clicker, employ the drag and set the hook with force enough to engage the fish’s extremely hard mouth. Be sure to verify your drag, and hold on!
THE FIGHT and LANDING
Once hooked into a sturdy cobia, it will only take a second for you to realize that you are in for some nimble footwork, while experiencing hard, lengthy runs, and even an occasional leap out of the water. These fish are very strong and determined, and will certainly hold their ground, so stand-offs between fish and angler are not uncommon.
Many have made the dire mistake of attempting to gaff these unruly fish. Stabbing a hefty cobia is a bad idea; a crazed cobia spooked from a gaffing attempt can leave you both fishless and gaffless. Instead, stand ready with a very large net for landing these sturdy beasts. Swiftly deliver them to the fish box, or at the minimum leave them in the net until it is calm. Once boated beware-the battle may rekindle, and cobia are very powerful, and sport a row of extremely sharp, depressible spines behind their head. Many anglers have learned a tough lesson, incurring broken equipment, damaged boats, and injured body parts from an uncontrollable cobia loose in the boat.
Exhibiting a little patience and planning while on you cobia quest will reward you with an incredible fighting experience paired with a prize for the palate well worth bearing the hot summer heat.