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Louisiana's Early Cobia
by Pete Cooper


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Don't wait until summer to try for our beloved lemonfish; there are plenty of them around now!
I got along very well for almost 45 years without cobia playing a role in my life. Then, for some reason known only to beings higher than myself, I contracted a desire to catch one on a fly. It was so strong that it led me on a quest which was not fulfilled until five years later and during which time Mr. Murphy's law ran amok!
Success, when it was finally realized, was very sweet, and since the capture of the great brown beast on that drop-dead gorgeous early-autumn morning - while alone in my bay boat on the hallowed grounds of West Delta, I simply cannot get enough of them. Of course, one reason for that is that I continue to fly fish for them whenever possible, and we all know that fly fishing was the act that led to the formulation of Mr. Murphy's law. There are a lot of ways to not catch a cobia when you are fly fishing!
Still, I eat grilled cobia steaks fairly frequently, and I have found a few patterns (And those are not necessarily flies!) which have led to more strikes, if not more steaks. One of those is that I now fish for them considerably earlier than I once did.
That isn't as early as the folks along the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, and Mississippi find them, but it's a lot earlier than many anglers hereabouts once thought they should be fishing for them. Fact is, there was a lot of erroneous thinking about cobia up until only a few years ago.
Some of that which is pertinent to these lines was the belief that with the cooling water of autumn cobia, similar to tarpon, left Louisiana waters for warmer areas. In recent years, however, there have been at least 18 recaptures of tagged fish in the north-central Gulf during winter, along with several catches of untagged fish which were reported to the Cobia Research Project of the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Notably, all were taken from water deeper than 100 feet, a depth that may provide them with a thermal haven sufficient to hold them in our waters throughout the cold months.

These are apparently the first fish to appear near the surface after the water temperature has exceeded 70 degrees. In many years that occurs in mid April, and by early May the fish are well established in their warm-weather haunts, their numbers growing daily with the arrival of migrants. At least, that's how it seems to be happening recently.

There is, however, an exception to that pattern: the buoys marking the offshore reaches of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a deep-water channel leading from New Orleans through the marshes of St. Bernard Parish and Breton Sound to the Gulf, terminating not far from the vast Main Pass Block 41 oil field. Those buoys usually provide the earliest action to be had in our waters - on the surface, anyway, the way my buddies and I like it best.
These fish are probably migrants from the east; indeed, if you hear of cobia being taken along Mississippi's barrier islands, you can bet they'll be at the MRGO buoys in a couple of weeks. That can be as early as late April. Hit it right with fresh, unpressured fish beneath practically every buoy, and you will have a day you will never forget. Hit it a bit early, and you still have the excellent bail-out options of Grand Gosier and Breton Islands, which the MRGO passes between and which offer fantastic fishing for big specks at this time!
Fishing the MRGO buoys is about as basic as it gets: idle up to one, look beneath it, and if there is a cobia in attendance, cast a "queen cocahoe" at it - chartreuse with glitter and a red tail is a good choice - and you will likely get bit. The only "particular" involved here - once you've found the fish, of course - is to ensure the helmsman has paid attention to which side of the buoy's cable the fish ran so that he can follow it and keep your line clear. Also, if you find a small school beneath a particular buoy, catch one of them, and the rest disappear, try that buoy again later in the day. When these fish take up residence here, they stay put, though they may not reappear on the surface for some time. If that's the case, deep-jigging around the buoy should do the trick.
By early May many migrants have begun to work their way around the Delta. In some cases this takes them well offshore. There they discover rips - and the groceries which are typically concentrated along them - and take up temporary residence. Some of the best of these rips have blue water on their offshore sides, and occasionally at this time those move quite close to the mouths of the passes - well within 15 miles - and cobia can be found literally alongside bull dolphin and blue marlin!
Nearshore blue-water rips can be fairly common off the Delta now; indeed, for the past three springs one has moved well inshore at this time and provided memorable action with cobia for those who could tear themselves away from the billfish potential. Early on, the most fish (We are still talking about cobia here!) are usually to the southeast of South Pass. As mid May approaches, many of the fish will have moved further to the west. Two springs ago a strong blue-water rip moved to within 11 miles of the mouth of Southwest Pass, and it was loaded with them! And at about the same time last spring, Brent Ballay and I found them on a rather unusual north/south blue-water rip a couple of miles south of West Delta Block 152, though that is getting out there a whole lot farther than one needs to go now.
As the fish clear Southwest Pass, many of them move north into the middle and upper reaches of West Delta - say, from blocks 84 and 86 north to the 30's. Some continue on, with one extreme example being tagged in Navarre, Florida and re-captured off Port Aransas, Texas, and only 61 days later! That was just a little lagniappe, though it goes to show that with cobia - both "resident" and migrants - nothing is carved in stone.
By mid May I have begun pursuing them in earnest, sight-fishing when conditions are appropriate, deep-jigging when they aren't. As in high summer and early autumn, my quest takes place along nearshore current lines where clarity is sufficient and around caisson-supported oil and gas wells. Strangely enough, while I have deep-jigged cobia around full-blown production platforms at this time, I have never seen one on the surface there now. Maybe that's because I don't fish them as much as I do the caissons and the rips. Whatever, the tackle we use isn't really stout enough to prevent only a fair-sized cobia from gaining its freedom beneath a multi-legged platform.
However, it does just fine in open water and around the caissons. If by some chance you have an interest in fly fishing for them (And if you don't, then you should - it is really neat stuff!), a 10-weight outfit, floating braided mono-core line, and a 9-foot leader tapered to 16-pound "class" and with a foot of 50-pound mono for a shocker is entirely adequate for fish to 40 pounds or a bit more. Size 3/0 green and white and green and yellow Deceivers are effective flies. Once you see a fish, put the fly right on its nose and immediately begin moderately-fast 6-inch strips.
While several of my regular cobia-fishing buddies also fly fish for them, my son-in-law, Chris Disher of Lafayette, does not. He uses a 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy freshwater "pitching stick" with a Penn 965 and 17-pound line with a 2-foot 50-pound mono leader. With it and the aforementioned "queen cocahoe", he's done quite well in open-water sight-fishing settings and had a lot of fun doing it.
I have also used that outfit to deep-jig (in not-too-deep water) with a cigar minnow in lieu of a soft-plastic on the 3/8-ounce jig-head, but for fishing deeper than around 40 feet, I prefer a stouter outfit: a 6 1/2-foot extra-heavy "Musky" rod, an Ambassadeur 7000 loaded with 30-pound, a 60-pound mono leader, and a one-ounce jig-head dressed with a 6-inch curly-tail grub. Toss the jig to the up-current side of a caisson (Or a full-blown platform if you are so inclined), let it sink to bottom, and retrieve it quickly with broad upward sweeps of the rod. As with the MRGO buoys, the helmsman must be ready to pursue a fish around whichever side of a caisson it has run; at a platform, getting away from it quickly is the key.
A lot of Louisiana folks are occupied in mid spring chasing big specks, billfish which are often as close to shore as they get, and the season's first tarpon. They do their "lemonfishing" in summer - the way I used to do it. No more! I've been waiting too long for the opportunity to once again lay a fly across one's nose, and nowadays, having realized just how many of them are out there waiting to accommodate me, I am not about to procrastinate. Besides, I depleted last year's stash of cobia steaks over two months ago...
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