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Bay Boat Blues
If locating trasition trout has got you down, put your bay boat to use by fishing the wells and pipes - and the cobia that hold on them - this September.

By John McQueen

Even a seemingly tired cobia can still be green. Most fights seem to never end.
Even a seemingly tired cobia can still be green. Most fights seem to never end.

Transition is an ugly word for most inshore fishermen, especially those Southeast Louisiana anglers who favor the pull and delicate flesh of the speckled trout.

The August dog days of smaller fish and soaring temperatures turn into so many September days of lean catches that many turn their attention elsewhere.

However, anglers wanting a taste of big-water action and a wonderfully different flesh can find it this month with the annual return of cobia (lemonfish, ling) to the near-shore structure of coastal Louisiana. Though cobia are widely believed in the scientific world to be year-round residents of the deepwater oil rigs, a large segment of the Gulf of Mexico population is migratory, making its way west in the spring and back east in the fall.

The eastward swing usually brings the fish well within range of bay boats, and provides an outstanding afternoon bonus for offshore anglers on the way in.

I was fortunate enough to take part in the latter application of this autumn resource several years ago returning from a West Delta tuna bonanza behind deepwater shrimp trawlers. Luckily, there was enough room in the fishboxes for white meat, because when we pulled up to one of the single “pipes” located just outside of Tiger Pass, a number — which quickly went from two to three to five — of sizeable cobia were spied lazily finning in the warm late-afternoon glow of the Indian summer.

Nobody got an exact count of the fish as the veteran crew realized the needlessness of an exact count and sprang into action in an effort to present baits to the fish.

This stop was an unplanned one following a day yanking blackfin, and the only reasons we checked it out was a bathroom break for the crew and the fact that that the pipe was on a collision course with our route to the pass.

I grabbed a trout outfit with a plastic cocaho we had used — with limited success — to tease pesky juvenile almaco jacks away from our delicate sabiki rigs and tossed it out, really just to get a fish on the line and hopefully one the tackle could handle. A fat 40-pounder grabbed it, and the two other lines more suited to its targets hooked up soon thereafter.

My fish made it to the other side of the pipe without much effort, and I was in a bind. The other two were soon in gaffing range on the heavy spinning tackle while I helplessly felt the 17-pound line chafe against the rusted metal. It soon parted, and I scrambled for a heavier outfit of my own, stepping carefully around the 50-pounder thrashing in the cockpit and crewmembers closing in on the other fish.

Cobia will hold to virtually anything in the water, including well heads, pipes and marker buoys.
Cobia will hold to virtually anything in the water, including well heads, pipes and marker buoys.

The second fish managed to pop the leader on the gaff shot, and expletives flew in a frenzy not unlike the scramble for rods minutes before. Spirits were buoyed when everyone witnessed a beautiful boatside strike and hook-up and the showy aerial antics of another 40-pound-plus fish. The endgame resulted in a perfect gaff headshot, and put us in respectable hook-up to landing ratio.

The group of fish dissipated, but others were spotted at the next pipe, and two more were harvested before a near-perfect day of offshore fishing was concluded.

A week later, a similar milk run of West Delta trawlers in the morning and pipes in the late afternoon was met with much less spectacular results and illustrates a few important points. Success is far from automatic for these fish, as they are very much on the move.

And the prime time is perfect for those not interested in predawn trip preparation.

“Cobia like the hottest part of the day,” said Capt. Damon McKnight of Super Strike Charters (985-960-1900). “I've found that they don't well on cloudy or rainy days.”

The fall cobia run is one of McKnight's favorites, and the veteran Venice captain says it varies greatly from the curious fish's arrival in the spring.

“Spring fish are generally found in much deeper water and are generally caught while snapper fishing,” he said. “They don't hang around the surface as much as in later in the year.”

Late summer and fall find the fish congregated around the grass patches and “pipes” found in the relatively shallow water of the West Delta blocks. Twenty to 60 feet of water is the target zone for which anglers should look, providing big-game adventure for those without big-game vessels.

“There's usually a good bunch of grass patches in West Delta (in late summer),” said McKnight. “It doesn't have to be a big patch, either. The smallest (patch) I'll stop to fish is one that is around 4 by 4 feet.”

For the most part, the grass McKnight will fish around is sargassum, the golden, free-floating aquatic vegetation making up the offshore rip. Occasionally, small concentrations of freshwater hyacinths are swept out to sea and survive long enough in the salty water to provide cover for what McKnight calls the most structure-oriented fish around.

“I've caught them on most everything that floats out there — lounge chairs, pallets, even a dead porpoise once,” he said.

McKnight's general strategy for fishing a piece of structure is different from many who attempt to attract cobia by making as much racket as possible.

“Cobia probably the most curious fish out there, but they can be spooked,” says McKnight. “I'll pull up to a location and kill the engines and not do anything. Just sit there for two minutes or so and see what happens.”

The group of rigs just off the coast of Fourchon holds some nice-sized lemons this time of year.
The group of rigs just off the coast of Fourchon holds some nice-sized lemons this time of year.

This time allows the fish to settle and regain their famed sense of curiosity. Fish will often check out the new object in their territory quickly before going on about their business.

“It's important to have some baits ready as soon as you pull up to a spot,” said McKnight. “They'll come and check you out, but won't hang around at all unless you've got something for them.”

McKnight's arsenal for hooking these fish includes an assortment of jigs and natural baits. He favors the Ling King jigs in chartreuse and pink, but says most any long, curly tail plastic jig body will suffice as long as it is attached to a jighead heavy enough to get down to the fish in the varying current presented by the open waters of the Gulf.

“The Ling King Jr. is a good one, but it just doesn't sink fast enough,” says McKnight. “Many times you don't get a lot of opportunities at these fish and you don't want to lose out on a fish because you couldn't get a bait in front of him.”

When a cobia is reticent about taking a leadhead offering with the standard jigging presentation but is still following the bait to the boat, McKnight will use a trick practiced by anglers in the northern states for musky. It's unusual, but tame compared to the antics of many anglers.

“I'll dip the rod in the water and really cut up the water with figure 8s,” said McKnight. “That seems to get the fish excited.”

Probably the best bait for these great-eating fish is small hardhead catfish, but McKnight doesn't use them very much.

“It usually takes too long to get enough good-size (5 to 8 inches) baits,” said McKnight, adding that there's always the possibility of a painful accident when handling the pint-sized bait stealers.

Just as good for tempting cobia are baby hardtails found around many of the same grass patches as the target species. Baits from 3 to 5 inches are ideal for cobia ranging in size from barely legal 20-pounders to beasts checking in at 70 pounds or more.

“I use the smaller sabiki rigs with really light line (10-pound test) to catch bait,” said McKnight. “Some of them are called Pescador rigs.”

Hooking the small baitfish on a live bait hook is a bit different from a regular-sized hardtail, which can be hooked a number of ways. The best way for the small ones is to go carefully through the eye socket from the 3 o'clock position on the left (with the bait looking at you) to the 9 o'clock position on the right. This method ensures freedom of movement with a secure connection.

One tip McKnight has for anglers going after these fish for the first time is to use monofilament line instead of braid when targeting any fish that jumps.

“Power Pro or other braids just don't have the shock absorption,” said McKnight. “Cobia don't always jump, but will every once in a while. I like to use Suffix Man o’ War 50-pound line directly to the hook.”

McKnight says the fish will hang around until the first real cold front in October, where the temperatures reach the 40s.

For former University of North Carolina basketball player James Daye, winning the 1982 national championship seemed easy compared to battling this cobia.
For former University of North Carolina basketball player James Daye, winning the 1982 national championship seemed easy compared to battling this cobia.

Capt. Chad Billiot of Marsh Rat Guide Service annually looks forward to September not only as a time when the frenetic pace of the summer trout and redfish season begins to slow, but also as a time when the lemonfish begin to show up around the Bay Marchand rigs just off of the coast of the Fourchon and Elmer's Island beaches.

“I like to concentrate on the rigs three to six miles out,” he said. “I'll fish as far as 15 miles out, but the water depth around (the rigs just past the first set) is deep enough to hold fish but shallow enough to attract them to the boat.”

One of Billiot's favorite methods of catching cobia is by fly rod. The species’ curious nature makes it a natural for the long rod. Naturally, heavier tackle than that used by Louisiana's growing number of shallow-water sight fishermen is needed to subdue the fish that reach 100 pounds. Forty- to 50-pound fish are not uncommon.

“I use a Sage 10- or 11-weight RPLXi rod with a Lee Wulff floating line,” said Billiot. “You can get away with a 9-weight rod if it has a heavy butt section, but that's as light as you want to go.”

Bunker (pogie) patterns in a shade similar to that of a croaker, and eel patterns in blue and black tied by Kenner fly fishing guide Kirby LaCour are what Billiot uses to tempt these fish, as well as large gold flash Clouser minnows.

One twist he has learned is the use of circle hooks on his cobia arsenal, saying that ladies fly fishing record holder Theda Little of Baton Rouge turned him on to them.

“She was having trouble on her smaller tippets with big fish on the hookset,” said Billiot. “With the circle hooks, they stick themselves when the turn away from it.”

There are a few ways to subdue a relentless cobia. One is with a pistol fired at point-blank range.
There are a few ways to subdue a relentless cobia. One is with a pistol fired at point-blank range.

The use of fly tackle for these fish is surprisingly advantageous in that fly casters can make many more presentations to fish in the critical time period when they’re are up on the surface. A poor cast can be almost immediately picked up and placed back in front of the fish, while those with casting or spinning tackle have to reel in and cast back out. The difference can be multiple shots at a fish with fly tackle when a conventional-gear angler may get two — if he's lucky.

Billiot favors the smaller wellheads to the larger production platforms when targeting cobia, saying that the fish can hear better at the smaller, quieter satellite platforms. Cobia very often investigate anything different about their environment, and will often greet a vessel as it nears the structure.

The small size of these platforms makes it easier to cover lots of ground while looking for fish. While Billiot has certain historically productive platforms, he says the best way to find cobia in these waters is to simply hop from structure to structure.

Like McKnight, Billiot favors the high sunlight hours for targeting lemonfish, saying optimum sight-fishing is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

So if the speckled trout transition blues have got you down, a day a few miles off of Fourchon or Venice chasing cobia can make that September bay boat payment a little more palatable.