Lemon Picking

The harvest is ripe for this luscious fish at the near-shore rigs in October.

It’s difficult to explain my near obsession with cobia. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember, and many other offshore anglers feel the same and react similarly when the meaty brown fish appear near the boat.

The vessel goes from an attitude resembling the methodic, lulling rhythm of the offshore swells to chaos in an instant.

Lucky enough to experience a lot of exciting offshore fishing adventures, some of my most exhilarating are involved in pursuit of this tasty fish.

Though the fish’s dense texture and unique taste are turn-offs to fish luminary Jerald Horst, many anglers count cobia as one of the best-eating fish in the Gulf.

Florida and Alabama welcome the spring cobia migration like Capistrano residents beckon the swallows, but the fall migration of the curious fish is just as good for offshore anglers out of Cocodrie, Fourchon, Grand Isle or Venice.

Schools of the fish — though anecdotally not as big as the spring fish — numbering sometimes in the 20s move often through much shallower water on their way back to the South Florida wintering area.

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters in Cocodrie has long held the belief that the fall run of fish are seen and caught much closer than those in the spring simply out of convenience.

“When those fish round the delta, most of them are going to take the shortest route to where they’re going,” said Pellegrin, who believes most of the fish spend the summer off the Texas coast. “Now, in the fall, when they’re moving back, they’ll drift back closer to shore and they’ll follow the coast all the way down the delta to the mouth of the river. That’s why you get a lot of fish caught so close to the beach in the fall.”

Capt. Myron Fischer began keeping up with his cobia catches several years ago when he wanted to compare them to his charter boat buddies in Orange Beach, Ala.

“Those guys all profess to be the cobia kings,” said Fischer of the huge fleet of boats of all sizes who patrol the beach each spring as cobia make their way westward. “We found out that in the fall, we catch just as many as they do.

“The fish seem to migrate to our pocket of the Gulf and stay there until something triggers them to move back toward the east. Until that time, the fishing can be excellent.”

Fischer says the time frame for this eastward migration, one that brings fish much closer than the spring movement, can be anywhere from August to the latter part of October. This unpredictable migration pattern, along with the fish’s finicky nature and the often rough weather at this time of year, keep cobia stocks in good shape.

One of the uglier fishes in the Gulf, the cobia’s appearance floats somewhere between that of a catfish and a bull shark, though the latter comparison is only seen when viewing the fish from above.

Many times, the most striking feature of the fish, the long stream of white running along the lateral line, goes away when the fish reaches maturity or is out of the water for a long period of time. A very short window of opportunity is available for a good picture of a cobia.

Despite a powerful reputation with flashes of brilliance in the form of acrobatics, they don’t fight all that well. Many anglers will take umbrage with that statement, recalling the powerful runs, occasional jumps and the fish that took them into the rigs, but the cobia’s lack of strength was seared in my mind one day several years ago.

Capt. Aaron Pierce of Shoreline Charters in Fourchon was taking part in a study seeking to keep up with the habits of redfish in our nearshore waters. Ever since the feds took redfish out of the picture when purse seiners were encircling large schools of the breeders, little data had been gathered on the species, and NMFS hired charter captains to catch and keep as many redfish — with some stipulations — as possible to do research on them. Pierce carried the flag for the Fourchon area, and invited Capt. Chad Billiot and me as hired guns.

We quickly filled the requirement of 25 bulls in a one square mile area, and were off to a little deeper water to find more. It was a beautiful May morning, and I was fishing a fresh pogie on the bottom right at the base of a platform in Grand Isle 45.

Gentle 2-foot swells allowed the brave — or stupid — to fish at the very tip of Pierce’s 26-foot Glacier Bay, getting as close to the piling to which we were tied as possible. I got a strike, let the circle hook do its thing and the rod bent double. I furiously pumped and reeled and turned the fish as I descended toward the safer confines of the cockpit.

This fish didn’t run far or fast, but its heft was soon screaming through the rod and into my lower back as soon as I settled into a belt.

“I think I’ve got the state record beat,” I remarked as the fish slowly planed toward the surface.

“Nah, I bet you’ve got a big ol’ lemonfish,” said Billiot, dismissing the notion that a fish of such high standing would smartly run straight for the nearest barnacle covered piling.

Sure enough, as the fight drew to a close, Billiot’s clairvoyance came true. A huge lemonfish — one of many regional names the cobia shares — emerged from the dirty green water. Pierce and Billiot agreed that it was the one of the biggest they’d seen and the biggest Pierce’s boat had ever had the opportunity to land, around 80 pounds.

“Sorry, guys. She’s gotta go back,” said the biologist on board as he looked up from his work documenting the redfish in the fishbox.

We were on a scientific expedition, and no other species besides the redfish could be kept. Several beautiful mangroves were given their release previously, painful enough, but this was almost too much to handle. As we were trying to get into position to loose the hook — but well after a perfect broadside gaff shot could have been attempted — the leader parted.

Had I been informed of the rules at the time that the fish appeared, I shudder to think what my reaction might have been.

A few years earlier on the way back from an epic October blackfin tuna bloodletting in West Delta, a different crew spotted a gang of the ugly brown fish sunning themselves on a single pipe just outside of Tiger Pass. We all scrambled for rods as the half dozen fish finned in the warm afternoon sun.

The appropriate rods were quickly taken, and I made due with a Calcutta 250 and a 7-foot medium-action rod with a cocaho minnow imitation tied on.

I tossed it out there as the hookups from the heavy spinning gear were being shouted out. A 40-pounder quickly engulfed the small jig and made a beeline for the other side of the pipe and stopped. Other fish were close to the gaff, so I was left to fend for myself for several minutes. Only preparing myself beforehand for the likely result calmed my nerves enough to stay civil.

The 15-pound-test was on the pipe, but not really rubbing, and I’m certain we could have had the fish if the boat was available to be moved. A slight move by the fish popped the light line and everybody remarked how foolish it had been to try such a stunt.

Proper tackle is a must for maximizing one’s opportunities when dealing with cobia. A rod with plenty of backbone and a reel with at least 25-pound-test is recommended by most. Also important is a good leader and a mind for adapting gear to the situation at hand.

Last November out of Grand Isle, Capt. Gregg Arnold and I hopped aboard his 27-foot Mako with a few others just a day ahead of a cold front in search of a few cobia and whatever else would eat at the rigs close to the beach.

It had been a long day of rig hopping by 2:30 with only a small lane snapper and a 30-pound cobia from a trio of fish that popped up from a rig to our credit. We’d played with the bonito on the fly rod behind an anchored trawler and missed a few more lemonfish before deciding to try a few more rigs on the way in.

Most of the Calcutta 700s were still rigged for mangrove snapper with small circle hooks and 40-pound fluorocarbon leader as we pulled up to the last rig, which had a trawler tied up to it.

The ample shade and food provided by shrimp boats make them ideal targets in addition to rigs. Taking fish from them can be a dicey thing, however, as the crews of these boats like them as much as anglers do. This can make them wise to obvious offerings from fishermen, or fish can be caught as soon as the crew spies them hanging around.

Not seeing any action on the surface, I tossed a glow Old Bayside Monster Mino next to the platform and let it sink to the bottom. This is often a dynamite technique when fish are not holding on the surface.

Everybody on board was tired, but perked up when I reared back on the strike about 10 feet off the bottom. The heavy fish curiously stayed down, and I wondered what it could be. Cobia hooked on the bottom almost always “plane” up and away from the boat when being reeled in.

I was more than a little surprised, not when the 30-pound cobia came into view, but when eight of its buddies appeared right behind it, including a few fish that would go a legitimate 50 pounds.

It was general quarters on deck as anglers grabbed rods and tried to get a second hook-up. But the fatigue showed as the first dead pogie was jerked out of the fish’s mouth, illustrating perfectly a circle hook lesson. Another rod was deployed with a small live bait hook and the same bait. A 40-pounder grabbed it, the hook was set and immediately the leader popped.

The fish disappeared and the crew was despondent that such an opportunity was lost. We regrouped, and I tied on another Monster Mino, a bait that Pellegrin calls the most amazing cobia bait he’s ever used.

It is, however, a one-fish-bait. The thin soft plastic tail gives off an amazing action, but is rendered useless after being eaten and then being tossed around in the twisting, turning dance of a cobia that finds new strength in the boat’s cockpit with a much bigger hook in its side.

Amazingly, the jig didn’t get a few feet off the bottom before being slammed again. And again, this fish was not alone when appearing at boatside. In fact, it appeared that even more were present at this showing.

“Here, take this. I’m gonna try to get another one,” I said, the familiar blood lust for cobia showing as I shoved the bent rod into the hands of an onlooker.

The fish were holding around 20 feet off the side of the boat where the hooked fish made lazy rectangles. I took the rod with a live bait hook and pitched a bait toward the followers. It bit, I set, it broke and I cursed for about 40 seconds straight before trying to figure out what was going on.

This had happened two more times before we figured it out. The fluorocarbon leader material had very little stretch, and paired with 65-pound Power Pro, a mighty yank against a heavy fish within feet of the boat popped the leader like sewing thread.

A change in leader material and strategy, along with more drops with the Monster Mino, resulted in maximum capacity in every receptacle on board by 3:30.

High energy action for big, ugly fish awaits anglers at the close rigs off of the coast in the next few months. Just remember a lost fish at the gaff is nothing to lose your cool over.