By Mark Fike
Cobia, ling, lemonfish, black salmon or black kingfish: whatever your name, these fish are in full bite mode on the east coast from Virginia south. Given that in some states the minimum length to keep cobia are 36+ inches, I would call this a big game fish. They are powerful and can really hurt you if you bring them into the boat too soon or attempt to land them by hand.
These fish are predators resembling a mix between a huge catfish and a shark while in the water. They will often lie in wait under structure like buoys, floating grass or debris or they will hang back on the end of a ledge or shoal awaiting bait to come by.
Crabs, croaker, spot, eels, and other small fish are readily eaten by these big fish. Their dark brown coloration with the creamy white belly underneath is a great camouflage for them.
There are two distinct methods of fishing for cobia. The first is the most active and is sight fishing for them. Anglers with a tower on their boat will slowly cruise along in shallow water or the edges of shallow water watching for cruising fish. A rod rigged with a live spot, croaker, eel or a rod rigged with a huge bucktail or sassy shad will be kept ready.
Once a fish is spotted, the lure or bait is cast ahead of the fish and the engines are idle or shut down to avoid spooking the fish. Bright colors are used with the lures. Lures are worked erratically to draw strikes. Baits are pulled along to make them wiggle and once the fish takes the bait, they are permitted to run and fully get the bait in their mouth before the hook is set.
Battling a cobia is a fun affair and often requires some finesse and muscle pumping to keep them from getting near the prop of the boat and cutting the line. Heavy gear and quality reels and line are a must to successfully land these fish. Do not go undergunned!
A box store rod and reel is unlikely to be sufficient. If you really want to land a cobia of any size, spend the money and get a quality reel with some backbone. We used Penn reels on a recent trip, although I would use a Seigler reel in a heartbeat. The Seigler reels are incredible. I used them when they first came out and I can say they are smooth and very powerful. The oversized handle is a huge plus! The citation Amberjack I hauled in on one never gave it a hiccup. If looking for these reels, go to https://www.seigler.fish/pages/lever-drags and take a look at the SG model. This reel is the one I used on Amberjack and according to Ryan at Seigler, this reel would be perfect for cobia as well. He also said if fishing somewhere else where larger fish may come into play, the LGN model would also work very well.
Once a cobia is hooked, give it plenty of time to tire. Don’t try to horse it to the boat. Wear it down and still be very cautious when putting it in the boat. A huge net is required. Gaffing is illegal in some states and if you want to release the fish, gaffing is an obvious “no no”.
The meat has a distinct bloodline on it which should be cut off before cooking, but the rest of the meat is white and flaky. The delicious clean flavor of the meat lends itself well to grilling but it can be fried as well and most definitely broiled.
One 40 inch fish will render several meals for a family. Be sure to vacuum seal the meat that you want to freeze to preserve the flavor the longest. However, I still try to eat the fish within a few months. Fresh fish is always better than frozen fish that has been in the freezer for a long time.
If you have not caught a cobia, do yourself a favor and go at least once. The fishing can be slow at times as any fishing can be and you need patience, but the in between sharks, rays and other fish will keep you ready to fight the big one!
Author’s note: Be sure to know your location’s regulations on fishing and keeping cobia. Some states require a permit. Some have different measuring requirements for the fish. At least one state has different regulations depending on where you are in the state waters. http://fishrulesapp.com/fish/5/Cobia