Spring Migration - Cobia Fishing Charters on Alabama's Gulf Coast

Have you ever fished for Cobia during the Spring migration on the Alabama Gulf Coast?   If not, your not alone.  There are a few boats that book a few Cobia charters each year, but most of the fishing is done by local boat owners, captains and deckhands.  The Spring of each year brings the migrating Cobia closer to the Alabama shoreline than you can imagine.  The Cobia are commonly known as Ling or Lemon Fish along the coastal areas of The Gulf of Mexico.   Each March, the migration begins and the Cobia are usually swimming on top of the water, cruising along in a westerly direction.   Depending on where you are fishing along the Northern Gulf, you will find them arriving of the Alabama coast beginning the first week of March, which is about the normal time for them to show up.  The Cobia migration usually lasts for about one and a half months, with the largest number of fish moving through during the first, second and third week in April.  Some Cobia show up in Alabama waters about the 10th of March and we see them as late as the first week of May.  After that, the fish have either moved on westward in their migration pattern or have either moved offshore to settle on Alabama’s artificial reefs.  During the Summer months, it is not uncommon to catch them while reef fishing.  Cobia are a great catch and release fish for anglers.  However, there are some anglers that will keep everyone they catch.  One thing for sure, with the decline in the numbers of Cobia being caught each year along the Northern gulf, anglers are encouraged to keep the best and release the rest.  Responsible anglers keep what they need, not what they can.

Cobia - fish identification, size and bag limits

The migrating Cobia can be identified by the dark brown color of their skin on their backs and a white underbelly.  They have large flat and wide heads with distinct short spines in a row that are forward of their dorsal fins.  They look like a shark in the water.  Some people say they look like big brown catfish.  Cobia are a natural curious fish.  It is not uncommon to have them swim right up to the boat and look at you.  When bottom fishing during the Summer months, they will often follow a hooked reef fish like a Red Snapper all the way to the surface.  They sometimes swim around the boat just looking around.  We don’t know if they are stupid or just curious.  They act like a predator fish but do not strike a bait with any great speed or tenacity.  The Ling or Lemon Fish can weigh as much as 130 pounds but the average fish caught on the migration is between 40 and 50 pounds.  Some are larger and some are smaller.  We have caught them up to 80 to 90 pounds when we were lucky.   Cobia have to be 33 inches fork length.  You measure them from the nose to the fork in the tail to get fork length.  There is a limit of 2 fish bag limit, according to Alabama Department of Conservation.  Florida Fish and Wildlife has established the same bag limits but with a 6 Cobia limit per boat.

Cobia fishing is one of the most popular game fish species anglers can target during the Spring of the year.   Local anglers are the ones who mostly fish for them in the Northern Gulf and on the Alabama coast.   Beginning in March, if you are on any of the beaches from Alabama to Panama City, Florida, you will see boats going back and forth just off the beaches.  You can tell that the boats are fishing for Cobia or Ling, because the anglers are either up in the Tuna towers (the highest point) of their boats trying to see a Cobia swimming on the surface.  This is called sight fishing.  There are large private yachts, big charter boats, small boats and homemade pontoon boats trying to cash in on the action.  In the next few paragraphs, I will try and answer some common questions you may have about Cobia fishing on the Alabama Gulf Coast.   Alabama does not have the oil rigs like Louisiana does, so for today’s purpose, I will talk about the fish that are migrating along the shoreline.  We do catch them later in the year on artificial reefs that are located offshore.  We are talking about migrating cobia that are moving to Mississippi and Louisiana spawning grounds.  We are trying to catch them enroute to these areas.  That is why Alabamian’s sight fish for them.

What kind of bait and tackle does it take to catch a Cobia?  Cobia have very tough mouths and will eat just about anything from saltwater Catfish to Shrimp.  There favorite food is a live eel.  These eels are shipped in from around the country and are usually 12 to 18 inches in length with and are about as round as a five cent piece or a nickle.  Some of the eels are as large as a quarter.   You may also use bright colored lead jig heads with bright feathered skirts.  These lead jigs are normally 3 to 6 oz and the total length is about 4 to 6 inches.  Some people use pre-rigged artificial eels.  The fish have to be really hungry to eat artificial baits and jigs.  If you know how to work your jig, you can get a reaction bite and it is game on.

What type of tackle do I need to catch Cobia?  Most of the anglers use 8 foot surf rods with at least a Penn 8500 or 9500 series spinning reels.  Similar size Shimano spinning reels will also work.  You need a rod and reel that will allow you to cast long distances, accurately.  That is why you should use quality tackle that is well maintained.  The main line is usually 30 pound test, with a 50 to 80 pound barrel swivel on the end.  The leader is usually at least 3 feet long and is anywhere from 60 to 80 pound test.  You can use flourocarbon leader material later in the season when the fish are more skiddish from being casted at and hit on the head during their trek across the Florida Panhandle.  We mostly use 7 or 8 ought circle hooks but some people prefer to use 7 ought jay hooks from Eagle Claw.  It does not matter as long as the hook is sharp.  If you are catching and releasing them, by all means, use a circle hook.

The key to catching Cobia or Ling is to having live, active bait like the eel shown above.  You will need at least two or three eels minimum to start a fishing trip.  If the Cobia are running well, you might get a dozeon eels.  It is all up to you. The way you keep them alive after you rig them on your hook, is to keep a 5 gallon bucket 1/4 to 1/2 way filled with sea water to let the hooked eel bait to swim in until you need him.   Most people attach their eel buckets with a rope or bungee cord to the front of their boats or take the bucket to the top of the Tuna tower.   You will need to pull enough line off your reel and place the hook through the snout or nose so the eels can swim freely in the bucket.  Be sure to take a rag with you to assist in baiting your hook.  Eels are slippery and can easily slide out of your hands while trying to grab them.  Don’t worry about getting bit by an eel.  The worst they will do is bite like a yard lizard.  

How do I hook the Eel’s up? Most people place the hook through the bottom lip first and then upward, coming out just in front of their eyes, but forward toward their nose.  You need to make sure you do not pull the hook up into the brain because that will kill your eel.  Trying to fish with dead eel is not good.  You only have one chance to make him interested in the bait.  The more lively your eel is, the better you will be.

How do I catch a Cobia once I have my bait tied to my line?  What to look for?  Cobia and Ling fishing is sight fishing.  When you are riding along, looking for one, just be ready.  The boat is usually moving at 4 to 5 knots and it will take a minute or two to slow down if you see a fish.  Remember, these fish are usually swimming toward the West. If you are headed East, you could potentially drive right by the fish like a passing car on the interstate.  If you pass one, you have two choices.  You can either quickly cast your eel in front of him, so he can see it and hopefully get it.  You may also turn the boat around and try to catch back up with the fish.  Either way will work, but you have to be quick on the cast if you meet him head on.   Sometimes you will run right over the top of one while heading East.  They usually go down and often pop back up about 50 to 100 yards further behind where you just came from.  Be patient.  Turn around and go back and wait.  You may have to play catch up.  Either way, the effort is often rewarded.

How do I know when I should set the hook on a Cobia?  Once you cast and hook up, you have to give the Cobia enough time to swallow the bait before setting the hook.  If you are using a circle hook, you can count to 10 Mississippi and then, gently tighten your line until the hook curls up in the Cobia’s mouth.  Circle hooks set themselves.  If you are fishing with a Jig or a J-hook, you have to set your hook pretty hard.  These fish have very tough, thick skin in their mouth’s which makes it hard to get a good hook set.

What are the chances we will catch a Cobia or Ling on a fishing charter?  The Cobia often swim alone or in small groups of two or three fish.  In recent years, we have seen a decline in the number of fish migrating through Alabama State waters.  Now that does not mean they are not there, I am just saying that we don’t see as many as we used too.  Some believe we have killed them all and some believe there is so much pressure put on them in Florida, by the time they get to Alabama, they can often be skiddish acting, shy or not interested in your bait.  On any given day off of Pensacola, you will see as many as 30 to 40 boats fishing for them.   I would assume it’s the same way off Destin and Panama City.  On the weekends, we see more boats on the water than usual, because locals are generally off work and are fishing.

Why is the Cobia called a locals fish?  There are two reasons locals fish for them.  The first reason is the adrenaline rush that a local fisherman gets when he see’s a big Cobia swimming.  One minute there is nothing in front of you and the next minute, there he is.  You have only a few seconds to decide to take the shot or cast on the fish.  Most of the local people who fish for Cobia are avid deer hunters or they just love to Cobia fish.  It’s all about the rush one gets when they can see the fish take the bait.  Unlike bottom fishing where you can’t see the fish bite your bait, Cobia fishing allows you to see the fish attack the bait.   The Spring just happens to be a transitional period for those people who just came out of deer season and the boat yards getting their boats ready to go for the Summer fishing season.  The second reason locals like them is because they are a good eating fish and not expensive to catch.  Because it doesn’t cost that much for fuel, locals can catch them without spending a lot of money like they would if they had to go way offshore.  They offer a lot of meat per fish that is tasty either fried, grilled or blackened.  One large Cobia will feed a lot of people.

Why do you almost never see people on a Cobia Fishing Charter?  The time of the year that the Cobia run happens, is during or just after Spring Break each year.  Most people who are in the area during the Spring Break, have not budgeted for a private fishing charter.  They usually take their fishing trips during warm weather or during the Summer months when the sea conditions are more favorable or comfortable.  Those who have budgeted in the Spring, usually want to catch a lot of fish, instead of hunting for or sightfishing for Cobia.  The whole purpose of going fishing on a charter boat is the people expect to catch fish.   Charter customers are generally looking for an activity for the kids to enjoy.  Boat riding, looking for Cobia can be boring, unless you are seeing fish.  Not everyone on the boat is allowed to go up in the tower.  This leaves the rest of the group sitting around twiddling their thumbs.   Cobia fishing is not the charter trip that ideally has a lot of action. 

What are the chances of seeing Cobia while on a charter?  Only about 5 to 10 percent of the time spent out Cobia fishing is actually seeing or catching fish.   Some days are red hot and others are not.  It’s just like deer or turkey hunting.  Some times you will go every day for a week and only see one or two.  Some days they are everywhere.   In lay terms, that means there is a chance you will do a lot of riding and not a lot of fishing.  For the money it costs to charter a boat, people tend to want a bit more fishing action for their money.   This is one reason you never see Cobia charters advertised or people on them hardly.

I see people up in the tower of the boat.  Is that dangerous?  Yes, climbing up in the tower of any boat is dangerous.  Unless you have your sea legs, you can fall and potentially get injured while attempting to climb up in the tower of the boat.  During the Spring, the seas are usually choppy because of the changing seasons and the winds are blowing frequently.  If the seas are rough (over 3 feet), the potential to have an acccident while climbing into the tower of a rocking boat increases.  Most charter captains don’t want to take a chance and allow paying customers up in the tower.  They don’t know you well enough to know if you are clumsy or accident prone.  They don’t want to take a chance and get you hurt or injured.  US Coast Guard Inspected fishing vessels are not supposed to have anyone up in the wheelhouse except crew because of stability reasons.  So, you might not find any boats that will let you up in the tower.  The only option the captain my offer you is to get on the front of the boat and stand by the rail.  The front of the boat offers a vantage point for spotting swimming Cobia.  However, sometimes it’s rough and it is dangerous to allow paying customers on the bow of the boat.

If I am a tourist and want to go Cobia fishing, how do I do it without having to pay for the entire fishing charter?  There are about 10 to 15 charter boats in Orange Beach that Cobia fish every day they can.  They are out spending their own money and burning their own fuel.   You are encouraged to call some of the captains and ask if you could help pay for fuel instead of chartering their boat?  Once you say the word charter, the captains ears will almost certainly perk up because it will be a payday for him and his deckhand.   The key is to offer them money to help pay for fuel and share the expenses.   Offering to share the expense works sometimes, but most of the time, it does not mean that you will get to cast on the first fish or even reel it in.  When you are not on a charter, you are not in control of the fishing.  You are just one of the guys along for the ride.  The captains and deckhands that fish for Cobia are generally, very competitive people and they want to cast, catch and fight the fish.  Remember, this is a locals sport and unless you are paying the full price of the charter, don’t expect to get in on the action on the first fish.  If you are lucky enough and are seeing plenty of Cobia that day, then you might get your chance to cast on, hook and fight your own fish.   Often, the deckhand will cast for you because they think you don’t know how to do it or you will mess it up.   Remember, they have done it before and they don’t want anyone with no experience to mess it up and miss the fish.  It just might be the only fish they see that day.  The Distraction Charter boat and the Intimidator Charter boats both put customer service first.  Each of these captains and crews will let you cast, hook and fight your Cobia.  They are competitors, but they love to see other people experience catching their first fish.  If you mess up and don’t cast properly, that is ok with them.  The understand that fishing is a learning and experience sport.

There is an option for those who want to experience Cobia Fishing while charter fishing!  Most of the people who go deep sea fishing with our boats, want to experience catching fish.  Our suggestion to you is to book at least a 6 hour private charter with one of our boats and go deep sea fishing.  After you have caught a few reef fish and had some fun, you can always come in early and have the captain ride down the coastline and look for one.