Springtime is Ling Time
How to Catch & fish cobia (ling or lemon fish)
Learn the right season, techniques, how to, tips, methods, and tactics for fishing & catching
Offshore cobia can be tricky to the point of frustration. Getting a school of cobia, ling, or lemon fish–as they are frequently called by Gulf Coast anglers–to rise to the water’s surface is one thing. Getting them to strike your offering can be an all together different story.
Ever since the first time I saw a pair of cobia lingering below the shaded side of a wellhead just east of Belle Pass out of Fourchon, Louisiana, I have always been intrigued by their inquisitiveness and peculiarities.That particular day I had just gotten off my boat and onto the structure to see if jigging might be the answer to the scarcity of specks in the ice chest–when the two curious cobia moseyed on up to the surface.
Spontaneously, I tossed my plastic minnow lure right in front of one of them, and it quickly became aggressive, clobbering the lure and running line off my spinning reel at breakneck speed. Since my fishing buddy was still in the boat, I didn’t think I would have a chance landing the fish on my own, especially being so high above the water with barnacle covered pipes lurking below.
Needless to say, we did manage to boat the fish, after I handed over the rod to my companion, which allowed me time to reboard and assist. Afterward we tried to get the accompanying cobia to fall for the same trick, but he wasn’t going for it. Thereafter, it was impressed upon me that cobia are not just curious, but are also smart enough to know not to fall for the same tactic twice.
This leads me to believe that something must alert them to be cautious of the same thing, at least for a short duration of time.Undoubtedly,what works one time may be the only time. To be in swing with ling,diversity is one of the keys to success. What that means is don’t be so bent on sticking to just one bait or lure–or tactic for that matter.
Cobia have been known to strike an extensive parade of baits and lures. On the natural menu, cobia eat crabs, shrimps and small fishes of all kinds. This includes hardhead catfish between 6-10 inches of which cobia seem to unduly delight in. And don’t worry about the catfish stickers; they pose no threat to the cobia, only the angler who cares not in cutting them off.
Stu Sheer of Cocodrie, Louisiana, is one charter fisherman that has possibly caught more cobia than any other Louisiana angler, and he is the first to admit that cobia can be very finicky to catch at times, even when you can see them. He usually starts off using jig lures, and then moves to live bait if they’re not obliging. Stu also likes to fish oil structures south of Atchafalaya Bay where both specks and cobia like to abide.
Another famous cobia pursuer is Capt. Ben Fairey who operates out of Orange Beach, Alabama, aboard his charter boat Necessity. Gulf Coast Research Laboratory considers Fairey and his crew main contributors for cobia tagging research, having tagged 139 fish in 1991.
His success is chiefly due to diversity in bait choices. Among his favorite live baits are live eels, but he brings other baitfish and jigs as well. Admittedly, even with all the right ammo, presentation can make the difference in getting a strike or just a passing glance from this fickle species.
Probably the easiest time to catch cobia is near shore during their migratory run, starting in spring when they move from their wintering grounds along the coast of South Florida. From here they head north, some to the Atlantic side as far as the Carolinas, while some move into the Gulf. The Gulf cobia after reaching to the extreme north of Florida’s coast, then move west along the north central Gulf, then back again along the same route in late fall and early winter.
It should be noted that not all Gulf cobia make their winter migration south. Some northern Gulf cobia, possibly the larger species, appear to move to deeper, offshore waters during frigid, winter months, and then closer to near shore areas and structures with the warming trend of spring. At this time, biologist do not know for sure if there are distinct breeding populations of Atlantic and Gulf cobia stocks.
As a result of most anglers being misinformed about cobia migratory patterns, they disregard fishing them as fall sets in and cobia reports subside. But consistent with the biological findings, tagging data and local catches prove that some cobia do move offshore along and beyond the 100 fathom curve, deserting the route toward Florida.
I for one admit having been among those guilty of not fishing for cobia during winter. It wasn’t until several years ago that the thought to do so struck me, after I was astonished to see a cobia swim by while night snapper fishing Block 57A, South Pass, Venice, Louisiana. Those with me initially weren’t convinced that it was a cobia, until it made a second pass a little closer.
A subsequent trip to the same rig removed all doubts when one was hooked and boated. Since then, other cobia have been caught at various other rigs during winter, proving that it pays off to stay in swing with ling no matter what the season.
After their spring run abates, cobia seem to have a change in spirit,becoming less aggressive and more temperamental about taking a bait. This is when they begin to seek out wrecks, oil rigs, deep reefs, and any structure capable of providing any type of shelter. Simply stated, it’s a time when these fish are homesteading that they’re more likely to insult your fishing intelligence. It is this very fact that makes the cobia a challenge to catch and formidable fighter for any angler.
To the unfamiliar, this is a fish that looks like a shark, and in the water has now and again fooled even the experienced. One reason is due to its broad mouth and husky head section. But for the most part, cobia are in a class of their own, having no close relatives.
Its coloration is dark brown above paler brown sides which diminish into white along its under-side from jaw to stomach. Along the mid side it flaunts a black lateral stripe, wider than its eye, that extends from the snout to the base of the caudal fin. Though the cobia’s smooth lines, crescent shaped tail fin, and projecting lower jaw are traits that cast a menacing appearance, what really isn’t a sham are the 7 to 10 dorsal spines atop its body.
These spikelike projections are something to be aware of when handling or unhooking. What’s fascinating is the cobia’s ability to retract them inconspicuously below the skin surface when not threatened. When the fish becomes agitated, these dorsal spines defensively stand erect, ready to cut and gouge anything in their path.
Every time I see a cobia, I can help but recall how these dorsal spines cut a gapping gash in the hand of a friend of mine who was trying to dislodge a hook from its mouth. At the time the dorsal spines were lowered and not visible, until he proceeded to jostle the hook around in the cobia’s mouth.
Like the shark, the cobia is by far not a bashful fish, and can at times be brought to the surface by making noise such as revving the boat’s engine, or slapping the water’s surface with a paddle, or leaving a hooked and thrashing fish overboard.In fact, avid cobia hunters will make it a point to cause as much surface noise in order to allure the fish as close as possible to the boat.
What emphasizes the point that cobia can be attracted by noise can be seen in what happened to an angler fishing out of Empire, Louisiana, at Block 41, West Delta. Shortly after his hooking up to the oil platform and shutting off the boat’s engine, he proceeded to let down his line to bottom fish, when a dark object slowly swam to the transom. Discerning it to be a cobia and not a shark, he quickly grabbed his gaff and gaffed the fish, flinging it into the boat where it battered almost everything on board with its tail, including the anglers.
While the angler didn’t premeditate this unsportsmanlike confrontation, one should be careful about nabbing these inquisitive fish in such a manner. Nevertheless, the intentional use of noise to draw cobia has cleverly been termed by some as the “weeding-out” method. This is because it will drive away most other quarry, leaving only cobia.
Strangely enough, though, the only other pesky intruder that might be undaunted by the noise tactic is the jack crevalle. To have him hit your bait or lure and wear you down for no good reason can be a disappointing incident; not to mention what they can do in the way of line twist to those using spinning gear.
However, don’t mistaken the latter statement to mean that spinning gear has no place when fishing cobia. Spinning reels have gotten a lot bigger with stronger drag systems for handling sizable fish like cobia. But before you come to any conclusion as to what is the best tackle, it will first have to be determined how you choose to fish them.
One popular method is sight seeking around structures such as buoys, ships, floating debris, rigs and anything that provides shade or cover for the cobia. Once located, freelined live fish are cast out in front of them. This tactic can be employed fairly successfully with the use of a quality heavy spin casting combo with 20-30 lb. test. The only pitfall with spinning reels is line twist after one or two hard battles with a cobia.
Now heavy jigs can also be used in the place of live bait in the previous method, but they are usually dropped to the bottom and briskly worked in a jerking upward fashion with the use of a stiff rod. This can be done either while someone maneuvers the boat at idle speed around the structure, or while anchored or rig hooked.
Free-spool type reels are usually the choice for the latter method, in about the same line class as aforementioned. These type reels have the broad side of the spool facing the rod eyes and have star drag systems. The advantage over spinning reels is they virtually cause no line twist. On the other hand, common place with spinning reels and jigging come line entanglement around the rod tip, due to line twist, which can happen upon each downward stroke of the rod. The danger presented here is line breakage if a strike occurs at the same time.
Smooth operation of tackle is imperative when going after these denizens of the deep. This is especially so during their first show between late March through May when the biggest of the herds make their presence known. During this time, anglers fishing for other species do well to check out the waters first for cobia, before tossing lures with tackle meant to catch trout. These fish can wreak serious havoc on light tackle.
The cobia is a prize catch in more than one way. As tablefare goes, few fish can compare in texture and taste. Its white, firm flesh makes for easy grilling and some claim it naturally has a slight lemon flavor–hence the name lemon fish.