by Berry C. Williams
Most fishermen in this area will tell you that tarpon and snook are the fightingest fish that can be caught here. I’m not so sure. I’ve caught a lot of snook and a lot of tarpon, but I’ve never had a fish hit harder than the brown-hued bruiser which we call cobia and pronounce “cobio.” They’re the only fish that have ever been able to pull me out of the boat. Not once, but twice. It happened this way.
I was fishing for jewfish [goliath grouper] at the white range marker between Punta Rassa and Sanibel, using a long, tough Calcutta cane pole to which I had affixed a 212-pound test monel line with a large, forged-steel plueger Sobey hook I’d fixed line to pole by the use of double-cast hot swivels which I’d wired five times and covered with electric tape. I had hooked a big, fat, juicy pinfish to my hook and was dangling it tantalizingly beneath the murky depths of the range marker, hoping to float it in front of the eye of a lumbering jewfish. Sometimes these tackle-busters are so lazy you have to float your bait right under their noses before they’ll bother to slurp it in. I had no luck whatsoever, so I pulled my pole out from under the range marker and tilted it upward, with my pinfish almost on top of the water. Cradling the pole over my right arm, I reached with my right hand into my shirt pocket for my cigarettes. I’d no sooner laid hand to my Camels than a terrific wrench tore the pole off my arm, and pole, rig and pinfish were just about to go overboard. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to collect my wits. I frantically grabbed for the pole and caught it, but I had lost my balance, and before I could straighten up, a terrific yank took me, pole, rig and bait, over the side.
I tried to recover the pole, but the water is very swift and deep there, so my primary concern was to get myself back into the boat. As I was hoisting myself aboard, I glimpsed the cobia. It must have weighed thirty pounds. By the time I clambered into the boat, the cobia had set sail in the general direction of Key West. I figured I could retrieve my Calcutta, for no matter how many times the fish took it under, it would come back up. Before I could give chase, though, I had to untie the boat which I’d secured to the marker by my bowline. It took me several minutes and oaths to untie the hard, wet knot. By the time I was free and had started the motor, the cobia had a good 200 yards headway on me and I hadn’t the slightest notion in which direction. I scoured the waters for over an hour and finally gave up in disgust.
About a year later, I was at the number three pole at the power lines between Sanibel and St. James City and the same thing happened. This time I actually got the cigarette in my mouth and was lighting it, while cradling my pole over my right arm, when a cobia took the bait and yanked me overboard. But this time I managed to grab that pole while I was in the water. I held onto it as I struggled back aboard and finally landed the 22-pounder. I was never prouder of a fish. I felt I’d really earned him.
The cobia is a fearsome sight. The uninitiated sometimes mistake them for sharks. The ones in this area are a dark brown, verging on charcoal. The belly is a dirty white. The fish has a stubby, flattened head with a slightly jutting lower jaw and a large mouth. Its distinguishing mark is a stripe running from head to tail. Most cobia caught locally go 12-18 pounds, but I have seen them as large as 56 pounds.
The cobia is a very game fish and can be caught with about the same gear as tarpon. While still-fishing, I prefer live pinfish or small catfish with the spikes cut off. I have caught them with small mangrove snapper and cut mullet. Most charter boat captains troll for them with mullet strips, large spoons or weighted feathers.
Cobia generally come in late in April and are usually caught around pilings, jetties, and under bridges. One prime place to find them is up under the stern of shrimp trawlers as they lay to in the shallow waters around Sanibel Island so their crew can sleep before they make the long haul to Dry Tortugas or Campeche, Mexico. The crewmen usually swab down the deck and throw overboard shrimp heads, stone crabs, star fish, sea horses, etc. The cobia feed on this and hang around, hoping for more. It’s a simple matter to either troll an artificial lure around the stern of the trawler, or anchor and pitch over a pinfish, shrimp or juice of cut mullet. You’re bound to hit pay dirt!
There are bigger fish caught here than cobia, but few better scrappers. Cobia will hit lines trolled at fast speeds. They strike with terrific impact, and usually make a wide sweep away from the boat, but they will come around and head directly for you, requiring frantic reeling to take up the slack. But once they sight the boat, they tear off in the opposite direction.
The cobia is also one of the hardest of all fish to subdue. Once gaffed, it’s a good idea to club him thoroughly before lugging him into the boat. He’ll never lie docilely like a lot of fish, but will start fighting all over again, and he can do real damage to the boat and its occupants. He has a stiff spike that’ll puncture flesh or wood. I once had three holes ripped into my boat before I clubbed a thirty-pounder into submission.
Once you do conquer one, you’ll find that you have a real good eating fish. It’s a little rough skinning one out, but the firm white meat is well worth the trouble.