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Cobia: a surprisingly succulent catch

 
Published April 30, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

Most anglers do not seek cobia. They catch them by accident when fishing for other species.

And when they get one, they often mistake it for a shark. But cobia are much better tasting than most sharks, making them a valued catch.

Cobia are a pelagic species. That means they swim great distances along the coast following available food fish, much like king mackerel. In fact, it is while fishing for kings that many cobia are caught.

Cobia are not choosy about what they eat. They feed naturally on crabs, squid and small fish. However, they will strike at plugs, live bait, dead bait, cut bait and just about anything else in the water when they are hungry. They are the vacuum cleaners of the sea, much like catfish.

In the spring, cobia move north along the coast following large schools of baitfish that migrate as the water warms. Many eventually end up along the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, where they also go by the name of ling and lemonfish. During this migration, they are seen in great numbers off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The cobia is a long, slim fish with a broad depressed head. Its lower jaw projects past the upper jaw, and a dark lateral stripe extends through the eye and back to the tail, separating the dark brownish color on the back from the white belly. The mouth has no teeth, just a rough area.

Thirty-pound cobia are common, and some of 40-50 pounds are caught each year. The legal minimum size is 33 inches to the fork of the tail.

The fish commonly are seen around structures such as buoys, channel markers, pilings and any place where bait may try to hide. That includes your boat. Many times a cobia will swim unnoticed under the boat and wait for an easy meal. Often they will hit a bait as it is brought up to the boat. At other times, a group of two to six will swim around an anchored boat for hours, staying just at the fringe of visibility.

Wise anglers keep a rod handy just on the chance they will spot a cobia. The preferred rod is 7-7{ feet with a lot of backbone, yet a tip light enough for easy casting. A medium capacity (300 yards) revolving spool reel is preferred over a spinning type and should be filled with 20-pound test line. A 2-3-foot leader of 60-pound test monofilament is recommended over wire.

The absolute best bait is a live blue crab. Break off the large claws and points on the body shell and insert a 4/0 to 8/0 extra-strength hook into the corner of the shell. This allows the crab to swim naturally. Toss the bait, with no weight, about 6-10 feet in front of the cobia and hold on. Even a cobia that is not hungry can't resist a blue crab.

Freelining a live pinfish or other white bait is a good second choice. They also will hit all types of jigs and lures on occasion. The best thing is to keep a rod rigged with something so no time is lost in presenting the bait.

While most cobia are caught by accident, some anglers pursue them for their fierce fighting ability and delicious taste. These anglers, wearing Polaroid sunglasses to cut the glare, search around structures for a tell-tale shadow. On grass flats and sandbars, the shadow almost always belongs to a cobia. Experienced anglers also look for stingrays. Cobia often follow them to get crustaceans swept up by the ray's wings.

Sometimes a cobia will slam the bait; other times it will slowly mouth it. Set the hook with a series of quick, hard jerks because the fish's mouth is very hard and the hook must be driven in. A cobia will strip off a hundred yards of line or more on its first run.

With lines 20-pound or under, you'll have to fight the fish every foot of the way back to the boat. A cobia rarely helps by running toward the boat. After a fight of about 10 minutes, you usually think you've got it whipped. But as soon as the cobia sees the boat, it takes off again. You may get the fish to the boat three or four times before it gets close enough to handle. That's what makes cobia fishing so exciting.

And if one is exciting, think what two or three can be. Cobia frequently travel in small groups, so if you hook one, others often will come close. Just be sure someone is available to help land the first fish.

Because it's difficult to determine the length of a swimming cobia, it's best not to gaff one of 30-36 inches. Use a net or tail rope that allows you to release the fish if it's not legal. For really big ones, have a club handy to prevent the fish from thrashing around in the boat. Its strong tail could break a leg.

Is all the effort worth it? Well, some people think a cobia tastes almost as good as swordfish. And it can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Most people cut cobia steaks rather than fillet them. Starting just behind the gill plate, cut the fish into 1-1{-inch-thick pieces across the backbone. The skin is left on because it helps to keep the meat in place during cooking.

The steaks may be broiled, baked in aluminum foil, or grilled. Seasoning with butter, lemon and spices adds to the good taste. Don't overcook _ the meat should stay firm and moist with just a few minutes cooking time.

And you won't even need tartar sauce or anything else. It's super right out of the pan.