The kingfish are going strong offshore.
Though the majority of them seem to have pushed farther south into the Tarpon Springs-Clearwater area, large single fish are being caught to the north.
Decreased winds the past few days have allowed smaller boats to get out and test the grouper fishing. Decent numbers of mid-sized grouper are being pulled from the 30-45-foot range on live and dead baits.
Dwindling supplies of whitebait and cooler temperatures have brought cobia to the forefront of targeted flats species.
This time of year, cobia can easily be found on the flats around the Anclote Power Plant. Sometimes, they'll be free-swimming, but they're more likely to follow the large rays that litter the place.
Cobias are large remoras that have evolved. In fact, you can see a striking resemblance amongst the two _ the stripped brown pattern running down the side of the cobia's body, the flattened head (minus the suction device) and the fish's scavenging behavior.
Cobia follow larger species in search of an easy meal just like their smaller cousins. In shallow water, cobia seem to prefer to follow manatees and large southern stingrays. The main benefit of tagging along is the small fish and crustaceans that get stirred up as they slowly swim across the bottom.
The cobia swims just behind or above the rays. As shrimp, crabs or small fish scatter to get out of the way of the ray, the cobia darts in and grabs them. Therefore, the most effective means to catch cobia is to pole, drift or use a trolling motor around likely flats looking for rays.
The broad backs of rays make easy targets to spot over sandy bottom. On dark or patchy surfaces, look for white flashes. This is the ray's lighter underbody, which is exposed as it glides across the flat. With clear winter water and a good pair of polarized glasses, you should have no problems seeing rays if they're around.
The beauty of cobias, outside of their fight, is that they're not often picky. A large threadfin herring or a pinfish suspended under a cork are well-proven baits. In most cases, however, a large eel-type jig is all that's necessary.
Once you see a ray, toss the eel and retrieve it so that it comes across the front of the ray. When you get it there, work the lure with short, sharp twitches. The key is just getting their attention. Usually, the rays can be spotted long before you see if a cobia is on it. Even if a cobia isn't following a ray, you might as well take a cast at it.
The cobia is known for fighting hard when it's close to the boat _ as well as in it.
These fish are 10-40 pounds, so be careful when handling them. Using a large heavy-duty net, glove or mechanical holding device isn't a bad idea. Be careful to avoid the sharp horns on the head because they often inflict a nasty wound.
I don't recommend gaffing cobia unless you're sure the fish is above the legal limit. Cobia will look plenty large, especially to the untrained eye. If you're dead set on keeping one, measure it to make sure it's at least 33 inches to the fork of the tail.
Cobia make great eating, but be sure you bleed the fish before cleaning it. By slitting its throat and draining it, you will produce a better-tasting filet.
Capt. Pete Katsarelis, (727) 439-FISH, charters out of the Tarpon Springs area.