The first time I sight-casted to a cobia, I was fishing in the Lower Chesapeake Bay with Capt. Ben Shepherd. He was a young captain, I was an aspiring outdoor writer and we were finding our way in a relatively new fishery. Shepherd and I left Lynnhaven Inlet in his 25-foot center console. The sleek boat was outfitted with a tower installed over its T-top. When we arrived at Thimble Shoal Channel, Shepherd invited me to join him in the tower.
The mid-summer day was hot and bright, the clear, green water glowing as if illuminated from below. Standing in the tower, I could see into the water for 100 yards. “They’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” Shepherd said, and instructed me to scan the water for long, brown cobia. With the boat rolling along at 4 knots, my eyes scanned from left to right, searching the water for a sign of fish.
“There’s one,” Shepherd shouted over the wind. I looked to where he was pointing and a long, brown shape swam into focus. My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t a giant fish, but I was excited. There was something different about watching a wild animal without the animal realizing it was being watched.
Shepherd turned the boat toward the cobia and closed the distance. When we were close enough, the captain ordered me to cast. I cocked my heavy spinning rod and launched a two-ounce bucktail at the fish. The lure landed wide and behind the cobia. “Crap,” I muttered.
Without hesitation, Shepherd pitched his bucktail a few feet ahead of the cobia and quickly cranked the lure into the fish’s line of vision. Like a cat on a mouse, the cobia pounced on the jig with so much enthusiasm it missed the initial hit. Shepherd jerked the bucktail and the 4-foot-long fish twisted 180 degrees, throwing a wave of spray and snapping the lure with vengeance. Shepherd’s line came tight and the reel screamed with heavy drag.
People talk about love at first sight. Since that day I saw my first cobia, I have spent many summer days driving around the lower Chesapeake and mid-Atlantic coast in search of this species. I’m not alone. In the past decade, more anglers have dedicated their summers to sight-casting for cobia.
The good news is cobia fishing continues to improve. States have enacted strict regulations, and the fast-growing, hardy species seem to be multiplying. In fact, the healthy fishery has spawned a culture of cobia cowboys, die-hard anglers who spend every summer moment driving around looking for cobia. Tournaments pay out thousands of dollars and sight-casting towers are popping up like tulips in spring. And the fishing is only getting better as more cobia are being caught further up the coast.
Cobia on the Chesapeake
One cobia cowboy is Capt. Zach Hoffman of Salt Treated Fishing. He grew up fishing for bass, but when he caught his first cobia he knew what he wanted to do. Directly out of high school, Hoffman bought a boat and earned his captain’s license. Today, he’s one of the premier cobia captains on Chesapeake Bay.
Last summer, I joined Hoffman on his 30-foot Privateer, Clockwork. Hoffman’s boat is customized for cobia fishing. Three control stations allow him to run the boat from the wheelhouse, cockpit or his extra-high tower. The single diesel engine is efficient, so the boat can cover miles of water. “Sometimes we run up to 80 miles in a day in search of cobia,” he says.
We fished the middle bay, right off Hoffman’s home port of Seaford, Virginia. While we drove around the shipping channels and shoals between Hampton and Cape Charles, Hoffman told me the first cobia show up off Hatteras in mid-May. By June, the first fish arrive off Sandbridge and the Virginia Beach oceanfront, then filter up to the Chesapeake in July. Through the height of the summer, cobia scour the water from the mid-Bay channels to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. By late summer, the fish are most likely to be found at the mouth of the bay. In recent years, the cobia have been spotted as far north as Maryland and Delaware with a new Delaware state record set in 2018.
We patrolled the Lower Bay on a Saturday in mid-August. A couple-dozen boats were crisscrossing around us. Hoffman likes to search with the sun to his back. “A little chop on the water helps you see them,” he said. Clouds are the enemy, robbing the sunshine that allows Hoffman to spot the fish. The big challenge is seeing the fish. Hoffman has an eagle eye, capable of spotting cobia as far as 100 yards from the boat.
From the tower, Hoffman drove Clockwork along a tide line, circling a school of bait, then investigating a turtle basking in the sun. Sometimes it seemed as if we were just driving around aimlessly. He told me cobia are curious, attracted to any type of structure, so he stopped the boat by a channel buoy and made a cast.
We spotted several cobia. Each time, Hoffman angled the boat toward the fish without getting too close. “A lot of times the cobia will swim to the boat,” he said. No one is sure why the fish swim on the surface. Hoffman said he has detected no significant pattern to the cobia’s behavior. On the day we fished together, we saw cobia everywhere, but rarely in the same place twice.
Cobia fishing isn’t just fun, it’s simple. Even without a sight-casting tower, anglers can spot cobia while standing on a cooler or the bow of the boat. Hoffman said newbies should follow the seasonal movements of the fish and stay outside the cobia fleet.
Tackle As Art
Rigging up to sight-cast for cobia is easy, too. A couple rods, a couple jigs and a couple-dozen live eels are all it takes. But cobia aren’t always easy to fool, and they are very difficult to fight, so the devil is in the details.
One of the godfathers of cobia fishing is Capt. Aaron Kelly, who has been fishing out of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, for more than 20 years. In that time, Kelly has gone from being an early adopter to modern innovator. Kelly was one of the first guides to focus on cobia fishing. Today, in addition to leading the cobia fleet, he designs and builds cobia-specific tackle.
To learn the ropes, the young captain would travel to the Florida Panhandle where anglers have been sight-casting for cobia for decades.
“Florida was way ahead of us,” he says. Kelly was enamored by the lures the locals used. Not only did Florida cobia lures feature larger, heavier hooks, but the bucktails were festooned with strands of deer hair and tufts of feathers in bright colors and garish patterns. To attract a marauding cobia, the angler must get its attention. Cobia anglers put as much detail into their bucktails as a fly tyer twisting up a Royal Coachman.
Twenty years later, Kelly builds his own cobia jigs and sells them in local tackle shops and online under the Meathog label.
Cobia jigs have transformed into works of art. The lead heads come in a half-dozen shapes and styles. The heads are coated in a deep, glossy paint; some even feature a swirl of colors that are mesmerizing and tough enough to survive the rough teeth and brutal bite of cobia.
The lead head features a large, heavy-gauge hook. Kelly will use up to a 10/0 gap for the biggest cobia. He hides the hook
behind a skirt of thick deer hair, puffy feathers and flash. The garish accoutrements produce an undulating movement that draws the fish’s attention.
Kelly suggests anglers start with two, medium-heavy spinning rods. A longer rod (8 feet) will produce longer casts with more accuracy. Match the rod to a high-power spinning reel. Spinning gear is more reliable, especially in windy conditions on open water. The reel should hold several hundred yards of line and produce heavy drag. Spool the reel with 50-pound-test braided line and attach a three-foot length of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. Braided line is narrower than monofilament to fly through the air easier. When a cobia bites, the braid has less stretch for a solid hook set.
Kelly uses two rods. In addition to his bucktail rod, he keeps another rod rigged with a live eel on an 8/0 hook. He keeps the eel in a bucket with a few inches of water. If a cobia turns its nose up at his bucktail, he pulls out the eel.
After two decades of sight-casting for cobia on the mid-Atlantic, Kelly says fishing is better than ever. “Even with all the anglers, we’re seeing more fish than the old timers,” he says. If you’re a new angler, says Kelly, “just start looking for cobia and you’ll be surprised what you see.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.