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Cobia On the Fly

Taking on crazy fishing challenges, with usually less than ideal results are the norm for us, and it isn’t always about how many fish you put in the boat, but more the game itself that cranks up the rush factor. Fly-fishing, like anything else, is one of those skills that the more you do it, the better you get at it. And, as you improve, you have more fun.

The 2010 cobia run in Destin, Florida, was epic! Huge numbers of fish charged through on their way to spawning areas to the west. We logged over 250 fish onboard Gordon Gill’s 55-foot Hatteras Never Better from April 1 to May 10, when we finally called it a season. With so many fish each day we had the perfect opportunity to perfect catching cobia on a fly, which was a good thing because it wasn’t easy!

The first thing you need is a proper boat. Here in Destin, a cobia boat can come in many shapes and sizes, but the one underlying factor they all share is a tower. Now this can range from the Home Depot look, with nothing more than a stepladder strapped to an outboard motor, to a beautiful 30-foot tower sitting atop a gorgeous sport-fisher. Either way, you’ve got to have some height to spot the cobia. Then I had to convince the hard-core Panhandle cobia warriors that fly-fishing is fun!

TRIAL AND ERROR

We started out casting small sailfish flash patterns with lots of color to free-swimming fish. This worked about as good as trying to teach a half-starved Labrador not to eat a sirloin steak that has been dropped on the floor! We then switched to throwing jigs at them and teasing the fish into frenzy, and then presenting the fly. Well we caught one, so back to the drawing board (or fly-tying vise) we went.

Crews prefer to use live eels when targeting cobia off of the sparkling white beaches of Destin. These migrating “lemon fish” cannot resist a well-presented eel for lunch. Eels work so well that our hook-up rate skyrockets to around 90 percent when we fish with them, which is just flat out remarkable!

So I made up several eel patterns for flies. I took home a pet eel, studied him a bit, then sat down and tried to make one using of my fly materials. I started out with a 7/0 long-shank Owner hook, and wrapped the hook with lead. These are heavy flies. I built up an eel-like head with brown chenille, and used a set of Crazy Charlie bonefish eyes. Creating the long body was tricky, but the end result looked somewhat like my pet eel.

The next morning I showed my half dozen new eels to the gang, and they humored me. I rigged up a 13-
weight and a 10-weightt with my two best fly creations, and returned the pet to the bait tank (at $4 a pop these are pricy baits!).

Cobia Florida Fly Fishing

We boated three 40- to 50-pound fish in the first hour and with four of us onboard we only needed one more cobia to limit out, so we decided to cast only flies to everything that wasn’t a monster, and leave that last place in the box for one over 50 pounds.

We soon found a lone fish in the mid 20-pound range cruising down the bar and Justin, the mate, fired a jig to the fish from the tower. He teased the fish close enough for me to make a cast about a yard in front of the fish with my eel pattern and that fish swallowed the fly down. We were so excited that we forgot about the jig, but the cobia didn’t. He ate the jig too! Justin went slack on his spin outfit and let me catch the fish on the fly — not exactly IGFA but the process seemed to be the ticket.

We started out chasing the free swimmers from the bow, and this would probably work well if we had stripping baskets. Without the baskets we would get the fly line wrapped around everything from cleats to the anchor. Moving to a cleared back deck helped matters greatly. The guys in the tower shouted instructions for distance and direction which also improved our success rate considerably.

Keeping a little free line off the reel also helped from getting reel-wrapped when you came tight on a fish. The cobia would suck the fly down and you have to be very quick setting the hook or the fish would just blow the fly right back out again. Getting the hook in the first go is crucial to success.

Cobia are a bulldog of a fish. They will shake their heads, dive down to the bottom, and make some pretty impressive runs.

Cobia Florida Fly FishingAfter that first fish I retired the 10 weight for the 13 and I would highly recommend that anyone really serious about throwing flies at Panhandle cobia leave anything smaller than a 12 weight at home — these fish are true tackle busters.

I used a straight 4-foot fluorocarbon leader with a weight-forward floating line. The short leader allowed me to cast the heavy fly about 40 feet with fair to good accuracy.

To help you hone your technique, toss a live eel in the water and watch how the eel swims. The eel will swim head down, trying to distance itself from a set of white lips. To imitate this, let your fly sink and just twitch the rod tip to make the fly dance a bit. Don’t strip — let the fly slowly sink away, and a cobia should inhale it.

Over the next few days, with owner Gordon Gill onboard, we managed to do ok — our best day with the fly rods accounted for three legal fish and a few small guys. We were entered in a month-long cobia tournament so we never messed with anything big on the fly (but I am truly convinced that with a good female angler we could break every IGFA record in the book — the men’s records would be bit harder).

Cobia Florida Fly FishingWhen word got out that we were having some success, we handed out a few eel flies to Justin’s brother Kevin who runs a 58-foot G&S boat named Papi. He had a guest that was an expert fly fisherman. The first morning they caught five cobia, using a hookless live eel for the bait-and-switch. They teased the cobia in with the eel, then switched the fish to the fly — the cobia took it every time!

What the Papi was doing was quietly pulling up to a piece of structure and throwing a hook-less eel on a bridle from a rod up on the tower. They’d bring the fired-up fish in close to the boat and place an easy roll cast to the largest cobia in the group.

Cobia love to hang around debris, FADs, piers and large rays and turtles, so if you see a big turtle or group of rays, there’s a pretty good chance there will be cobia amongst them. Tossing a fly at a grouping of fish increases your chances that one of them will eat, and it seems that when the cobia are in a group they will compete for food, resulting in even more aggressive fish.

We didn’t get the opportunity to fly fish for cobia in 2011 or 2012; the fish just weren’t thick enough the past two seasons. We fish all of the big-money tournaments and you cannot afford to mess around unless you are buried in fish.

But I am really, really hoping to get another crack at them this spring. April is only a few months away and a new rush of fish will be heading down the sand bars of Panama City to Pensacola. I’ll be waiting for them with my 13-weight in hand!

Capt. Corky Decker
Capt. Mark S. “Corky” Decker is an IGFA-certified captain, freelance writer and a proven world-class billfish guide. He grew up commercial fishing...