Queen of Tampa Bay Flats (Cobia)
Cobia (Rachycentron Canadum)–also known as ling, crab eaters or lemonfish–is a familiar sight in Tampa Bay all summer into late or mid-October, based on water temperature. In Tampa Bay, they range in size from 30 inches on the flats to 48 inches around the flats, structure and wrecks. Cobia must be at least 36 inches long from the fork of the tail to be legal. Daily bag limit is one per person per day or two per vessel, whichever is less. Their weight ranges from 10 to 50 pounds in the Gulf and 10 to 25 pounds in Tampa Bay.
Greenback sardines, threadfin sardines, blue crabs, grunts and pinfish are the baits of choice. I find them in an area of grass flats close to a channel or drop off. I prefer the water depth around 2 to 4 feet. I start by chumming for the bait with a mixture of tropical fish food, anise oil and some salt water mixed to a cream of wheat texture. The secret to chumming is not to feed the bait, but to attract them to the boat. I prefer to use a Humpback Flats net. A 1-pound per foot net makes life a lot easier when you have those days when it takes 20 or 30 throws to get enough bait for a day’s fishing. I start the season with a 10-foot 1/4-inch mesh bait net and, when the bait gets bigger or I’m throwing under a bridge or range marker, I switch to a 3/8-inch mesh net. It sinks quicker and increases your chance of catching more of the bigger baits.
Keeping the bait alive:
A live well is a must to have on any boat. If you don’t have one, portable units can be purchased at most retail tackle outlet stores. A good live well needs to be at least 26 gallons or larger with a 700 gallon an hour pump–the larger the better. Most boats come equipped with a live well system from the factory, or are ready to be plumbed for one. Unless you are a handy man type, I suggest you find a local shop to install it. Most applications require making a hole through your hull to install a pickup tube–not something I am inclined to do myself.
Cobia on the flats:
Ok, now we caught our baits, but what are we to do next? That’s simple. Start cutting some bait (greenback sardine) in half and make a large pile on the cutting board. Toss the pieces in the water around the boat. Remember, you are anchored in 3 to 4 feet of water. Now, just wait for rays to start showing up. Southern rays or brown rays are attracted to you chumming and with them come the cobia. Remember, cobia like structure and are lazy feeders. But, as the rays move in on the scent of the chum, with them come the cobia. Rays stir the bottom up with their wings to feed and this brings up all the small shrimp and crabs and pieces of chum to the surface of the flats.
The cobia will be just under the rays or next to them picking the pieces of bait the rays leave behind. Toss a live pinfish, greenback, shrimp or crab at them and hold on. A word of caution. Leave the bail open on the reel until the cobia get at least 20 feet from the boat before you set the hook, or they will head for the nearest structure which is your boat. I have several broken rods at home to remind me of this costly mistake.
The first thing that comes to mind when someone says cobia fishing in Tampa Bay is buoy tending. This is the ritual of running from one buoy (channel markers and range markers) to another looking for cobia hanging around them during the slack tide periods. Cobia is a structure-oriented fish that like wrecks, buoys and anything that creates a shadow line. Buoy tending is a method that works, but is expensive on the pocketbook when gas prices are high. The term “early bird gets the worm” applies in this case. The first anglers to the buoys have the best shot at catching the cobia.
To catch them, approach up current from the marker with a live bait ready to go. When the cobia is sighted, toss the bait up current allowing the bait to drift toward the fish rather than throwing the bait on top and spooking the cobia. I use a large float such as a 4-Horsemen with 3-feet of 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader and a 3/0 circle hook. Cobia can be picky eaters and, in some cases, refuse your offer. Don’t waste time, run to the next buoy or range marker and start all over again.
On the flats, I prefer a medium action spinning outfit with 20-pound test braided line, 40- pound fluorocarbon leader and a 3/0 circle hook.
Around buoys, a heavier outfit is needed. I use a large spinning outfit with 40-pound test braided line and 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader–again with a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook.