The first thing that comes to mind when someone says cobia fishing in Tampa Bay is buoy tending. I have another method I’ve used over the years that works as good if not better than chasing them all over the bay.
First, let’s start with the bait. Greenback sardines, blue crabs and pinfish are the baits of choice. For most baits, I find an area of grass flats close to a channel or drop off. I prefer the water depth to be around three or four feet. I then 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 to not feed the bait but attract them to the boat. I use a 10-foot 3/8 mesh Humpback cast net with only 10-pounds of lead made by Tampa Fishing Outfitters. This light bait net works great, if you don’t exceed eight feet of water–it’s also a life saver on your back.
A live well is a must to have on any boat. If you don’t have one, they can be purchased at most retail tackle outlet stores. A good live well needs to be at least 25-gallons or bigger with a 700 or 1100 gallon an hour baitwell pump. Ok, now we’ve caught our baits, what are we to do next?
Plan A: Cut the baits (greenback sardines) in half and make a large pile on the cutting board. Start by tossing pieces in the water around the boat and wait for the rays to show up. Southern rays or brown rays are attracted to you chumming and with them come the cobia. Remember, cobia like structure and are lazy to feed. But, as the rays move in on the scent of the chum, the cobia will follow. Rays stir the bottom up with their wings in order to feed. This brings up all the small shrimp, 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, small blue crab or greenback 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–your boat. I have several broken rods at home to remind me.
I make it a habit to keep one rod rigged with an artificial bait. Many times, I have had a cobia sneak up on me from nowhere, and you have very little time to get the right size live bait. My old stand-by soft bait is the Savage Gear TPE crab–works every time. Of course, Mother Nature has a way of playing games and we have to go to plan B or C.
Plan B: Buoy tending is the ritual of running from one buoy (channel marker or range markers) to another looking for cobia hanging around them during the slack tide periods. The term early bird gets the worm applies in this case. The first anglers to the buoys have the best shot at catching them. I prefer to use a large float with a 4 to 6-inch pinfish or threadfin sardine suspended about three feet under the float. Start your drift up current of the buoy and let the bait pass the marker. Don’t give up on the first pass, cobia are at times cautious fish and it takes more than one drift to get them to strike.
Another vital element to some cobia anglers is the use of a Minn Kota I-Pilot trolling motor with Spot Lock—this eliminates the drift. With my I-Pilot, I can Spot-Lock close to the buoy, within casting distance, and work my live bait on both sides of the buoy. This saves time and does not spook the cobia.
Plan C: Luck. Luck is being on the right spot at the right time when one just happens to be cruising by looking for a mate or structure. For example, my good buddy Bryan McNatt was tarpon fishing off Bean Point when out of nowhere this large cobia came by asking to be caught.
Tackle: Around the flats, I use a 7-foot medium light rod paired with a Helios 30 Okuma reel. Rig that with 15-pound braided line and 30-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to a 3/0 circle hook. When fishing buoys or structure I go with a 7-foot medium heavy action rod with an Azores 6000 Okuma reel. This outfit is rigged with 40-pound braided line and 50-pound fluorocarbon leader at least four feet long.
Good fishing and tight lines.