Fly fishing. Close your eyes, say those two words, and think about the picture in your mind. Now, let me replace it with this picture: The Atlantic Ocean, beginning of spring, gentle swells rolling from west to east. You’re in a boat, about a mile from the beach, your eyes searching for a black and white behemoth; a creature that looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie. As the sun rises higher in the sky, you spot it. He’s gliding about 3 feet under the surface, his wingtips stretching out 10 feet from either side of his body, just breaking the surface; water drips from the tips, glistening in the sun. You ease the boat toward it, and there, between the manta ray’s back and the surface of the water is another monster. This one is brown, with a cavernous mouth, and it is waiting for anything to come across the ray’s back, so it can have an easy meal. Meet Mr. Cobia. You get the boat in range, start casting your fly rod, drop the fly in front of the ray and watch as it starts to tumble down the ray’s back. As the fly drifts toward the cobia, you give it a twitch. The cobia sees it, darts forward with speed you weren’t expecting, engulfs the fly and then feels the sharp point of the hook. The fish surges forward or sideways, diving toward the safety of deeper water, peeling fly line and then backing from your reel. You stand perched in the boat, watching the rod bend deeper and deeper, praying that the all of the carbon fiber in that rod will hold. This isn’t the fly fishing picture you saw in the book, magazine, or a River Runs Through It. No, this is about to be a war of wills. A war that will put your gear, your muscles, and you perseverance to the test. This is the spring cobia run! This is a perfect time to test yourself in offshore fly fishing with fish that love to eat flies, give great fights, and to top it all off, are quite tasty on the table. So, what does one need to participate in this battle?
I’ll start with the rod. Cobia will range in size from small five pounders to powerful giants over 60 pounds. This can be one of the tricky parts when fishing for them. Unlike many other fish, which tend to gather in schools of the same size, a ray may have fish from one end of the spectrum to the other cruising with it. In addition, no matter their size, cobia are brawlers; for those of us old enough to remember, they are the Clubber Lang’s of the fish world. For that reason, I tend to stick to 10-weight or 11-weight rods. That doesn’t mean you cannot chase them with lighter tackle. I just want to be prepared for the big fish, and that means a little heavier gear. My personal rod of choice is the G-Loomis Crosscurrent Pro 1, 11-weight. This rod is designed with a great casting tip and enough power to lift even the biggest fish from the bottom of the ocean. For me, lifting power is the key to fighting cobia. Yes, the fishing takes place in relatively shallow conditions, for the bite. But, when the fish feels the sharp point of the hook, they usually head straight down, requiring a lot of lifting power from the rod. It is also important in case your cobia decides to eat and then dive in front of the ray; the extra lifting power will allow you to pull it away, preventing a break off. Whatever rod you choose, just make sure it has enough butt to lift a fish and put some serious pressure on it.
The reel you choose should handle about 200 yards of backing (30 pound dacron), the fly line, and the drag needs to be smooth. Cobia will make several runs. The first run is usually the longest. However, once you get them close to the boat, they will go crazy again. This is where the smoothness of the drag will be tested. A drag that has too much start-up inertia can cause a leader to break, right when you think the battle is over. My reel of choice is made by Nautilus. Called the Monster, it truly is a fish fighting beast.
Fly lines and leaders are fairly simple choices in this game. For most scenarios, a standard weight forward, floating line will work well. I use an intermediate, sink tip. There are two main reasons I prefer that style of line, for cobia fishing: the first 9-15 feet of the fly line is clear, making my leader that much longer and since the tip is slowly sinking, it gets down easier if the rays start becoming nervous, from the boat traffic, and dive to slightly deeper water. My leaders are 9 feet long, with a 50 pound butt section, 16 pound tippet, and 40 pound shock tippet.
Fly selection doesn’t have to be difficult either. Flies that give baitfish profiles, eel profiles, or crab profiles work great. My fly selection includes the following: Sexy Sliders (1/0, in chartreuse and brown), Deceivers (1/0, red and white or brown and white), EP-style baitfish (1/0 or 2/0, tied to mimic local baitfish colors), and Merkin-style crabs (1/0, in brown or green). Just make sure your hooks are strong, as cobia can easily bend many of the fine wired hooks.
Techniques for locating and approaching these fish will vary as much as the boats. My personal method is relatively simple. Everyone in the boat looks for the rays. Once a ray is observed, take a few seconds to determine where it is headed. The operator positions the boat in front, about 50 feet short of the ray and the boat is placed in neutral. From there, it is up to the angler to place the fly in the right position. Once the fish is hooked, the operator’s job is to help keep the fish separated from the ray, so line doesn’t get fouled. Definitely not rocket surgery, but it is effective.
A couple of warnings: don’t boat or gaff a “green” cobia; they are powerful and can destroy equipment and people by thrashing around inside. Second, have that Rocky soundtrack handy: a little inspirational music can really help when you hook into a big fish!
Tight lines and screaming drags – Captain John Tarr