Picture this: The wind has died to a flutter on a warm spring afternoon, and the mid-day slack of a high tide reveals gentle furrows across the width of the Broad River where it dumps into Port Royal Sound. You’ve been on the water all morning preparing for this one hour, and the sun beats down on the exposed back of your neck as the boat chugs over a rip line at idle speed. You are standing on the deck of a 20-foot center console, intently scanning the water ahead for some sign of activity.
Then the Captain points.
“There he is, to your 2 o’clock,” he says, not shouting, but with a hint of urgency in his voice.
The captain kicks the second of his twin outboards into gear, the boat picks up just a little speed, and the butterflies begin to stir as you will yourself to see what he does through polarized lenses. You stand there, eyes frantically searching for some inconsistency on the water’s surface that would indicate a fish, when the captain’s voice jars you into action.
“Grab the rod!” he barks. “Get ready. You’re only going to get one shot at this fish.”
Scrambling to grab the pre-baited spinning rod, you lift a squirming lip-hooked eel out of a bucket on the deck, and as you turn to the bow you see it. A fin barely breaks the surface about 50 feet off to the side of the boat. Your eyes focus in, and a long dark shape materializes.
“It’s a good one. Be sure to lead him,” the captain reminds as you fire the eel in an arch over the water. Line snakes off your reel, you cup the spool and the eel splashes down — 10 feet in front of the fish but 3 feet short of its path. The fish continues on its original trajectory as disappointment oozes in to drown the butterflies in your stomach.
But, as you hurry to rip your line in for another cast, the fish turns. In a flash of violence it slams your bait.
“Set the hook!” a voice hollers.
And now you’ve done it. You’re tied into 80 pounds of raw fury.
This is sight fishing for big cobia. Every year in late April these hard-fighting, tasty fish start showing up on their spring spawning run in the Broad River at Hilton Head, S.C. The run peaks in May, but it doesn’t last long, petering out in the first or second week of June. While the cobia — also known as ling — are in, it can be some of the most intense saltwater action found anywhere.
And whether it’s anchoring up and waiting on these 40- to 80-lb. freight trains to take off with your bait that gets you going or if it’s the opportunity of sight casting to a cruising bruiser, Capt. Judy Helmey, of Miss Judy Charters out of Savannah, says her captains have the fish dialed in. She and her cobia specialist Capt. Matt Williams volunteered to share some of their knowledge of the cobia run.
The Broad River Sandbars
The cobia spawning run up to about the Highway 170 bridge on the Broad River is one of the best anywhere, and Capt. Matt said hundreds of boats will be on the river in May jockeying for position on the sandbars to catch cobia. It’s about a 45-minute boat ride from Miss Judy’s docks in Savannah to the mouth of the river, and there’s bait to be caught, so be prepared to make a minimum 8-hour day of it.
“There are 200 boats out there looking for the cobia. Look for the flotilla of boats, and that’s where the cobia will be,” Matt said. “People are used to fishing around a lot of other people. It’s a community atmosphere, but be courteous. Try not to crowd anybody too close.”
Matt said it’s important to study your charts and know the layout of the sandbars. He likes to fish the drop-offs, where a bar tops out at 6 or 7 feet and drops into the 20-foot depths. He’ll anchor above or beside the drop-off and fish four rods, covering different depths in the water column.
He’ll fish two of his casting rigs — Shimano Calcutta 700s, spooled with 50- to 80-lb. braid, on medium-heavy St. Croix saltwater rods — on the bottom in about 10 or 15 feet of water. He uses a 3- or 4-oz. egg sinker to get it down and follows the weight with about 4 1/2 feet of 60- to 80-lb. mono.
He’ll also fish a mid-depth bait, with the same rod-reel setup, main line and leader, using a 1-oz. egg sinker. This bait should hang about mid-level in the water, Matt said. To cover the top, Matt said you can go with a freelined bait, but he prefers using a big popping cork so he can keep an eye on his bait’s location and pop it every now and then to draw attention. For this he uses a Burnside Bopper cork, the largest size he can find, trailing about 3 1/2 or 4 feet of leader.
All of his hooks for sandbar fishing are 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks to match the size of the bait. And he fishes a variety of baits depending on what he can get his hands on.
“They will eat anything. They’re very opportunistic,” Matt said. “Whatever baitfish you can get that will swim good.”
He suggested buying live eels from the bait shop, using a cast net to catch menhaden or catching greenbacks (threadfin herring) on a sabiki rig. All of these can be fished dead or alive, and you can also catch ling on live or split blue crab, mullet or even squid or shrimp. Also, it can’t hurt to chum the water up.
“When you’re on anchor, always keep another rod ready for sight casting,” Matt added as an afterthought. “Sometimes they’ll come right up to your boat. And last year I had a cobia coming in, and another cobia came up underneath it.”
So, once you get your baits out, all that’s left to do is wait on the fish and keep your eyes open for fish that may be on the surface. When they hit, let them swim off to set the circle hooks on themselves, Matt advised. And hold on. As soon as you start pulling on a cobia, it will wear you out.
The conditions must be right, with low winds and a slack tide, which on a good day will last about an hour, but when it’s right it’s time to sight fish for ling on the Broad River. Matt likes to idle a zig-zag pattern, with his back to the sun to reduce glare, looking for cruising cobia.
“I look for either a fin breaking the surface or a wake, where they’re pushing water. I’ll also look for parts and pieces of them,” he said. “You need a good pair of polarized glasses. That’s probably more important than your tackle. The better you are at seeing them, the better your chances at catching them.”
Sometimes Matt will concentrate his attention on rip lines, where the depth changes by 3 or 4 feet creating a current seam, but he said cobia could be anywhere in the river.
“I know that’s foggy, but these are foggy fish,” Matt chuckled. “They’re extremely random, and you have to be random to catch them.”
Once he spots a fish, the excitement begins. To get into position for a cast, Matt will either fall in behind the fish with the boat or try and get way out to the side of it. He said the fish aren’t particularly spooky, but the longer the cast the better — as long as it’s accurate.
He’ll keep a spinning outfit, a medium-action, saltwater Ugly Stik with a Shimano BaitRunner 6500, ready to go. Again, he goes with heavy 50- to 80-lb. braid for the main line and 60- to 80-lb. mono for the 3- to 4-foot leader.
“Most people can cast a spinning rod pretty well,” he said. “You want something you can cast, but having some backbone is good. Don’t take finesse over putting the wood to them. These are strong fish.”
The business end of the line will be pre-baited with a live eel hooked through the lips with a 4/0 or 5/0 “J” hook. The eel should be hooked up, ready and waiting in a bucket of water on the deck.
“Lead him 10 feet or so, and try to bring it away from him. Cobia like something moving,” Matt said. “The important thing is that intersection point. You want it coming away from him. Sometimes they’ll follow it all the way to boat, but sometimes they’ll just turn and attack it. Reel it all the way to the boat. As long as your bait is in the water, you’ve got a good chance of getting hit.”
In a good day, Matt said he’s seen as many as 10 fish on a slack tide.
“Some days there will be big fish all over the place, and then the next day they’ll be gone,” Matt said. “They’re the most random fish I’ve ever fished for. It’s feast or famine with these fish. The good thing is, you’ve always got a chance at hitting a home run.”
A home run would entail catching and taking home to eat a two-fish-per-day limit per angler. There is a 33-inch minimum fork length, and Capt. Judy said a 33-inch cobia will weigh between 15 and 20 pounds. However, there is a very good chance of catching a big 40- to 80-lb. fish, and the South Carolina state record weighed in a little less than 90 pounds.
(For)Get The Gaff?
A word of warning: Before gaffing a fish, Capt. Judy always likes to consider whether or not someone’s going to get hurt, and a big cobia will certainly hurt you.
“If you gaff ’em, they’re going to go crazy,” said Judy. “You better know what you’re doing or you’re going to end up with a hook in ya’. They’re so strong they’ll crash your whole boat.”
To avoid this, Judy doesn’t even bother with a gaff when she gets a big ling next to the boat. She carries a big, heavy-duty net with a mouth of at least 30 inches. The fish can’t struggle nearly as much when it’s bent in half in a net. And she’s got another trick once she gets them on the boat.
“Toss a towel on his head, and just run. That’s the girl way. You don’t have to tell people you did it that way, but it’s the easy way,” she said. “Just step up on the deck and let him beat himself on the floor. They don’t have teeth but that tail is strong. You don’t want to get whacked by that tail.”
Matt uses the more manly approach. He said to decide whether or not you’re going to keep a fish before you get it in the boat. He’ll use a pair of Boga Grips for small fish to be released, but he also suggests carrying two gaffs on the boat in case two gaffers are needed or you lose one in the side of a big, angry fish.
“Don’t get the fish in the floor and start high fiving everyone. Your job’s not done,” he said. “If you’re going to stick a gaff in ’em, be prepared because they’re going to go crazy. They’ll tear the whole boat apart. If you throw them in the cooler, be sure to have something ready to tie it down with quick. They’ll come right back out of a cooler if you don’t tie it down.”
Need A Little Help?
If you don’t have a suitable boat or tackle, you’re not familiar with the area, or you’d just like to improve your chances of catching cobia by fishing with a pro, call Capt. Judy and she or Capt. Matt will put you on the fish.
Matt is also equipped for anglers who want to try to hook up with a cobia on a fly rod or with artificials. With a shorter boat ride, and a half-day trip if you want it, Capt. Judy can take you to catch ling that hang with the baitfish in the shade of the marker buoys on the Savannah Shipping Channel off Tybee Island. This trip is just a 15-minute boat ride from Capt. Judy’s docks, and the cobia fishing can be very good.
Give Judy a call at (912) 897-4921, shoot her an e-mail at <email@example.com> or check out all the inshore and offshore trips available through Miss Judy Charters at <www.missjudycharters.com>.