Catch Cobia Riding The Rays

Cobia use floating manta ray for shade, so in May along the Georgia coast it’s time to break out the sight-fishing glasses.

Saltwater fishing and writing about saltwater fishing for GON can be challenging. We try to fish immediately prior to the current month’s issue to show you where and how to catch a particular species of fish. In the freshwater world, bass, as an example, will always be present in a lake or reservoir. In saltwater, it’s an entirely different story.

Most saltwater fish that we find along the Georgia coast are migratory. In the spring and summer, they will be found in one area and in the fall and winter in another area. The migrations are triggered by water temperature, but they always begin within a few-weeks time frame.

This month, manta rays are making their way north from south Florida and the Caribbean. They cannot tolerate temperatures below about 68 degrees, so as the spring days lengthen and the water warms, they will begin to show up off our coast. Many years ago, the water temperatures off of Georgia were not as warm in the spring as they are currently. Debate the reason and call it what you will, but the water is warmer these days.

Also many years ago, the manta rays did not migrate very far north of St. Augustine. But these days they make it as far north as North Carolina. The barrier islands of Georgia can be hot spots to find manta rays now.

So, why are we talking about and looking for manta rays? Because, they are the perfect habitat for the real prey we are seeking: the cobia.

Rachycentron canadum; ling; lemonfish; the cobia goes by different names in different locales. They are pelagic, meaning they travel the open ocean; yet, they can be found far back in estuaries in search of food. They tend to be attracted to both natural and artificial reefs, and almost any type of structure.

Buoys, markers, particularly big multi-pole markers, flotsam, even a boat can attract a nearby cobia, and a manta ray is like a big piece of moving flotsam to the migrating cobia. Sometimes as many as five or six can be seen swimming with a big ray.

Cobia feed mainly on crabs and small fish, but they will usually hit almost any artificial lure that is properly placed. I say usually, because sometimes it appears that they will not eat anything presented to them, including a live crab or live fish. And then in an instant, for no apparent reason, they may change and tear after whatever bait you offer them. Cobia are peculiar in this regard.

We begin looking for cobia along the Georgia coast as soon as the water temperature reaches 67 degrees. But finding them is more complicated than just the water temperature. Yes, the mantas are moving with the increased water temperature, but the mantas only eat plankton. The cobia, who you might think were looking for a free meal of leftovers from a manta ray, are using the ray as structure. They identify with structure!

However, as it turns out, other pelagic fish, such as blue runners and jacks, also identify with structure and will sometimes school under the wings of a big ray for protection from the sun if nothing else. It’s these fish that the cobia are thought to be looking for as they ride the ray.

We fished out of St. Simons Island and the Golden Isles Fishing Center in late April, looking for the early manta rays and cobia to show up. While we launched at St. Simons, the water temperature off the beach there was more like 64 or 65 degrees, and we ended up running all the way down almost to the St. Marys River in our pursuit to spot a big ray. The temperature there was 67, still a bit cool for the manta rays. The cobia will begin showing up off of Cumberland Island first as they migrate north with the rays. By June, they should be appearing off of Savannah.

We use a variety of tackle for cobia. On a reef or offshore wreck, we would be using heavy tackle exclusively to keep the fish from taking us down and cutting us off on the structure. But along the beaches, there is no structure for them to entangle us, so lighter tackle can be used. We opted for heavier tackle and brought two Penn Slammer rods with Shimano Tekota reels, both spooled with 60-lb. test braid. The braid is tied to a swivel with a 60-lb. fluorocarbon leader and an 8/0 O’Shaughnessy hook or a large bucktail jig.

For the live bait, I like to use a 10/0 circle hook. We also had some Gulp 10-inch eel baits, and with these we used the O’Shaughnessy hook. Circle hooks are not meant for artificials and plastics.

We had a live pogy on a large bucktail jig on one rod and a black Gulp eel on the other. As we motored along, sometimes running fast and other times at a fast idle, we had our rods ready to cast.

We located only one small school of pogies, and they were on the southern end of Cumberland Island. We did catch some bait from this pogy pod, using my cast net. If the pogies aren’t there, you will be hard pressed to locate a cobia. It’s not the pogies, but the food that the pogies eat that matters.

Pogies eat plankton. Manta rays eat plankton. The plankton move north with the warming of the water each spring, and the mantas and pogies move north in pursuit of them. In short, if there are no pogies, you might consider looking for tripletail because the cobia will be hard to find.

We ran as close in as the back side of the breakers and out to water about 40 feet deep. This is the area where the manta rays will be moving because it will be the warmest water. Warm water means more plankton.

Last year in May, we caught a cobia on a Gulp eel almost within casting distance to the beach. We were right on the back side of the breakers, and we saw him in one of the waves. Surprisingly, there was no manta ray in sight; he was just a loner, riding the waves.

Cobia are predominantly solitary fish, particularly the larger ones. You may see several of them swimming on or under a manta ray, but it’s not because they like to school. They just happened to find the same ray. While fishing offshore last year, we had one large cobia at the surface, circling the boat, coming so close I could have touched him as he swam by. We tried everything in the boat and could not entice a bite. Eventually he swam off.

On the same trip on another reef, we had three smaller cobias do the same thing. This time there was competition for the bait, and we ended up hooking up with a 25-pounder. Solitary fish can tend to be harder to fool than those that are swimming together as a group. I differentiate a group from a school, because when you have more than one cobia in the water, it’s usually strictly by chance, not by choice.

I can only get up 12 feet off the water in my bay boat to look for those giant dark spots in the water that indicate a ray. Some anglers use a T-top with a spotting tower on it, allowing them to get higher off the water, see farther, and quickly cover more ground. In this case, it’s a very specialized application for a boat.

Once we spot a manta ray and it looks like it has some fish following it, there is a definite way to approach and cast to a cobia riding the ray. First, do not get too close to the ray. They will tolerate an idling boat at a distance, but get too close and the ray sounds—along with the cobia.

Next, if the ray is moving slowly enough, use your trolling motor if you have one. It’s quiet and allows you to move closer to the ray.

Make zero noise in the boat. I often find myself whispering back and forth to my partner as if the ray could hear us talk. But, for sure, don’t drop anything on the floor of the boat. Sound travels amazing distances under water, and the boat hull will transmit every sound. The other half of quiet is movement. If you are standing on the bow ready to cast, don’t make any sudden or jerky movements. Believe it or not, the ray and any cobia present can see at least your outline above the water. Move too suddenly, and you will spook them.

Position the boat behind and slightly to one side of the ray. You want to be able to cast your bait out in front of the ray and bring it slowly back toward you as the ray and the cobia move toward the bait. Never try to stay ahead of the ray. They actually can be quite fast swimmers, and if you are out in front of a ray and can’t evade it, the ray will sound, sometimes not coming back to the surface for a quarter mile or more.

It may take several casts to entice the cobia to eat. If he doesn’t seem to like live bait, switch to an artificial, like a Gulp eel. I am amazed sometimes that fish will turn their noses up to live bait, yet they will readily eat an artificial.

When you hook up to a cobia, be prepared for a long battle. If you chose lighter tackle, be prepared for a very long battle. Cobia fight hard, but they will fool you. Amazingly, if you let up on the pressure, they tend to fight less. If you crank down on the drag and fight them hard, they will wear you out. You can actually almost guide them to the side of the boat using just light pressure on them.

But, don’t be fooled. A cobia under light pressure at the boat can be gaffed pretty easily. But that fish is still green, as we say. He has no business in your boat other than to inflict damage to equipment and personnel. I’ve been finned in the leg by a dorsal fin and had more than one rod broken by a cobia.

Over the years, we learned to deal with the gaffing process. I have a 120-quart cooler which will handle all but the very largest cobia. We make a team effort of getting the fish in the boat. It’s an effort we have practiced many times.

As my partner readies the gaff, I open the cooler while keeping the fish at the side of the boat. Then in one swift motion, he gaffs the fish, pulls it over the side and directly into the cooler. I slam the lid closed, and we both sit down on the cooler. We have to sit there until the fish quits flopping around inside. One time we did not sit on the lid, and the fish came flopping out onto the floor of the boat. Fortunately, we had all our rods and gear out of the way. I actually had one cobia that we brought aboard on the front deck of my bay boat that flopped right back into the water. These fish never quit!

The minimum length limit in Georgia for cobia is 33 inches measured to the fork of the tail. The bag limit is two fish per person per day with a one-day possession limit.

Sight fishing for cobia under manta rays is a specialized form of fishing, but anyone can do it in a reasonable boat on a calm day using our method. Wait for the sun to get overhead so that you can see into the water. And by the way, cobia is very firm, making it ideal for grilling, and that my friend makes the day even more worthwhile!

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