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SPECIES GUIDE: COBIA

Each year schools of massive cobia invade Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, scaring the hell out of the local baitfish and providing switched-on anglers with some truly memorable big fish action. Local cobia expert JASON COMINO explains how to get yourself stretched by a chocolate-coloured monster!

HAVE you ever wondered what it’d be like to jag a hook into a passing express train and then have to hang on for dear life?  Does almost being ripped out of the boat by monster pelagics excite you?  If the answer to both of these questions is “yes”, then a quick trip to sunny south-east Queensland might be well worth the effort.

The annual cobia run is a highlight of the annual fishing calendar on SE Queensland’s Moreton Bay cobes, aka black kingfish, are one of the toughest pelagic fish around. Pound for pound, these fish are ridiculously strong and stubborn. No matter what tackle is used to chase them, cobia always leave you feeling totally pumped.

Season
The annual cobia spawning run begins in Moreton Bay around September, and lasts for eight sensational months until about Easter. Throughout winter there is still the odd resident cobia to be found that stayed inside the bay, usually around the deeper navigation markers. These monsters are typically better than the magic 30kg mark, and at this size are a true trophy fish.

The shipping channel markers attract plenty of bait and are used by the cobia both as a source of food and shelter. Tidal eddies behind the markers mean that the resident cobes can save energy by sticking where the food is.

The fun really starts when the cobia start to filter into Moreton Bay from offshore waters and track south through the shipping channels in search of food as they prepare to spawn. The markers in the north of the Main Channel are where most of the early season action occurs but as the summer wears on the fish move down as far south as Mud Island. Bigger cobia tend to hit these markers before the school sized fish arrive. This allows anglers a unique opportunity to notch up some serious scores on fish better than 25kg.  Sustainable fishing practices are vital for this type of sportfishery. Most fishos take the odd cobe home for the dinner table and release the rest for another day. This ensures another run of big fish for the following season.

Towards the start of November the bigger fish schools tend to disperse throughout the bay and can hold up practically anywhere there’s bait and shelter from the current. Secret wrecks, artificial reefs, steep ledges and navigation markers are all worth a try.

Tides & moon
Whether the tide is running in or out makes little difference when targeting Moreton Bay’s monster cobes. The key is water movement that keeps the baitfish high in the water column. Once the current slackens, the bait schools will tend to go flat on the sea floor and tight to the poles to avoid being detected by hungry predators such as cobes, northern bluefin tuna, mackerel and sharks.  Generally speaking, cobia are not a dirty fighting species like yellowtail kingfish, but around the poles you learn to throw that rule out the window. Tidal movement throws the advantage back in your favour and helps push a hooked fish away from hard structure. Dead water, on the other hand, allows them a free passage to the structure. Due to their sheer size and strength it doesn’t seem to matter what line class is employed in this situation.  You just can’t seem to stop them!

The cobia are usually hooked very close to the shipping channel markers and in that short space there’s little room or time for extraction. Thus the tide is certainly a very worthy ally.

The general rule of thumb is that the closer it is to a moon phase, the shallower you will need to fish. This allows for smaller sinkers to be used to get baits into the strike zone, ensures a longer life span for your livebaits, and allows for easy use of berley (if used). Peak moon phases for cobia around the poles are between three days before and three days after the full or new moon, and that includes the actual day of the moon.  In  perfect weather it’s still possible to fish the deeper markers around the moons, and wind against tide works very well to slow the drift past the poles right down. A parachute anchor can also be used for this application, but this is just another thing that needs to be pulled from the water when a monster cobia is hooked. I use my parachute anchor as a last resort rather than a regular use item, and this simplifies the process when battling a monster cobia that has been successfully dragged away from the beacon.  Wind with tide is a big no-no close to a moon phase as drifting better than 10 knots is usually the outcome, and getting baits down into the strike zone is virtually impossible. A better option is to fish a shallower marker until the tide turns and then have a crack in the deep when wind and tide are opposing each other. When fishing the poles, the calmer the weather the better, not only from a drifting point of view, but also from a fish fighting aspect.  

Bait options
One of the best things about chasing big cobia is their willingness to eat a wide variety of livebaits. This extends from sand crabs to legal sized snapper and tailor.  This generally makes catching bait a simple task. Just about anything will work! They can become a little more selective about their eating patterns and menu later in the season, but most times anything live gets wolfed down with gusto.

Baits are most times jigged on a standard bait jig equipped with size 6 or 8 hooks.  Baitfish such as scad or slimy mackerel can quite easily tear off smaller hooks in the raging tides that bait jigging often occurs in. On most days a tank of around 30-40 baits will be adequate for a session on big cobia, but if you run out, jigging more is a pretty simple task. Fishing a marker with the most impressive bait sounding is often vital for success, so often at times I will sound out up to 10 markers before making a call on where to actually fish. Looking for other signs of life such as big red arches in the bait schools on the screen of my Furuno 585 sounder is another surefire way to locate brute sized cobia.

Generally speaking, the bigger your baits are the better! Big baits bring out the competitive nature of cobia schools, and it’s rare for a large bait to go unnoticed for more than a few minutes if the fish are on the job. The other important thing to remember is that other species are also feeding around the poles, so the bigger the bait is the less likely it will be to attract the attention of mackerel, trevally or longtails.

I like to use baits that have relatively slim bodies so I can to avoid using big sinkers to get into the strike zone. Big ball sinkers can rip hooks clean out of cobia, particularly during the closing stages of the battle when a big fish is straight under the boat and wildly shaking its head. This means that baits such as crabs and squire are only used as a last resort when drifting the poles due to the water drag that their bodies create.  My favourite baits are: herring, whiptails, scad, slimy mackerel, tailor, and grinners. That list often surprises a lot of keen cobia anglers, but over the years these baits have proven themselves above all others.

Rigs
Keeping the rigs as simple as possible is a great way to stay connected to more big cobia. Why? Because there are fewer things to go wrong. The rig I use is a text book style sinker, swivel and hook set up, with the sinker running freely on the 50lb main line. Fifty-pound mono is all I use as a main line these days and even this isn’t enough sometimes. I use either Ande grey or Shogun Ice Blue as they’re both very abrasion resistant, have great knot strength and don’t seem to suffer from bad twist as others lines I’ve used can do.

Sinker size is dependent on the size and species of the bait, as well as weather conditions and tidal movements. Generally speaking, a size 5 or 6 ball sinker will cover most bases, but going well prepared with larger and smaller options is vital to success.  If in doubt using a slightly heavier sinker is the best bet as it will provide the ability to quickly and easily adjust the bait’s depth.

A good colour sounder comes in very handy to gauge what depth the predators are sitting at, and when a big livebait is in the zone a strike is never far away.

Below the sinker I run a black Shogun crane or rolling swivel. Mackerel can make an absolute nuisance of themselves by mistaking a chrome or gold coloured swivel for a small baitfish and striking at it. This is enough to drive a cobia angler nuts when waiting for a solid hook-up, but when it happens whilst connected to a brute fish it is theartbreaking!  From here I attach a one-metre length of 60lb fluorocarbon leader such as Black Magic or the like, ensuring that all knots are tested and tested again before being sent into battle.

Hook selection is very important when chasing cobia. When choosing a hook the emphasis should be on strength, pattern and the ability to penetrate that bony mouth quickly and effectively. Chemically sharpened hooks are imperative. Similar to bait size, the bigger the hook the better!  Cobia have huge mouths and the larger the hook used the more chance there is of gaining a solid connection. Big cobia don’t tend to be very fussy feeders, so using a large hook in the nose of your livebaits is rarely a turn off for them. Going too large, though, will greatly reduce the longevity of your baits, and on days where baits are hard to come by this can be a major issue. My favourite hooks for this application are the Gamakatsu Live Bait pattern in either 8/0 or 9/0 sizes. These hooks are virtually impossible to bend or break, are incredibly sharp, and have very fine barbs to penetrate quickly and stay in for the duration of the fight no matter how long it goes for. Mustad hooks are also more than suitable for cobes, in particular the Big Gun and Deep-V patterns. These hooks are almost bulletproof and the sizes I prefer are 12/0 and 8/0 respectively. If I have monster baits then I tend to use the Mustad patterns; if my baits are smaller I lean towards the Gamas. I don’t crimp any of my leaders or terminal tackle as this just adds extra weight to the rig, which in turn kills livies much more quickly.

The technique
Using this technique can be as simple or as difficult as the weather and tidal conditions allow, as these factors ultimately will determine drift angle and speed. A couple of dry run test drifts are often a great idea and this will prevent precious rigs and baits being wrapped around the marker and being busted off. Once the angle and speed of drift is determined it’s vital to get the up-current distance correct to ensure that a livebait is in the strike zone by the time bait schools and big fish appear on the sounder.  Failure to achieve this will most times be rewarded with no touches and the necessity for baits to be retrieved and driven even further up-current for another drift.

Motor noise doesn’t tend to worry cobia and often at times you’ll have big fish coming right to the transom to find out what all the commotion is about. Having a bait pre-hooked in the bait tank is a great idea for these situations. Having a couple of baits out at different depths in the water column is another top idea, but when the fish are really on the job one rod per angler is the maximum you’d want in the water – and even that is sometimes a handful!

When hooked, big cobia will often run directly for the navigation marker for shelter, so a well-educated thumb is vital to pull them up before they reach their chosen structure. Failure to achieve this will end in disaster and the cobia winning its freedom by popping the main line on the rough growth around the beacon. After you’ve steered a big cobia away from obstacles it will often come straight to the surface and circle the boat to look you in the eye and seemingly size you up!  This is a thrilling sight in itself and it is very easy to see why some anglers mistake big cobia for sharks. The general rule of thumb is that very rarely will a shark come to the surface during the early stage of the fight and rarely will the leader hold out for very long if you’ve hooked a shark. Be sure before cutting off a shark-like shadow as often times this ends in heartbreak! Most times when a big cobia comes to the surface its dorsal fin and tail will be protruding the surface, whereas a shark will simply be displaying its dorsal fin only. From here the fight gets very tough and becomes a vertical grind to get the cobia to the surface. Depending on size this may go on for minutes or hours and being prepared for a long fight has to be the mindset before targeting these huge fish.

Once fought out these fish can be manhandled and hauled aboard if they’re to be kept for eating, but be sure to sink the gaff between the head and pectoral fins.  This will provide complete control of a big fish, and thus prevent injury from the impressive row of spines present between the head and dorsal fin. Prompt donging and bleeding will maximise the quality of the flesh, and once in an ice slurry a great meal is assured. If releasing big cobia, as we tend to do with most of our fish, we try not to remove them from the water as the damage often kills the fish very slowly and this isn’t what anyone wants. A couple of quick pictures beside the boat is the best bet and if the hook has been swallowed, snipping the leader off as short as possible is the preferred approach. 

Chasing these brute cobia is certainly very addictive, and the rewards can be great. Finding big numbers of cobia is the name of the game, but once they are located some seriously memorable fishing is sure to follow close behind.

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