Cobia – in the Chesapeake Bay?

Not much has been written about fly and light tackle fishing for Cobia in the Chesapeake Bay.  I’ve been able to find some information, much of it centered around the fishery in Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

A Cobia that fell for a heavy bucktail jig deep on a reef.  If so inclined, they will chase a lure right to the boat.

What do we know?  Cobia enter the Chesapeake Bay around late May.  They swim up the Bay as far North as the Patuxent River (though not in great numbers) and they generally stay out of sight.  They cruise low in the water column, picking off crabs, croaker, and anything they can fit into their mouths.  It’s believed that they spawn during the summer here, typically by the age of three.  Most of the fishing during the summer for them does center on the Southern Bay – Virginia waters – and involves chumming and bait fishing.  Having done this a few times, and ending up with nothing but sandbar sharks and cownose rays, it’s not terribly exciting.  I’ve heard from a few Cobia chummers that insist you have to wade through these guys to catch Cobia (with a ratio of 10:1 sometimes).  While pulling up a shark is neat the first time, it gets old.

The fishery really takes off in August and September.  That’s when the Cobia spend more time at the surface, swimming casually or laying alongside buoys.  When they do this, you can target them with lures, or better yet, with flies.

While I have only spent a half-dozen days on the water targeting them this way, I have learned a few things about the buoy game.  So here is my best shot at “Cobia for (fly rod and light tackle) Dummies”:

  1. Have a good pair of polarized sunglasses, and climb up on your boat as high as you can get.  You need to inspect the water without spooking the fish – ideally, keeping a hundred feet between you both.  For open water sighting, look for a wake.  Obviously calm, sunny days are required for this kind of open-water hunting, limiting how often you can try this approach.
  2. Cobia on buoys can be invisible, hiding beneath it out of sight, or they can be alongside or behind it, almost as if they are glued to it.  It’s impressive to witness when the current is really ripping.  This means that, even if you don’t see one, it is still worth a cast or two.
  3. When approaching a (suspected) Cobia on a buoy, determine the direction of the current, the direction of the wind, and then determine which way the boat will drift.  You want to drift by the buoy about 50′-70′ off, and deliver your lure about 10′-20′ in front of the buoy.  Your goal – deliver your lure at eye level to the cobia, then make it appear like the easy meal is escaping.
  4. Cobia hang on buoys for one or more reasons.  My working theory – blue crabs swimming in open water see buoys as a rest-stop.  The Cobia are there simply because they can suck the crabs down as they arrive.  It doesn’t mean you can’t catch them with a fish-imitation, but a live crab, or crabby lure, should get extra attention.
  5. If they swim after your lure, don’t slow down your retrieve – a baitfish or crab about to get murdered isn’t going to make things easier on the Cobia.  Keep up the illusion the whole way back to the boat.
  6. If a fish takes a swipe at your lure and then stops chasing, don’t give up.  Set up for another drift by the buoy, and try again.  I had one fish hit my fly 5 times before I was able to set the hook.
  7. If you think you spooked the Cobia, and no longer see it, it may have simply descended along the buoy chain, and will reappear in a few minutes if left alone.  This is also a good time to work a jig, or drift a live bluefish or croaker by that chain.
  8. A Florida guide I fished with told me the trick to Cobia on the fly is to “throw the biggest fly in your box at ’em”.  I tied up the biggest fly in my box just for that reason, and it worked.  Small flies might work too, but my experience says go big or go home.
  9. Flies that feature rabbit strips are especially loved.  Southern fly fishermen use Tarpon Bunnies to target them in the Broad River or off the Outer Banks, and there is something about that material’s action that makes it look particularly delicious to a Cobe.
  10. Use big rods.  10wt fly rods, medium-heavy or heavy action spinning rods.  I had a blast hooking and landing a 37″ fish on a medium action spinning rod, but the 35 minute battle was a bit much for me (and the fish).  Cobia will fight to the death.

A Cobia’s fight is unique.  It may sound multiple times, or it may let you bring it right to, and into, the boat, only to thrash around wildly when brought aboard “green”.  I had one fish leap from the water multiple times, much like Tarpon do.  They are everything you want from a big-game fish, and if you get the chance to fish the Bay in August and September, jump at the chance.

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