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Fishing Report for the Florida Panhandle

Capt. Alex Crawford
July 27, 2004
Carrabelle - Saltwater Fishing Report

SUMMER LING FLING

The pursuit of hard-fighting, great eating cobia is a summer passion for many obsessed anglers. On the Gulf coast, cobia swim during summer months in the bays and passes and around offshore reefs, rigs and wrecks. You have a legitimate shot at a triple digit fish and fifty pounders are not uncommon. In fact, the Florida state record of 103 pounds stands for now, but is in jeopardy.

HUNT THE BEACHES

On the Panhandle coast of Florida cobia spawn in spring and early summer. Having spent the winter in south Florida, the fish run along the beaches of northwest Florida from March through May. Legions of cobia hunters chase these spring run fish looking for their personal best. But in summer targeting cobia is a more predictable pattern. They are famous for hanging around navigation buoys, sunken wrecks, training towers, artificial and natural reefs and, at times, your boat. Singular fish or small pods frequently show up out of nowhere on the surface around an anchored fishing boat.

Like many other species in the Gulf, cobia go by different names in different areas. You may have heard them referred to as ling, crab eater or lemonfish. Whatever you chose to call them, call them loads of fun to catch and first class on the dinner table.

SMOOTH DRAGS

At first glance cobia look like sharks with their elongated bodies and brown and white coloration. It is always a good idea to have an outfit rigged and ready to cast to a target of opportunity fish near the boat. A thirty pound spinner is ideal to make that perfect cast in front of a cruising fish. Tie at least a 50 pound fluorocarbon leader with a heavy 6/0 hook. Hardtails and pinfish are difficult for a curious cobia to turn down. These brawlers are built for speed and endurance. The first run is always a scorcher, so smooth drags are a necessity. Shimano Spheros 14000 spinning reels are a great choice with their silky drags and large line capacity. Large cobia will go deep and torque your rotator cuffs. A good quality fighting belt will give you an advantage from the pumping and winding pain.

Any cobia story would be incomplete without mentioning what happens when an angler gaffs a big cobia that is green, i.e. still hot and energetic. I will refrain from sharing the anecdotal stories of broken tackle and lacerated body parts. My best advice is to fight the fish until he is played out and get the fish from the gaff to the box at the speed of greased lightening. Out of control, green cobia on the deck of your boat can be borderline suicidal behavior for all occupants.

In shallow water along Gulf beaches it is common to see cobia swimming under large rays. Always be ready to cast a cobia jig or live bait when the opportunity arises. Offshore you may see cobia under big sea turtles. Why cobia exhibit this strange behavior is unknown, however most folks believe the fish have learned that the host, i.e. ray, will provide an easy meal by stirring up a crab off the bottom. If you make a cast to a cobia in shallow water along the beach, always aim ahead and slightly offshore. If the fish spooks, he will seek safety offshore and may eat your offering.

BE AN EARLY RISER

Another technique that may put chargrilled cobia steaks on your dinner table is fishing rigs early in the morning. Off the Florida Panhandle coast we have five Air Force training towers that make ideal habitat for big cobia. If you are committed to the pursuit of giant cobia, get out of bed early and be the first boat on your favorite rig. Drop the biggest, healthiest pinfish in your baitwell down on the up current side of the rig. Let it sink and hold on. You may be rewarded with a giant cobe. Always try to use the boat to pull the fish away from the submerged structure to prevent cut-offs. It is not easy to do this as one of my customers learned just last week. She hooked up a nice cobe and fought it to the surface, when the resident five foot barracuda came up out of the depths and bit her cobia in half. It looked like the cobia had been run through a table saw, a perfectly clean cut. Later that day, she hooked up a monster nurse shark and forgot about her cobia.

TROLL A REEF

Many cobia are taken on live, natural reefs. Successful techniques for fishing reefs will include trolling and drift fishing. Trolling live baits slowly over coral bottom is a killer technique. Hardtails can be pulled on flat lines on the surface or on downriggers at different depths. The key is to go slowly, so your baits swim naturally. On the strike keep the boat in gear, as this may produce a second hookup. Remember, cobia swim in pairs and small pods. Stay with fluorocarbon leader material for cobia. Let the king and Spanish mackerel have a few hooks. Cobia will shy off a wire leader.

When you get a hookup, immediately punch the numbers into your GPS. Return to the general area and drift fish live baits. A bonus fish may be there. Cobia are famous for staying around their hooked buddy. If you are the ultimate prepared opportunist angler, you can catch the second fish.

BAITS OF CHOICE

Every region of the Gulf coast has its own favorite lures, rigs and baits for cobia. And anglers are convinced that their offering is the best. That is a good thing, because, if you have total confidence in your offering, you will fish harder with more patience and catch more fish because you are committed. In my small part of the big pond we have ďgo toĒ baits of choice. Some will argue that there is nothing better than a lively eel to catch large cobia. Some tackle shops stock these slimy critters. Other dedicated, professional cobia men will swear by frisky live baits, like pogies, pinfish and hardtails. The artificial boys will always have big cobia jigs on board. Jigs in the 3-6 ounce range in white, orange or chartreuse produce their share of fish. Long casts are often necessary and jigs will out fish baits at times. If I had only one choice, it would be a big blue runner (hardtail). These baits stay alive in the baitwell and on the hook as well as any other live bait fish.

When anchored and fishing a wreck, it is a good idea to send at least one flat line out behind the boat in the current. Since wrecks hold summer cobia, you may chum or chunk bait them up to the surface flat line baits. A live cigar minnow is an excellent cobia bait on a flat line. Just gimbal a thirty pound outfit into a stern rod holder and keep an eye on it. You will know when a cobia eats your flat line bait. The rod will jerk into the water and your drag will go off like a sky rocket. Gaff the exhausted fish at the boat with a short, decisive shoulder shot. Go right to the box and close the lid quickly. Then, it is high fives and celebrating all around.

Donít worry about your flat line baits being stolen by other non-target species. Itís just in the game. It is common on wrecks for spade fish, gray triggerfish, mangrove snappers, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and mahi mahi to respond to your chum. If you are patient and persevere, Mr. Cobe will come to play and you will be ready.

Cobia have a very flavorful, unique taste. They are really unlike any other fish in taste. They lend themselves to traditional recipes for broiling, frying, baking etc. Many gourmet chefs prepare cobia steaks on a charcoal grill. Favorite ingredients for grilling will include the basics, butter, garlic or dill and lemon. To steak a cobia for the grill you will need a sharp, meat clever. The backbone is thick and a clever will cut it. Fillet knives will not. Cleaning and steaking is easy. Just cut off the head and tail, eviscerate the fish and steak it in inch and a half pieces. Also, cobia steaks freeze well. Celebrate your catch with good friends and memories that last a lifetime.

Captain Alex Crawford is a full-time guide and freelance outdoor writer based in Apalachicola, FL. He may be reached by calling (850) 653-1325, through his website at www.topknots.com or email captainalex@topknots.com.

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Captain Alex Crawford is a full time guide who has fished the Florida Panhandle offshore for 26 years. He specializes in grouper and snapper trips with light tackle on live bait. Custom trips for companies with multiple boats will be arranged. Inshore trips targeting specific species and custom eco trips are available for birding, gator watching, shelling, picnics and barrier islands. Contact Captain Alex for a fun and productive trip on Florida's Forgotten Coast.

Contact Info:

Topknots Charters
P. O. Box 1029
Carrabelle, FL 32322
Phone: 850-697-8946
Alt. Phone: same
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