Cobia on the Fly

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By Owen Plair

One thing I absolutely despise about the spring is pollen.

It seems like every time I wash the skiff, in just a matter of minutes it’s tainted by the yellow crap we call a sign of spring. There is one thing, and one thing only, that I do like about all the damn pollen. It means it’s only a matter of weeks before I start packing the 11 and 12 weights on the skiff for the big brown Cobia as they start to show up here in the Broad River.

I was born and raised on this river and have been fishing it since I was 3 years old. What makes this river special to me is, in addition to being an excellent fishery for Redfish, it hosts other species through out the year including Tarpon, Triple Tail, Sea Trout, Flounder, Jacks, Spanish, Blues, Lady’s, and very well known Cobia.

Around the last week of April, or when the water temperature hits around 68 degrees,  the Cobia start to move into the Broad River here in Beaufort, SC. What’s cool about these Cobia is, they come inshore 8-10 miles to spawn. Cobia are an offshore species and can be found on near-shore wrecks or off the beaches from Key West all the way up to the Chesapeake Bay.

IMG_5446_2Most places, you catch Cobia swimming under rays, jigging them up from the bottom, or cruising the surface looking for bait. Here, they offer some really great sight fishing on the fly and put up quite a fight, being between 10-80 lbs on average. They’re also a very popular species for the dinner table.

What makes our Broad River Cobia unique is that they are their own strain of Cobia. The fish that come inshore every year to spawn in the Broad have their own unique genetics, compared to all the other Cobia. This was discovered a few years ago by scientists from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. So, the Cobia we target on fly in the River are from a long line of fish that have been coming into this river to spawn for who knows how long.

I started Fly Fishing for these fish about 7 years ago and it’s still one of my favorite seasons to guide, because of how special it is targeting this offshore species so far inshore. When the water temperature hits around 68 degrees the Broad River turns into an vibrant estuary filled with various different bait fish, sea turtles, jelly balls, spanish, blues, in blueish/green water similar to the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s how you target Cobia sight fishing on fly?

Cobia are mostly bottom-dwelling fish that are feeding on Thread Fin Herring, Eels, Stingrays, and anything else they can find on the bottom. While these fish are inshore they come to the surface to bake in the sun for a while, to help metabolize their food and take some pressure off of there stomachs, which are compacted by all of their eggs during spawning. We look for the “Push” or dark brown silhouette in the clear blue/green water.

IMG_5389_2Targeting Cobia on fly is very similar to looking for low tide redfish. With calm water you are looking for a U-shaped push on top of the surface created by the Cobia as it’s cruising 6-24 inches underneath the surface. During rougher, choppy conditions, but still sunny, we switch the game up and start looking for the actual body of the fish. A darker silhouette in the water. This is not an easy fish to spot in a river that is over 2 miles wide and 10-12 miles long so you have to take it slow, and know what you’re looking for.

I stand on my poling platform with the boat idling around 5 mph, my client is on the bow with an 11-12wt in hand, and we are hunting for the fish just like on a flat for redfish. Looking outside the box is key and opening your eyes to everything surrounding you for something that looks different. Cobia are constantly coming to the surface in all directions which makes it so much fun.

IMG_5387_2The moment you spot a Cobia, your heart starts beating and natural instinct kicks in. I then step down from the platform and position the boat at the best angle for my client to make a good presentation to the fish. What makes it tricky is that the boat is moving, the fish is moving, and there’s current. You have to be a little ahead of the fish, so there is time for your fly to close the gap between you and the fish.

Most times we are either left or right of the fish but there are plenty of situations when we have fish coming straight at the bow. You want to place the fly between 2 and 6ft in front of the fish and strip fast as hell, making that baitfish pattern look like a thread fin herring or Greenie swimming close to the surface.

The great thing about sight fishing Cobia is that they are not a spooky fish and more curious than any other species I’ve ever targeted. They are not afraid of the boat or engine, which allows us to target them in 30-45ft of water. Sometimes fish will follow the fly 30-40ft before they eat it right next to the boat! I can’t tell you how many anglers I’ve had hook Cobia with the leader 4-5ft in the tip of the rod.

IMG_5394_2Of course with big fish we are using big rods, big reels, heavy leaders, and big flies. I like 11-12wt rods with floating Tarpon tapered lines because Cobia sound after the bite, and it’s easier to land a fish with heavy stuff when they are 20-30ft down bull dogging you. Nothing technical when it comes to leaders using a tapered 60-40-30lb fluorocarbon leader around 6-8ft long with a 60lb bite tippet. My favorite flies include the FlashTail Whistler, Sea Reducer, Black and Purple Plagesi, and pretty much any large, flashy, colorful baitfish pattern with a big 4/0-6/0 hook.

Cobia are one of my favorite species to target on fly, here in the Lowcountry of Beaufort, SC. It’s a special fishery and one of the most unique situations you’ll find in fly fishing. The months of May and June are fully booked every year with return clients, because you not only get to target Cobia but also Redfish and other species on fly in the same day. It’s a special fish, a special fishery, and a must for any fly fisherman here in the Southeast.

Tight Lines,

Owen Plair
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Cobia on the Fly

  1. Great article, Owen.

    I had the privilege to throw to one cobia with a fly. Fishing Homosassa, FL, for tarpon years ago with Phil Chapman, we were poling and looking for tarpon in about 4 feet of water when Phil spotted a ray cruising with a cobia as a wingman. Phil asked if I wanted to try for the cobia, and I did not hesitate with my answer. He told me where to cast (my tarpon fly) well in front of the cruising ray. He told me to wait and let the fly settle. As the ray was about to pass the fly’s location, Phil had me strip so it looked like prey stirred up by the ray. The cobia jumped on the fly and I got it in after a decent fight, on my 11 weight tarpon rod. That fish was a highlight of not only that trip but of my fly fishing experience overall. One chance, one cast, and one cobia thanks to a great guide.

    I would say you have a special fishery up there in Beaufort. Good for you.

  2. I just returned last week from Key West and caught many Cobia on the fly, while these we not sight fished, one hellofa fighter….one even broke a 15 weight TFO about 2″ from the butt handle. One tuff fish.

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