One of the most-anticipated events for fisherman in the Lowcountry is the annual spring cobia migration. Cobia start to show up in mid-April and hang around through most of June. May is undoubtedly the most-productive month; Hilton Head Island is literally surrounded by cobia in the Calibogue Sound to the west and the Port Royal Sound and Broad River to the north and east.

Of those waters, the Calibogue Sound receives the least attention from anglers.

"Cobia fishing is often overlooked in the Calibogue Sound, but I can assure you there is a great fishery for cobia," said Capt. Brian Vaughn of Hilton Head. "As long as there is a broad entrance to the ocean like the Calibogue has and a good influx of baitfish, there should be plenty of cobia migrating in - just like they do in the Port Royal Sound and Broad River."

Anchoring and chumming are the most productive ways to take Calibogue Sound cobia. Vaughn likes set up where sandbars and riplines form, especially at the entrance to the sound. For him, it's all about how cobia relate to bait.

"Cobia tend to ambush prey as it comes over the shallow sandbars, and they also like to hang on ledges in channels where depth can range from shallow to deep quickly," Vaughn said.

Fishing drop-offs for big fish in 10 to 25 feet of water with strong current requires reasonably stout gear. Vaughn uses both conventional and spinning gear. His rods are 7-foot, medium-heavy, and rated for 15- to 30-pound monofilament. He prefers reels that can hold at least 175 yards of 40 to 50-pound braid. The business end features a Carolina rig with an egg sinker heavy enough to hold bottom in tidal current, five to six feet of a 60- to 80-pound mono leader and a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook.

"Circle hooks work great with live bait hooked through the eyes or lips," Vaughn said.

Cobia are a pelagic fish and are found throughout the water column, which is why chumming is such a popular technique. A good chum slick can draw cobia right to the boat. When anchored up, Vaughn also rigs a few rods with popping corks and a few feet of leader for fishing in the chum line closer to the surface.

During slack periods of the tide, high or low, cobia will cruise the surface; on calm days, their wakes are often visible. The Calibogue Sound serves as a portion of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway, so heavy boat traffic often makes targeting cobia cruising the surface more difficult than in the Broad River or Port Royal Sound, but it's not impossible.

Sight-fishing is best attempted when the wind calms and cobia become visible targets, according to Capt. Owen Plair of Beaufort.

"Glass-calm water is the ideal condition when sight-casting to cobia and usually is best after 10 a.m. when the sun gets up a little higher... it allows us to see the cobia cruising from a (greater) distance, anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away," he said.

According to Plair, the thing he primarily looks is a distinctive 'V' wake. It resembles the wakes made by mullet or other small fish pushing on the surface, but on a larger scale.

"It takes some experience to really see them from a (great) distance," he said. "There are a lot of crab-pot buoys, rips and sticks that can make a similar motion in the water, so the ability to see the difference between those and cobia is key."

The best way to see cobia cruising is not to concentrate on small areas but instead search out vast stretches and wait until something looks out of the ordinary. Anglers who have the ability to relax their eyes and open their vision are the most successful at finding cobia cruising on the surface.

Once a cobia is spotted, the next step is to position the boat in such a way that a lure, fly or bait can be most-easily presented. For the best-possible presentation, it's important to try and match the speed of the fish and run parallel to it.

Spotting a cobia is exciting, and over-eagerness causes many anglers to approach too aggressively, causing the fish to sound.

"I try to get to the fish as quick as possible without putting up a big wake with the boat," Plair said. "so I slow down when I get 30 to 50 yards from the fish, approach at idle to within about 30 feet and set up for a cast."

Plair's set-up for live bait is the same as Vaughn's for fishing on the surface.

"Casting the popping cork in front of a cruising fish is the surest way to hook up, because it allows the bait to swim freely in the path of the fish," he said.

Like Vaughn, Plair not only uses bait, he also targets cruising cobia with flies - nothing like the ones used in saltwater, but flies as big as many saltwater hard baits in hook sizes up to 3/0 or larger. Rods are 10- to 12-weights rigged with floating fly lines, 9-foot leaders, and a 40- to 60-pound shock tippet. The presentation is the same as with live bait, but once the fly is in front othe fish, it is stripped back to the boat. Often, a cobia will hit the fly right away, but sometimes they will follow it all the way back to the boat without eating.

"In this case, I like to leave the fly in the water and do a figure eight with the tip almost touching the water and try to entice the fish to bight," Vaughn said.

No matter how they are targeted, it's a sure thing that fishermen love targeting cobia. Plair and Vaughn agree that cobia is one of the best-tasting fish in South Carolina waters. This is no doubt part of the appeal, but there is more to it than that.

"They are excellent fighting fish and can be caught in a number of different ways and techniques," Vaughn said. "They can be five pounds or 50 pounds or more, and you never know if you are going to catch lots of numbers or even a new state record."

Plair has introduced many anglers to sight-fishing for cobia, and it's always a treat.

"Watching a big cobia open up and swallow your bait is not omething many people get to see, and when a guest does it on my boat for the first time, their knees are always shaking in excitement over the whole event," he said. "Big fish mean big fun."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - The Cross Island boat landing on the Cross Island Parkway off SC 278 and the C.C. Haigh Jr. landing off SC 278 on Pinkney Island are good choices for accessing the Calibogue Sound. Landings on the May or Colleton rivers are options for fishermen who don't mind a longer boat ride. Cobia first arrive inshore in April and hang around until mid-June. Many fishermen believe that really show up in good numbers on the full moons in April and May, and those are prime times to target them.

TACKLE AND BAIT - Seven-foot, medium-heavy outfits are standard for cobia. Reels should hold at least 175 yards of 40- to 60-pound braid. For bottom-fishing, use Carolina rigs with 3- to 5-ounce barrel weights, a few feet of 50- to 80-pound mono or fluorocarbon leaders and a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook. When fishing closer to the surface, all that is needed is a cork with a couple of feet of the same leader and hook. For fly-fishing, use 9-foot, 10- to 12-weight rods with floating fly lines and at least 200 yards of 30-pound backing on a disk-drag reel, 9-foot, 30-pound leaders, 50- to 80-pound shock tippets and big flies up to 6/0. Cobia will eat any live bait and even dead bait. Greenies and menhaden are local favorites, and many area tackle shops will carry live eels during cobia season. The bait needs to have a large profile; think six inches or longer. Whiting, spot, crabs,and anything else that will fit in a cobia's mouth will work. Big saltwater plugs, jigs and soft plastics get the job done for those who prefer throwing artificials to cruising cobia. Popular cobia flies are 6-inch Deceivers, Flash tail Whistlers, and black and purple EP baitfish imitations. With lures and flies dark colors perform best in low light and light colors are best on bright days.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Brian Vaughn, Off The Hook Charters, Hilton head Island, 843-298-4376, www.offthehookcharters.com; Capt. Owen Plair, Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250, http://www.baystreetoutfitters.com/; Capt. Mike Sackman, No Worries Charters, Port Royal, 843-476-1044, http://www.noworriescharters.net/; Southern Drawl Outfitters, Bluffton, 843-705-6010.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Hilton Head Visitor and Convention Bureau, 800-523-3373, http://www.hiltonheadisland.org/; Beaufort Visitor Bureau, 800-638-3525, http://www.beaufortsc.org/.

MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, http://www.captainsegullcharts.com/; top Spot waterproof map N233, showing details on many of the local shallow water spots, is available from local tackle shops.