Nearly every variety of boat known to man bobbed on the river like apples in a tub of water at Junior's Halloween party. At 60 miles per hour, it was difficult to see anyone fighting a fish, but apparently lots of anglers knew this water was filled with cobias.
Cobias, also known as lemonfish, crab-eaters, ling, or Mr. White Lips, begin appearing in South Carolina waters during April, with a peak of action from May through early June. The majority of the fishing takes place off Beaufort County.
"The earliest cobia have been caught down here is April 3," said Capt. Mike Upchurch of Osprey Charters (www.carolina-fishing-charter.com or 843-908-2325), which operates out of Beaufort and Hilton Head. "Last year, the first one was caught about April 19 or 20.
"The fish are generally thick once the water temperature hits 65 degrees and is climbing. May is prime time."
Upchurch said that boats fishing offshore usually spy cobia first.
"The offshore guys see the fish first," he said. "The cobia are starting to migrate north from Florida waters, and many will end up summering off of Virginia. A lot of the time, they see pods of migrating cobia associated with leopard rays, which some people call bat rays. There'll be waves and waves of them offshore during the spring.
"Once we hear from the offshore guys that they have spotted cobia, we know it's time to get ready inshore. A big movement towards the inshore sounds and rivers seems to occur after the first full moon in May."
Cobias enjoy a worldwide distribution. High populations are found in the northern Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic Coast. The Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast stocks are regarded as separate populations for management purposes despite tagging studies indicating some interchange between the two populations.
Don Hammond, a recently retired marine biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, authored a report that demonstrated cobias migrating up the Atlantic Coast are spawning fish.
He reported cobias enter high-salinity inlets and sounds for spawning and larval cobias have been captured inside North Carolina inlets, a situation he said is probably occurring in South Carolina as well. He referenced a pair of cobias spawned unaided at DNR's Waddell Mariculture Facility within 12 hours of capture from Port Royal Sound during May 2001.
While some fish enter inshore waters where Upchurch targets them, offshore bottom fishermen often get a crack at cobias as well.
"Cobias seem to make an inshore-offshore and north-south migration like grouper," Capt. Mark Brown of Teaser2 (www.charlestonfishing.net or 843-881-9735) in Mount Pleasant. "I wouldn't say someone can go out and specifically target cobia on the bottom offshore, but they shouldn't be stunned when one bites, particularly in the spring when the fish are moving.
"We've caught as many as a dozen in a day. It's sporadic but not surprising."
Brown said he captured cobias in water 60-feet deep and as deep as 180 feet during the winter, a fact noted in Hammond's report.
While offshore anglers bumping the bottom or fishing at an artificial reef might get a surprise from a cobia at any point, the concentrated action for these fish takes place down at the Broad River and Port Royal Sound areas. About 80 to 85 percent of the fishing effort for cobias in South Carolina takes place there.
Cobias find this area of the South Carolina c coast so attractive because it's the only system with virtually no major freshwater input. Tagging research has revealed cobias have a high fidelity to the system. Hammond reported out of 85 fish tagged in Port Royal Sound and later recovered, 78 percent were recovered back there, with some as long as three years later.
"It's no secret where to fish for cobia in the Broad River," Upchurch said. "All you have to do is look for the boats. It'll be a parking lot."
Upchurch said the four main areas of the river where cobia fishing takes place are just below the Hwy. 170 bridge, the Parris Island Rip, about 8 to 9 miles below the bridge in the middle of the river, the Cobia Hole, which is slightly west of the Parris Island Rip in about 50 feet of water, and The Turtle, found off Daws Island between the rip and bridge.
"When the fish first arrive, there's not a lot of bait around yet," Upchurch said. "Threadfin herring arrive before the menhaden, and we normally jig them up with Sabiki rigs at the same areas where we would be fishing for cobia. We make sure we get a good live well full of them."
The two main techniques for cobias are either anchoring or sight casting.
"When I anchor up for cobia, I fish several baits at different depths," Upchurch said. "I'll put a bait on the bottom, maybe one in the mid depths and definitely one will be on top.
"The bottom setup is a Carolina rig or fish-finder rig outfitted with a No. 12/0 circle hook. The weight may range from 4 to 9 ounces, depending on the current."
Upchurch uses a float for the rig on top. The bait is hooked to a No. 7/0 or 8/0 octopus hook, which is floated below a Cajun Thunder or Blue Water Thunder.
"You can use a Cajun Thunder for this type of fishing but remember to take the swivels off and tie the leader and main line directly to the wire," Upchurch said. "I prefer the Blue Water Thunder because it's made with heavier wire."
Whether he's fishing on the surface or the bottom, Upchurch uses 30-pound braided line for his main line and a 5- to 6-foot length of 50-pound-monofilament line for the leader. He said sometimes, albeit rarely, he might bump up to 80-pound monofilament line for a leader but cautioned against it because the increased drag in the water negatively affects the action of the bait.
"My rods are medium-heavy action," Upchurch said. "You don't want a rod too heavy because you can get a cobia to the boat too quickly, and that's a bad thing.
"I once saw four Marines with a cooler full of beer have quite an experience. After about an hour of pounding beer, they hooked a cobia. This stud Marine immediately winched the cobia to the boat like a hero, and before I could get the words out of my mouth for them not to land it, they put it in the boat.
"The beer went flying and the cobia owned the boat. Those guys were standing on the gunwales to get away from that fish. They finally subdued it with a hammer."
Needless to say, be certain you have sufficiently tired a hooked cobia before gaffing, netting or landing it.
When Upchurch anchors for cobia, he puts out frozen chum. He normally sinks whatever kind of chum he can get that early in the season with a down-rigger ball and positions some out the back of the boat on the surface.
"Old salts will tell you that one hour around the slack tide is when the best bite occurs," Upchurch said. "Around the full and new moon tides, this is probably true because the current is pulling so hard and the baits are probably spinning, making them look unnatural.
"As long as the current isn't pulling too hard, you can expect a bite."
If you can't sit still for cobia, then sight casting is another technique.
"The conditions are going to determine your success when sight casting," Upchurch said. "There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these fish show up where they do.
"We don't see them in 6 feet of water, for example. Generally, they're more out in the main river, but you have to have good conditions to be able to see them and be prepared to cover a lot of water searching for them."
Ideal conditions consist of little wave action or wind and positioning the sun so there's no glare reflected into the anglers' eyes.
"When I'm sight fishing, I go with lighter spinning tackle," Upchurch said. "You want a rod that you can cast accurately. I still use 30-pound braided line and my terminal tackle will be the No. 7/0 or 8/0 octopus hook rigged on a 4-foot leader under a Blue Water Thunder.
"The bait that will produce as near as a 100-percent hookup as possible with this rig is a live eel. It's a harder bait to handle but it's deadly."
Upchurch recommended hooking the eel and suspending it in the live well until you see a surface-strolling cobia. If you give an eel too much slack line in the live well, it'll come out balled around the hook and line, which won't entice a cobia.
"The reason you want an accurate rod is you don't want to plop the bait down on the cobia's head. Don't crowd the fish, just put the bait out there in front where he'll see it.
"The float is not there to make noise. It keeps the eel from swimming to the bottom. The action of the eel fighting the cork is too much for a cobia to ignore. I promise."
Once the bait is out there, open the bale to free spool the line. Upchurch suggested letting the cobia take the bait for about 3 to 4 seconds before setting the hook.
"Cobia can get finicky on the surface," Upchurch said. "While they readily take the eel. you have to be ready with something else just in case.
"Other good baits are artificials, such as stick baits and bucktails. I use a 7-inch Yozuri silver minnow and bucktails with grubs. Good colors seem to be bright baits, like green-and-yellow, chartreuse or yellow-and-red.
"It doesn't hurt to have some blue crabs around as well. Once the menhaden show up a little bit later in the season, keep some of them on hand, too."
Although Upchurch recommended having additional baits ready while sight casting, he urged anglers that are anchored for cobia to stay armed as well.
"Pay attention to what's happening around you," he said. "If you're not alert, you could look down and all of sudden see a 50 pounder hovering right by your boat or near the chum bag.
"These are peculiar fish, and they'll show up at any time. So keep something rigged to cast to them when that moment happens, because it will happen."
Upchurch said any day a fisherman lands a cobia is a good day, and catching two or three fish should be considered great. He's had some days where he's caught as many as eight or nine fish during a 4-hour trip. He said last year there lot of small fish were evident, which resulted in multiple-catch trips.
Up the coast, anglers won't find cobias cruising or swimming up the rivers. Usually the fish hang out at inlet mouths, where anglers happen to see them incidentally while fishing for other species.
"Cobias are readily found near the buoys around the Charleston jetties," said Andy Pickett, a long-time Charleston angler who, with his two brothers, maintains the Charlestonfishing.com web site.
"Look in the shadows of the buoys and even under schools of fish, such as spadefish or stingrays," Pickett said. "When searching around structure for cobias, be aware of the tide and wind. It can push you quickly toward the fish and structure, which could be dangerous.
"Leave your motor running. It won't spook the fish, and you may need it to avoid a structure or to keep up with a hooked fish."
Pickett suggested tackle similar to what Upchurch used for sight casting. In addition to live eels, Pickett also mentioned live blue crabs. Research has revealed that crustaceans, such as blue crabs, make up a large part of a cobia's diet.
In addition to live bait, Pickett keeps cedar plugs, surgical tube baits and bucktails available. He said anglers could sweeten baits with pieces of shrimp or squid.
Cobia fishing can be frustrating but being well prepared for the fish's fickleness will put the odds in an angler's favor, resulting in one of the fiercest fights and best-tasting fish you'll ever catch.