The day began as a Spanish mackerel fishing trip. Donald Lane, captain of the Impulse, a 58-foot Carolina Custom sportfisherman, set out from the Morehead City municipal docks with rods rigged and ready with spoons and planers.
The goal was not catching limits of the big Spanish mackerel that boil around the Morehead City ocean waters during May for eating, but to catch some large baits for enticing big game fish for the upcoming Big Rock Blue Marlin tournament. Aboard was another charter boat captain, one of the area’s top shallow-water and nearshore guides. Capt. Dave Dietzler was about to expose one of the most closely-guarded secrets at the Carolina coast. Cobia by the dozens are swimming near Tar Heel inlets during the height of their run and it’s easier to catch them than most fishermen realize. “We want to see what the cobia action is all about,” Lane said. “We catch a few cobia by accident while we’re trolling for other fish. Dave said he can catch them by sight-casting, and we want to see if he can do it.” “Today’s an experiment,” Dietzler said. “Some of the captains around Cape Hatteras have been sight-casting to as many as 70 cobia a day during May. “If there’s fishing to rival that here at Cape Lookout, the technique is going to revolutionize sport fishing and tournament fishing for cobia for boat out of Morehead City.” Several cobia tournaments are held each May at Morehead City and at many other coastal towns. May is when the cobia arrive in swarms; they’re often seen following schools of rays. “I’ve seen cobia eat the big cow-nosed rays,” Dietzler said. “They roll them up like a tortilla and swallow them whole. “Sometimes you see them following behind or beneath the rays. But at other times, you see them just cruising along in open waters, going no particular direction without any baitfish or anything else that would interest them nearby. They might be in singles, pairs or small schools. “The cobia you see are top predators. Not much eats a full grown cobia, so they don’t have any fear of boats. In fact, they are sometimes attracted to boats and will follow along in the boat wake, checking out and striking trolled live baits or strip baits. They seem to like anything floating that casts a shadow.” The morning was spent trolling Clarkspoons in various holographic colors and finishes. The anglers dropped Spanish mackerel into a cavernous ice chest filled with water, ice, salt and embalming solution. Once enough marlin baits had been preserved for the upcoming tournament. Lane took the helm at the tower control console. Dietzler climbed over the front tower curtain and onto the boat’s “forehead” in front of the console. From the great height of over 12 feet above the water, he could see into the soul of the Atlantic where its piscatorial treasures are usually hidden from fishermen nearer to the surface. “It’s like looking down inside a perfect emerald,” he said. “It’s amazing the things you can see from up here.” Dietzler had rigged a medium-duty saltwater spinning outfit with a 7-inch soft-plastic fluke-style bait. The bait was threaded onto the hook of a 1-ounce triangular-shaped lead jig-head. For extra holding power against the whip-like snap of making a long cast into a headwind, the rush of the boat and the powerful “take” of a cobia, he cinched a plastic zip tie tightly around the front of the soft plastic lure, clamping it securely onto the hook. “During a hard cast, the soft bait will slide down the hook when you are using heavier jig heads,” he said. “But you need the heavy heads for distance and for taking the bait down deep and fast. “With a heavy lure, you cast to a cobia 10 feet or more below the surface. A boat this size is cruising at about 4 knots even at idle. So the lure has to sink fast to get to the fish before the boat goes by him.” Dietzler pointed with his rod top to direct Lane to navigate toward schools of rays sometimes numbering into the hundreds. It was amazing how they swam in tight formation. They formed phalanxes as tight as a tiled floor or checkerboard. Small schools of four rays formed perfect diamond shapes. Large schools formed diamonds of several rays wide up front, with other rays trailing behind, looking like a brick-paved road extending for hundreds of yards. “You’ve got to have polarized glasses to see the fish,” Dietzler said. “The ocean is like a mirror, reflecting the sunlight. Polarized glasses help you see what’s hiding in the shadows cast by the rays.” Suddenly, Dietzler took aim and shot a cast 30 yards over the starboard foredeck rail. A big splash and a dark shape wadding the water into a whirlpool showed a cobia had found the lure. But the strike was a miss. Dietzler reeled the line back to the boat and pendulum-flipped the lure aboard as it dangled from the rub rail. “That’s only the first one,” he said. “There should be a lot more.” Indeed there would be. But he only had to cast to three fish before one struck paydirt, and he was locked in battle with a brute of a cobia. Balancing on a boat’s “brow” is a dangerous undertaking for anyone without a captain’s years of standing on desks, turning rubbery landlubber legs to stout sea legs. But Dietzler’s tightly-muscled torso rocked in perfect rhythm to the rumblings of paired screws turned by 700-horsepower diesel motors, underpinned by piling-like legs. Then, agile as a leopard, he slid down the face of the boat on his heels to the foredeck to fight the fish, all the while keeping his rod bent, his drag tight as the fish took line by the dozens of yards. The fish took Dietzler for a walk counterclockwise around the bow, which was a good thing since it took some effort to stall the boat’s forward progress. “A 58-foot boat doesn’t stop and turn on a dime,” Lane said. “It’s not made for sight-fishing for fish like cobia, but for trolling. But I’m amazed at how many cobia we’ve been seeing.” Dietzler had hooked the cobia along the drop of the sand bar at the southern tip of Cape Lookout. Lane had his hands on the wheel and eyes on the depth-finder screen and on the water. The light tan color of the sand told him when the water was getting shallow, along with the numbers on his depth-finder screen. Along the drop, the green water showed safe water depths. But following along the contour showed the break was difficult because it wasn’t a straight line. The bar went in and out, rose and fell. Dietzler fought the fish for about 20 minutes before it gave up. He was using 30-pound superbraid line with a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader ahead of the lure. Several times the line chaffed against the rub rail and probably scraped the bottom of the hull during the fight. A lighter monofilament one would have been cut, letting the fish swim free. But eventually the cobia rolled at the surface. Dietzler played the exhausted fish around the side of the cabin toward the cockpit where Impulse mate Cameron Guthrie hauled it aboard with a gaff. “Amazing,” Guthrie said. “I’ve never fished for cobia by seeing them and casting to them. There really are a lot of cobia around — a lot more than you would think.” At Dietzler’s direction, Lane turned the bow of Impulse southwest, toward a tide line that was forming outside Beaufort Inlet on the falling tide. Dietzler made several more casts and had some strikes. But they were hits — and misses. “The important thing today is counting the fish,” Dietzler said. “We’ve counted 20 cobia in less than one hour. I knew they were here just like they are at Cape Hatteras. “This is going to be the way all the cobia tournaments are won from here on out. When you’re trolling or anchored up in one of the channels fishing for cobia with a live or dead bait, you don’t know what size fish you are going to hook. “Even playing a small cobia burns up a lot of fishing time. If it’s not a tournament winner, you just wasted all that time. “But when you can spot the fish before you cast to him, you don’t have to waste your time playing small fish. You pick out a big, potentially tournament-winning fish before you make a cast.” As Impulse cruised the tide line, cobia slid under the surface toward the boat from head on, from 90-degree angles and every other angle conceivable. They were swimming parallel to the boat, beneath the boat, toward the boat and away from the boat. They were deep and shallow. Cobia were everywhere. “Today we have perfect conditions for this type of fishing,” Dietzler said. “But it isn’t always this way. The fish are always here. But you need a clear day, an overhead sun and calm seas to see this many fish.” Dietzler suddenly shot another cast. This time, he fired the lure straight down to the surface hard, creating a small geyser of water at the entry point as if the lure had been a bullet. He let line free-spool to a fish that was at least 10 feet down. A tap on the line brought a hard hook-set from the angler. For an instant, it appeared the fish was hooked. But the lure came up empty. “That fish looked like it weighed 60 or 70 pounds,” Lane said with a shout. “If you had hooked that one, we’d have had a real fight on our hands.” During a couple of hours of cruising, the captains and crewmen spotted at least 30 cobia, enough fish to prove the experiment a success. During the 2005-06 winter, Dietzler built a custom cobia-fishing boat with a tower for spot-and-cast fishing. “I have a flat-bottom boat I made from an old Williscraft mold,” he said. “I built a tower on it and added controls so I could sight-fish for red drum, flounder and speckled trout. It runs in a couple of inches of water. I got the idea from the days when I fished on the big offshore boats. You can see everything from the tower of a marlin boat. “What I found by using a tower in shallow water was that red drum don’t move far. Once they quit biting, they may only move off a short distance. From a tower, you can spot them and stay on the fish. You can even see flounder from a tower.” While Dietzler seldom uses his tower for flats fishing these days, his luck aboard Impulse was good enough to make him try catching cobia from a smaller boat with a tower. He spent the winter of 2005-06 rigging a tower on a 23-foot boat specifically for catching cobia. “The cobia will arrive in May and stay outside the inlets, then move inshore to spawn,” he said. “The strongest run will last for about two to four weeks. “You’ll see the bigger females with one or two males following, and sometimes you’ll see schools of half-a-dozen fish. “Besides being able to cast to a specific fish when you can see it, you can also count on hooking up multiple fish. A hooked fish attracts other fish and sometimes an entire school will stick around to see what all the commotion is about. “The fish that aren’t hooked-up can be really aggressive. You can sometimes lob a big bucktail jig or soft plastic jig, and they’ll just inhale it.” Cobia are incredibly strong fish with lots of endurance. Their ability to wreck anything within range of their tails once they hit the deck of a cockpit is legendary. “You want to play the fish on a tight drag until he’s tired enough to bring aboard safely,” Dietzler said. “The best thing to do is gaff the fish, swing him over the rail and drop him straight into an open fish box. If he slips the gaff, he owns the boat until he wears himself out.”