Cobia Train

Cobias usually are solitary fish but during May anglers can find more than one fish gathered at prime spots.

Anglers line up to punch their tickets to get aboard the lemonfish migration from Morehead to Oregon Inlet each May and June.

Memorial Day weekend is the peak period for cobias in North Carolina.

We get them a little earlier and a lot later, but Memorial Day catches dominate newspaper reports of big fish and lots of them.

Cobias will be taken from piers and bridges, from small boats, and by surf fishermen at the beaches. There are different hot spots and ways of fishing in the sound, off the beaches, and at the inlets.

The experts monitor water temperatures and weather, and have their own favorite ways at different parts of our coast. I talked to several guides, and they share a lot of information (proper season and temperature) but will fish for cobia differently, depending upon local conditions.

Tracy Campbell (, 252-725-4956) has been running charters for 17 years, including 13 years at Morehead City. He said the top season for cobia in this port city can be any time from late April through June.

What’s important is when temperatures warm enough and then, even more important, become steady.

“What matters is a constant water temperature of 70 to 71 degrees,” he said. “You’ll catch a few here and there when it’s cooler, but there won’t be a steady bite until the temperatures stabilize right in this range.

“If frequent cold fronts chill the surface water, cobia move away from the beach. When the weather settles and beaches stay moderately warm, the cobia action improves dramatically.”

Campbell favors bottom fishing for cobia inshore and inside. He’s not convinced that scouting outside surface structures or sight casting is efficient in the Morehead-Beaufort area.

“In other places, you can get cobia by site casting to cobia on the surface,” he said.

Morehead City

But that’s less effective in Morehead where ship traffic and a big population center result in turbid water conditions.

Campbell pays attention to prime tidal conditions, when the fish are most likely to hit. Most cobias are caught on an incoming tide,” he said, but he’s had good action an hour before to an hour after high tide.

Campbell’s biggest cobia so far, 93 pounds, was taken during an incoming tide. He prefers working holes at shallow inshore water and doesn’t fish buoys, walls or other structures.

“I’ll to anchor on a 6- to 10-foot depression with a good current running through it,” he said, favoring the deep side of a dropoff.

Campbell searches inside the sound for any steep dropoff located just outside the shallow ledge near shore, but the water must be moving.

“Cobias are associated more with a bottom and its current than with structure,” he said.

That’s why Campbell doesn’t fish the Turning Basin at Morehead (too deep) or the buoys marking the channels outside the inlets (not enough action).

He anchors at honey holes at the Corner at Shackleford Banks, at Middle Marsh near Harkers Island, just south of the Atlantic Beach bridge, and a few other spots written in his little book.

Cobias can be fished for at deep slots or holes in this area and along the walls inside the Turning Basin by using chunks of fish or fish heads. However, most catches included lots of bit rays and skates (and a couple of humongous, ultra-slimy conger eels). Usually there’s little success finding cobia this way

Campbell explained a hole without a current isn’t any good; all holes aren’t equal. Secondly, he uses only live baits, which attract fewer rays, skates and sharks because they don’t leach so much juice and odor.

“I’ll use live crabs, big live pinfish or croakers, or even a crippled shad that can’t swim fast,” he said.

Campbell hasn’t tried live eels, and doesn’t like cut or dead baits.

“Boston mackerel, in particular,” he said, “just attract sharks, so the cobia never get a chance to eat the bait.”

Beaufort/Harkers Island

Rick Caton sight casts at the Cape Lookout area, 57 miles south of Hatteras, working the railroad trestle, the bridge to Radio Island, and the buoys outside the inlets.

“There are loads of cobia there for sight casting,” he said.

The first time he was out there, he saw eight fish and caught four of them.

Other anglers sight cast the buoys outside the inlets, some years ago, cruising from one to buoy another until captains and anglers see a pod of fish.

Several years ago we cast a live eel with an egg sinker (or even a dead eel, which worked just as well) to the biggest fish in the pod. We got two fish for a photo shoot in about one-half hour, the bigger one in the 30-pound range, which is average for a female.


Mention cobia fishing to Raleigh Saltwater Sportfishing Club members, and they’ll say to go out with Rick Caton out of Hatteras (, 252-216-6765; 252-473-8432;

Caton, 45, has been chartering for 25 years. Previously he worked on shrimp boats, starting when he was 15, and assisted offshore boats during weekends.

So this kind of fishing is in his blood.

His boat is a 42-foot 1954 Harkers Island sportfisherman with a tower for sight casting, and a humongous 5x2x2 livewell that holds large numbers of big baitfish or small numbers of cobia or other fish that can be released and replaced later by bigger fish.

“There’s a limit of two cobia, 33 inches and longer, per person,” he said.

Caton is a sight caster, specializing in red drum during September and cobia during May and June. If the stars don’t line up, there’s always bottom fishing, but nobody goes home without a happy fat cooler.

Today, he thinks there too many fishermen use inadequate tackle, as he sees lots of rays with bucktails in their skin and cobia with bucktails in their mouths. You need strong tackle to horse a cobia to the boat, because they don’t want to go and you can’t make them without a winch.

He likes a 7 ½-foot Ugly Stik with a Penn 850 or Penn Slammer, loaded with 80-pound Power Pro line. His biggest cobia so far was a 96-pounder.

“We got 38 cobia one June 15, and would have gotten 45 or 50,’“ he said, “if one of the guys hadn’t been using 20-pound test on light tackle. He took over an hour to bring in an 89-pounder that he could have muscled in sooner with heavier gear.”

He noted the 113-pound state record cobia was taken at Hatteras.

Caton favors a 2-ounce bucktail jig with a white or chartreuse 8-inch tail. He also keeps at least one rod rigged with a live bait in his big livewell he stocks with bluefish spot, croaker, menhaden, eels, or (mostly) pinfish. With a live bait, he puts 2 feet of 80-pound monofilament leader above the hook.

“June is the best month,” he said, “when the water is 65 to 72 degrees and holding steady.

“At 63 degrees, they just don’t bite good.”

The season at Hatteras, he said, extends from mid May to the end of July.

About the first of June, the “big shove” passes through Hatteras, pack after pack of 15 or 20 fish going by for several days. Those packs are scattered within streaks a mile or two long and maybe 9 miles wide. When the packs have passed, he said, “most people quit, but the fish are still here.”

If the packs have passed and the fish need to be located, he’ll usually start looking up and down the beach on the back (ocean side) of the outer sand bar in about 10 feet of water, but ranges anywhere from the beach to 30 miles out, wherever the right temperature meets clear water.

When he finds a tide line or temperature break or other fishes, that’s where he’s likely to find more cobia. But most of the time he fishes along the beaches, and only occasionally inside Hatteras Inlet.

“At the bars on the beaches,” he said, “they’re eating calico crabs, but offshore they could be eating anything.”

Cobias often orient near tide lines (“any streak of grass”), sea turtles, rays, skates, or even ocean sunfish.

Caton gaffs the big cobias for the ice box, but nets the smaller ones and leaves them in the live well for possible release later. (He lip gaffs striped bass.)

Oregon Inlet

Cobia fishing is different farther north, said Devin Cage of the charter boat Poacher out of Oregon Inlet (, 252-473-6108).

He takes most of his cobia by sight casting with jigs near the beaches.

“The best time to get them is late May, with the season starting anywhere from about May 15 through June 10, depending on water temperatures,” he said. “They show up earlier at Hatteras and even farther south, again because of temperature.”

In May water temperatures can suddenly jump from a low of 55 to as high as 65 or 68 degrees, he said, “but when the cold fronts taper off and the water steadies to a warm 68 to 70 degrees, they’ll move to the north in a big wave and arrive all at once.”

In May and June, with temperatures steady in the 68 to 70 range, Cage spends most of his time working from the beach to maybe 40 or 50 feet of water, some 2 or 3 miles offshore.

He looks for concentrations of menhaden, Spanish mackerel, bluefish or even small baitfish because he’s likely to find small groups of cobia nearby. He approaches slowly and quietly to a range where he can throw them a 2-ounce bucktail armed with a strong hook.

He likes white bucktails, but different skippers have preferences for white, yellow or chartreuse. He sometimes casts live bluefish, croaker, or eels.

“I’ll typically have three separate outfits rigged with different live baits swimming in the livewell,” he said.

He likes working close to the beach along the “reef” or “ledge” just outside the outer sand bar.

“They eat crabs here,” he said, “and this area offers the most exciting fishing when the temperature is warm and stays that way. For sight casting, you need clear water, so sometimes it’s warm enough but too murky to see anything near the beach.”

That’s when he’ll move offshore.

Chilling water from a cold blow can drive the fish out to offshore waters, and then they’re harder to find. That’s when he looks for a temperature change, a color change, a rip, a tide line of grass, or a concentration of bait or bigger fish.

“It’s not that cobia are necessarily eating those fish or that bait,” he said, “It’s just that they seem to associate with other fish, for whatever reason, and that’s where we catch them.”

Cage had some advice for guys with their own boats. The biggest mistake he sees is people trying to get right up on the fish before casting. They need to start casting sooner and from further away.

“Don’t approach too closely,” he said, as you never know if they’re skittish and likely to spook when they see the boat.

“Make that first cast from as far as you can before they see you. And if you’re using a jig, work it back very, very slow, as a cobia won’t exert itself.”

He’s also seen guys make the baits rush and stop, rush and stop. But cobias aren’t impressed by that and don’t like to break a sweat.

If anglers want to excite them, put the bait right in their mouths and leave it there, or move it at drift speed. Cage’s boat has a tower, providing a great advantage for sight casting.

For the guy with limited visibility (no tower) who casts hopeful that a cobia might be near a bait concentration or a tide line, he suggested throwing live baits like a croaker, spot or eel, which provides the right attractive action even when fishing blind.

Walt Spruill, who fishes out of Oregon Inlet, primarily fishes blue water for tunas and billfishes but said he’ll be searching for cobia on the way outside this month, sight casting to them with bucktail jigs.

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