As the Earth slides closer to the sun during spring, the waters warm and kick-starts fishing action. Anglers along the coast of both Carolinas look forward to the first few weeks of May, when nearshore waters fill up with energy rich pods of menhaden, knowing that these oily baitfish will be swarmed by toothy predators every step of the way in their travels.
While plenty of sharks and oversized bluefish will participate in the mayhem, the prized catch are the cobia that show up lurking in groups of one to three fish, a treat that invites a wide range of angling tactics to lure them into biting. They may be caught all summer, but that’s mostly around offshore wrecks and reefs; only during the spring run can they be caught as close as the breakers along the beach front.
Jason Burton of Fly Girl Fishing Charters in Murrells Inlet, S.C., looks forward to the annual spring run, which starts based on the timing of the incoming baitfish and water conditions.
“When large schools of menhaden start running the beach, we start to see the cobia, and they seem to all show up at one time; that makes it real exciting around here,” said Burton (843-421-2870). “It’s driven by water temperature, similar to when king mackerel show up. When the water temps rise to 67 to 68 degrees, we start seeing the cobia around the pods of menhaden.”
At Murrells Inlet, Burton typically expects cobia to show up between May 1 and May 15, coming from their offshore wintering grounds, moving to shore as they make their northern trek towards the Chesapeake Bay.
“When they are here in close, we find them anywhere from the beachfront out to 3 miles,” said Burton, who noted that they don’t travel in large schools like other pelagics, opting to be in small groups of even solitary. “A normal pairing is two to three fish of similar size — usually large adults — but many times we only see one fish surface at a bait pod.”
On a normal trip, Burton begin checking the bait pods closest to the inlet and works his way up or down the beach until he finds a cooperative fish. He’ll catch a net full of menhaden at the first pod and then motor to the next pod looking to fish, using a unique approach to draw the cobia to the surface.
“As we pull up to the pod of menhaden, I toss a handful of cut menhaden into the middle of the pod. Nine times out of 10, the cobia will come up to the bait, and then we pitch baits to them,” Burton said.
Traditionally, anglers will pitch and free-line live menhaden to cobia or along the margins of the menhaden pods, but artificial lures can shake up things and get a cobia’s attention very quickly. Cobia can be spooky, but they are typically intrigued by boats and lures offered with unorthodox presentations.
Based out of Minnesott Beach on North Carolina’s Neuse River, guide Dave Stewart of Knee Deep Custom Charters prioritizes the cobia run each spring. A bright, flashy soft-plastic lure the same size as the menhaden they are eating is just what the doctor ordered.
“The 5-inch D.O.A. swimbait is my go-to lure for cobia because it greatly replicates a menhaden,” said Stewart (252-249-1786). “I rig it on a ½-ounce D.O.A. premium jig head or a 7/0 VMC heavyweight hook.”
Cobia are swimming around the menhaden schools and can snag a mouthful of baits any time they wish. Anglers competing with 3,500 menhaden swimming in the pod, need something different to entice a strike.
Stewart will use brightly colored soft plastics that stand out, but to really turn some cobia heads, he loves a popping-cork rig — either one he uses for catching speckled trout in the marsh or a heavy duty version he uses to catch 50-pound red drum in the Pamlico Sound. From the noisy commotion on the surface to the slow fall of the soft plastic, every aspect of the popping-cork rig is a perfect setup for getting a spring to commit.
“D.O.A.’s Deadly Combo rigged with the 5-inch swimbait is killer. It’s a real head turner and is exactly what you need to give these fish something to come to,” he said.
D.O.A.’s Deadly Combo rig is a large popping cork with 24 inches of leader tied to a jig and soft plastic down below. Stewart uses the rig around menhaden schools in the Pamlico Sound during the summer to draw strikes from adult red drum, and it’s just as effective in the spring on cobia, with a few modifications. He recommends replacing the 24 inches of leader with 3 to 4 feet of 50-pound monofilament.
“The cork makes plenty of noise to get their attention, and then they can’t stand to see the bait slowly fall,” he said. “The additional leader length will give you just enough time to get the cobia to engage.”
The popping cork rigged with any type of large, soft bait the size of the menhaden will be deadly, but bright colors are important to add to the visual appeal. The success rate for anglers is often based on unorthodox methods, and they need to get creative to get these fish to take the bait.
Burton uses a wide selection of artificial lures from large, brightly colored paddletails and big curlytail grubs to topwater poppers.
“We have had them crush the topwater poppers, and the popping-cork rig should be the perfect storm by making noise and presenting them a bait right below,” Burton said. “Cobia love noisy lures, and they will come to noise most of the time.”
Even though the spring run concentrates cobia around the menhaden schools, it is not uncommon for them to visit man-made objects in the ocean, including floating sea buoys, channel markers and jetties. Cobia will also travel alongside sea turtles and large stingrays. When leaving the jetties in the mornings on a cobia excursion, hammering the perimeter of these objects with a popping-cork rig might be well worth the price of admission.
This technique will likely become a cobia staple in Carolina waters. By nature, the popping-cork rig is practically designed for cobia and will surely be a head turner.