the Coby (Rachycentron canadum) is the largest food fish commonly caught on the pier. Also called ling and lemon tree on the pier. These fish are capable of reaching over 100 pounds and 6 feet in length. With long, thick bodies with brown coloring over them except for their creamy white bellies, they have a broad, bony head with a large mouth that has rough patches of small teeth.
Most of their fins are soft-rayed except for 8 sharp spines where the dorsal fin is normally found on other fish. These thorns can be bent or elongated and can cut you easily, so be careful. These fish are incredibly strong and because of this and their willingness to hit jigs, they are incredibly popular to target. While the main race starts around the end of March until mid-May, they can be found hanging around the pier well into the fall.
A strange thing about these fish is that although they are the only species of their genus and family, their closest relative is the humble remora sucker shark. Considered by many to be a nuisance and trash fish, the remora is similar in coloration to young cobia and is often mistaken for them when in the water.
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You need a large, strong spinning reel to target the cobia, something capable of holding 25lb monofilament line or 60lb braid. I use a Penn 706z and a Daiwa Catalina 5000 when fishing Cobia, but anything in that size range will work. Van Staal Spinning Reels, Shimano Saragosas and Penn Spinfishers are all very popular choices on the pier. Due to the long distance casting that might be required, I recommend a rod that is at least 8 feet long. The rod should be able to easily and accurately cast a 2-4 oz cobia jig. Many local tackle shops have cobia rods made by local rod makers, these are a great choice to start pier fishing.
For terminal hardware, you need a cobia jig or two. These are flashy jigs usually 2-4oz available in a variety of colors and materials. They also come in many different head varieties, with people swearing by their favorite jig head pattern. This should be attached to an 80 lb fluorocarbon leader, probably 18 inches in length. Although they aren’t very timid, fluorocarbon is a little tougher than mono and holds up better to rough teeth during a fight.
Cobia fishing from the pier is almost 100% sight fishing. You scan the water to the east, looking as far away as possible for a brown shape swimming on the beach towards you. You must call “First Shot” at every beach pier on the Emerald Coast except Navarre. This tells everyone cobia fishing on the pier that you have the first cast on the fish. If you don’t follow the “First Shot” rule on the pier and throw someone else’s fish, expect a fight. And if you hook the fish, don’t expect help landing the fish.
So to aim the jig so it lands in front of the fish, if you drop the jig directly on its head it will lock. Then work the jig close to the surface of the water through the path of the cobia. If he’s hungry, he’ll usually inhale the jigger. Sometimes you will see the fish rolling belly over a jig. Then place the hook and fight it to the pier. They don’t run that much, but scuffle and thrash when hooked.
Once the fight is over, and it’s near the pier, someone should hopefully have a cobia gaff or landing net ready. Listen to them and work with them to land the fish. If they say point the rod in that direction or move in a certain direction, listen to them. Once it’s on the gaff or in the net, open your bail in case the cobia falls off the teeth of the gaff.
The other way the cobia is caught on the pier is on a down rod on the west side of the pier. Sometimes the cobia travel along the deep bottom where they cannot be seen, then once they have reached the jetty, they move up and down the jetty eating crabs and fish. So you set a heavy combo with an eel or crab living down below right next to the pier, and just hope a cobia comes by and eats it.
They are excellent to eat with firm white flesh that cooks very well. They do well in sushi/sashimi, fried, charred, baked or grilled. Mild flavor except for the lineage which accepts the seasoning you use very well. Decent fat content in meat and breaks down into very large flakes. The density somewhat resembles that of salmon. A legal keeper sized cobia will still have plenty of meat on the frame after being filleted. So please don’t throw it away, fry the bones. Grill the necks, use the head for broth, or even grill the head.
The cobia is the fish most appreciated in the spring by the regulars of the quays. There’s a lot of bragging rights and money involved in catching a pier cobia. Month-long tournaments for cobia with cash prizes and equipment are held throughout the Gulf Coast. Docks usually give out a free year pass to whoever catches the first cobia on them. There are traders who catch cobia to sell. They are under incredible pressure. To the point where the cobia’s spring run is a far cry from what it used to be.
These fish come up the coast to reach their spawning grounds, and many don’t, at least not along the gulf coast. The golden age of cobia fishing is behind us. If you ask any of the regulars who caught cobia in the 90s and early 2000s, they’d say the same thing. You would see wads of cobia running around the beach, a bunch of 30-50 pound fish following a 90-100 pound fish. You could ignore a 50 pound fish because you knew a big girl was there. You would never dream of doing that these days.
NOAA says the stock is in good condition, but first-hand experience on the Emerald Coast shows otherwise. Something has to be done about these fish and it has to be soon. I know it’s hypocritical of me to say that after killing two cobia this spring. But a moratorium might be the best option at this point. It is an incredibly fast growing fish, which only needs a few years to get back on its feet.
So if you are considering cobia fishing, just please know to limit your kill. We want these monsters around for a long time so future generations will know what it’s like to see that brown log of fish swimming across the sandbar and screaming “FIRST BLOW” loudly.