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Beach Cobia!

Beach Cobia!

This was something I've wanted to do for more than a decade - hook and land a cobia from the beach (as opposed to the pier or a boat). It's a relatively rare and difficult accomplishment, and even harder to do deliberately by sight fishing, rather than as a bycatch of set-lining. It seemed like most of the migrating fish we've seen this year were staying close to the beach, on the first sand bar. Once we realized this year's pattern, I knew it was my chance to put in the effort to finally attempt to sight fish one from the beach.

I walked more than 11 miles of deserted coastline owned by the military, through sand and water to get this fish. In the late morning I saw a free swimming 40 pounder about 25 yards off the shore. I put a perfect shot on it, and it immediately turned after my jig, chasing it across the sandy bottom in the crystal clear water for 10 yards before finally inhaling it. I set the hook a half dozen times as the fish shook its head, trying to spit the jig. It ran 15 yards offshore, would shake its head, run another 15 yards and repeat. It ran into the deeper trough between the emerald sandbars for a couple minutes before I began pulling it back onto the first sandbar. I was gaining line fast until it stopped once more to shake its head violently, about 40 yards from the shoreline. To my horror, I felt the line go slack and saw the jig pull from the fish's mouth as it sensed freedom, darted for deeper water and disappeared.

I was crushed. My legs and arms had been shaking from adrenaline and excitement moments before, in the throes of one of the highest of highs. Now I felt as if I might cry. More than a decade of dreaming and wishful thinking, seized, and then lost just as quickly. That was my one chance, and I'd missed it. There wouldn't be another chance as far as I was concerned.

The desire to call it quits for the day and turn in was strong, but I decided to keep walking and see if I couldn't turn things around some other way. After many more miles of walking I had caught 4 nice Pompano, 2 slot Reds, and a couple Bull Reds as well. A fun and successful day by most standards.

Late afternoon was in full swing, and I was making my way back to the nearest parking lot with almost nine, sandy, wet miles under my feet. I felt something crawling up the front of my shin, and was about to blindly swat it away when I glanced down instead out of curiosity. It was a ladybug. Ladybugs landing on you, and Dragonflies landing on the tip of your fishing rod are good omens to the superstitious fisherman, of which I am one. I reached down to scoop it up and relocated it to my shoulder. "Now I'm going to catch one," I said out loud, half jokingly, but with more desire than irony.

Fifteen minutes later I'd forgotten the ladybug on my shoulder and had moved further west down the beach when I saw a massive dark spot heading my way about 15 yards off the shore, in the shallows. I stopped for a moment to focus on the shape, and after a few seconds, two large wingtips broke the surface of the shallow water. It was a huge, black Manta Ray, about eight to ten feet across. My heart began to pound again.

Cobia are notorious for following larger creatures than themselves, or even schools of different species of fish than themselves. They'll stay under or around large sharks, Manta Rays, bottom rays, turtles, sunfish, whale sharks, and various other schools of fish. They're the most comically confused fish you'll ever find.

"There has to be one on this ray," I thought as I dropped my pack and extra rods and began running towards the Manta. As I drew parallel with it from the shore, I immediately noticed a 15 to 20 pound cobia swimming faithfully off the back of the Manta's short tail. This was it...The situation seemed straightforward, but it wasn't. That fish was going to stick by that Manta no matter what. I had to present the jig to the Cobia without spooking the ray offshore with a careless splash or touch of the line, or even worse... accidentally snagging it. None of this is as easy as it seems when the fish is practically hugging the ray, with a very narrow field of vision. I could throw behind it, but it would have to be close enough for it to sense the jig, and that might startle him, thus making him more finicky to bite. Six times I threw past or to the side of the ray. Six times the fish was unable to see or sense the jig. I could feel my anxiety rising. It was right there! But the situation was still so delicate and complicated. I needed something to give before the ray spooked or turned offshore. I threw 20 feet directly in front of the Manta and let my jig sink to the bottom. I dropped my rod tip in an attempt to get my line to sink lower as well, lest it catch on the Manta's horns or brush its wings. As the Manta passed over the jig, I began to twitch it out from beneath it. Just as planned, the small Cobia caught sight of it from the corner of its eye - a small eel making a getaway in the sand from beneath his companion!

The fish broke from the ray and darted after the jig, smashing into the sandy bottom as it attempted to engulf it. I felt the line get heavy and catch mid twitch, and I set the hook only to feel that tightness immediately go slack. A choke, I realized with panicked dismay! The fish turned off and darted back to the ray. "Oh no you don't!" I said defiantly as I ran back parallel to the ray.

Repeating my previous strategy, I threw for the eighth time. The cobia saw the jig darting out from beneath the ray and charged it again. This time I connected, setting the hook hard, a good eight to ten times. He ran back to the Manta, but just as he got there I pulled him off it. He shook and shook and made a couple more short runs, but he was over matched by my tackle, which was geared to handle much larger Cobia. In two minutes I had the fish beat, and was dragging him onto the sand with the assistance of the small wave break. I rushed forward and got a hand under his gills before the receding wave pulled him back in... and it was over. I'd finally done it... except for lugging him another two miles back to my vehicle.

And that's my story of superstition and the adventure of catching a Cobia from the beach. The moral of the story if there is - Be nice to ladybugs, my friends...back to my vehicle.

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