Area's unique cobia migration needs protection

March 21, 2011 

If you are a cobia fisherman and have read the paper lately then you already know about the meeting that was held last week to discuss changing the regulations on how many cobia fishermen can keep. Basically, the upshot of that meeting was that cobia aren't in trouble -- so, chances are, regulations will not be changed in the immediate future.

First, I must confess that over the years I have whacked a whole lot of cobia. The funny part of my long relationship with cobia is that until about 10 years ago nobody paid much attention to these fish. Oh, we saw them all the time, but they weren't targeted like they are nowadays.

My dad and I would try for cobia maybe once a year. Using live eels as bait, we would ride up to the buoys in either the Port Royal or Savannah ship channels and look for cobia hanging in the shadow of buoys. Cobia love structure, so we would move from buoy to buoy until we finally found a fish. Catching one was as simple as pitching an eel in front of it. A curious fish, cobia will often swim right up to the boat and simply sit there like they are coming over to say hello.

Looking somewhat like a mix between a shark and a giant catfish, a cobia is chocolate brown in color and can weigh more than 100 pounds. Strong as an ox, a big cobia can bring you to your knees. Even when boated, they can demolish a cockpit as they thrash around. More than once, I have been slapped into submission by their powerful tails. One time I got slapped in the chest by a big cobia, and the bruise it left was in the exact shape of its tail. The bruise didn't go away until a month later.

Another "brownie" fact is almost without fail, the large cobia are females.

So what's the big deal?

Simply put, a migration phenomenon occurs in Port Royal Sound each and every May that occurs only in Port Royal Sound. There is no other place on the East Coast, West Coast, the Gulf of Mexico or, for that matter, the entire planet where this spectacular event happens like it does right here.

This is a very big deal.

As I mentioned earlier, it was around 10 years ago when cobia fishing became the thing to do. Even then, there were only a handful of boats that regularly fished for the many cobia that migrated into Port Royal Sound. But then the word got out and techniques were refined, along with new and improved methods of catching these bruisers, and this quickly quadrupled the number of boats regularly fishing for cobia.

For example, only six years ago I could go to Port Royal Sound for a half-day trip and catch 20 or more cobia with ease, many of which were between 50 to 80 pounds. And you know what? Every single one of those big girls was absolutely chock-full of eggs, which should have given me a clue as to why they were there in such numbers.

Then it happened.

My memory isn't what it used to be, but I am guessing it was around five years ago that the number of boats fishing for cobia in Port Royal Sound literally exploded. On any given day during the peak of the cobia migration, you will see what looks like a city of boats lined up from the mouth of Port Royal Sound all the way to the Broad River Bridge.

It is a gauntlet of thousands upon thousands of baited hooks that these fish must pass by or, better put, pass up if they are to finish their epic journey and make it back out to sea.

Even with a limit of two fish per person, per day -- each having to be a minimum of 33 inches long -- I have seen the number of cobia that return to Port Royal Sound plummet in the past three years. I don't want to blame anyone because we all are guilty of killing the big females. However, I feel so sorry for our Port Royal cobia that I have not fished there in the past two years.

I could write a book about this subject. Next week, I'll continue pleading for mercy for Port Royal cobia and tell you about what some folks are doing voluntarily to make sure they don't destroy this very special, and unique, migration of cobia into Port Royal Sound.

In parting, I will say this: One male cobia is a whole lot of meat, so think about that the next time you have one of these fish in the box and pull up a big female -- because she is the future.

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