Skipping annual cobia lecture for lesson on this curious fish

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netApril 24, 2013 

This is how it feels around here lately: like some old war movie in which soldiers are waiting on an attack because they know the enemy has them surrounded. The only difference being that the enemy is no enemy at all, but rather big brown fish that look like a cross between a giant catfish and a shark. As for the soldiers waiting for the attack? Those are anglers busy putting new line on their reels and making sure their hooks are sharp.

Yep, I'm talking cobia, and one thing is for certain: They are on their way here, and if past years are any indication, they will be coming in mass.

Though I haven't heard of any being caught yet, my fish sense tells me they are close. Migrating up from the South, their internal clocks are guiding them here for one reason and one reason alone and that is to spawn. Much like salmon, cobia return to the place they were born to spawn. For example, cobia that were conceived in Port Royal Sound will return as adults to spawn there, just as cobia that were born in some North Carolina sound will return there to do their thing. Thanks to genetic research this theory is no longer a bone of contention but fact.

For those of you who don't fish or who have never seen a cobia, I guess it might help to tell you a bit about them. As I mentioned earlier, these chocolate-colored fish look like a cross between a catfish and a shark, with the males almost always being significantly smaller than the females. Often called "crab eaters," cobia are primarily bottom feeders, and if the contents of their stomachs are an indicator, they have a thing for calico crabs.

To me at least, the neatest thing about cobia is their personality. How

can a fish have a personality? Believe me when I say cobia have more personality than many people I know. They are inquisitive, almost to a fault. I can't tell you how many times a cobia has come to within an arm's length of the boat just to have a look around. Once I even hand fed a cobia that swam up to the boat. Cobia also love to hang alongside other ocean giants like sharks, stingrays and manta rays. Even after being captured for spawning purposes and put into tanks like the ones at the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton, they act more like a puppy dog than a fish. I have walked into the room where these cobia are kept and just about every single time they come up to the surface and look at me. It's eerie how domesticated they become.

I had every intention of going into my yearly tirade in which I beg that we take it easy on these awesome fish but past experiences has taught me that all I seem to do is create controversy. Yes, the limit for cobia is two fish per person per day. Yes, you can keep the big ones -- even though they are almost always females full of eggs. But maybe if I change my approach by describing how special these fish are, it will trigger more of you to start releasing fish so the generations to come will have the same opportunities we have come to expect year after year.

If I had to choose one area, in particular, that needs a "conscience" it would have to be Port Royal Sound. I know that many of you don't have boats that are big enough to fish offshore, so when it comes to cobia fishing, Port Royal Sound is about the only place you can go.

Thankfully, the Port Royal cobia "group" has been designated a "game fish status," meaning that any cobia caught there cannot be sold. That's a start, but that one change is not enough.

Al Stokes and his crew at the Waddell Mariculture Center have worked with the National Marine Fisheries, and through capturing Port Royal cobia and breeding them, thousands of small cobia have been released back into the sound. From genetic sampling of fish caught there last year, nearly 50 percent of the fish sampled were Waddell fish. After talking to Al, I found out that this year's plan is to have a tournament so they can live capture a half dozen of Port Royal's male and female cobia. If things go according to plan, they will then raise and release thousands of cobia to further enhance this unique fishery.

I guess I can't go without a smidgen of begging. The best way I can accomplish this is by telling you what cobia fishing in Port Royal Sound used to be like. On just about any given day during the cobia run, it was nothing to catch between 10 and 20 cobia. Due to the explosion in popularity of cobia fishing, you are lucky nowadays if you get one or two fish in a day. But if, and this is only an "if," each of you released any large Port Royal females this year and only this year, each one of those girls could release as many as half a million eggs. All I ask is you just think about that statistic and what it would mean for that one fishery. Instead of just food for the table, let's try a bit of food for thought.

God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.

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