Here we go again.
The first few cobia have been caught, and I am already seeing charter captains and cobia freaks drooling over the prospects of landing a big fat brownie. If you are wondering if I am one of those cobia freaks, I guess the answer would be a tentative "yes." Why tentative? I guess it's because I have a soft spot in my heart for them. Unlike other fish -- such as a redfish, which are just a fish -- cobia are more like pet dogs. They have personalities; they're inquisitive; and when captured and put in a tank, they actually seem to interact with their keepers.
Believe it or not, when I was growing up here not many of us targeted cobia. On the few occasions we did go after them, it was a hit-and-miss affair. The bait of choice back then was a slippery, slimy eel. We didn't anchor and fish for them like we do today, instead we would "hop the buoys."
Cobia are known for their attraction to objects floating in the water, so we would either head for the buoys leading out of Port Royal Sound or those in the Savannah River Channel and look for cobia. It was actually a lot of fun fishing this way. We would slowly creep up on a buoy looking for a big, brown shape and when we would see one, an eel was pitched a few feet in front of the fish. But, as is often the case, with these picky fish, there were never any guarantees he would eat. I can't tell you how many times a cobia would ease out from the shadow of the buoy, nudge the eel and then swim right back from where he came. Another trick cobia would often pull was even more frustrating: They would swim up to the eel, look it over carefully, maybe nudge it once or twice, shun it and then swim out and sit right under the stern of the boat, less than an arm's length away.
I can't tell you how many times these rascals have done this to me.
Nowadays, instead of a handful of boats fishing for cobia, that number is now in the hundreds and growing every year. These great fish are being absolutely hammered. On any given day during the cobia season, which typically runs from April through May, as many as 50 boats are anchored side by side in every conceivable spot in Port Royal Sound, waiting on their chance to catch these fish. To say it's a gauntlet is an understatement. It is more like a floating city of boats of every size and description. With a two fish per person per day limit, imagine if every boat out there has three anglers aboard and all those hundreds of boats catch their limit, that adds up to one heck of pile of cobia -- and that is during one day only.
The sad part of this tale is these fish are here in such great numbers for a reason and that is to breed. I know what some of you are thinking right now, there is no proof. Then why are all the big cobia females? And why are their insides packed tight with eggs? Call me what you will, but this one little fact sure points to the breeding theory in my little pea brain.
So why do I care when I have personally caught hundreds of cobia over the years? That answer is easy, the Lowcountry is no longer the sleepy little community that it once was. The days of a handful of boats fishing for these fish are over and with more and more boats going after cobia every year, there is absolutely no way these fish can stand the pressure that is being put on them.
Last year should have been a wakeup call -- especially when it comes to Port Royal Sound -- because the number of fish landed there was a fraction of the catches made in previous years. My theory is this: The cobia that migrate into Port Royal Sound are from a specific group that have migrated to this location for a long, long time. If you kill off too many of the egg bearing females in this group, then where is the next generation going to come from? Two fish per person per day in Port Royal Sound is nuts. We are talking about a limited area of water, so why not change the limit there to two fish per boat per day? Believe me when I say that two cobia yields enough meat to feed a small army.
All I am trying to say is cobia are so special and so much fun to catch. Why chance destroying such a precious resource? Did the changes in the redfish regulations hurt you any? The answer is "no," and to prove it, there are more redfish now than I can ever remember. This was a perfect example of why each of us needs to rethink the way we are treating our cobia. If you have two fish in the boat and have another one ready to gaff, think hard before you kill that fish. If we, the anglers, don't change, I can pretty much guarantee big brother is going to step in. "Oh, that will never happen!" you say? Then tell me this: When was the last time you were able to keep a red snapper?
Or a grouper?
Or a black sea bass?
Or a ...
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.