Rescuing the cobia — in Lowcountry, nationally
If you have been keeping up with this column for any period of time, you know there is one fish in particular that I have a soft spot for.
Need a hint?
Alright, it is super social almost to a fault, and likes to come up and take a peek at the boat you are on, almost like some of the super friendly dolphins we have around here that pop up next to the boat.
Still not sure?
Here is hint number two. They show up in mass during the month of May, look somewhat like a cross between a brown shark and a giant catfish, and love to hang tight to large sharks, manta rays or, for that matter, any big sea creature.
Oh, come on, I’m describing a cobia, or as many call them “brownies.”
For many years, Port Royal Sound was called the “Cobia Capital of the East Coast” — until around the late 1980’s when these often-overlooked gamefish became THE fish to catch.
Techniques for catching them improved and extremely liberal catch limits caused a crash of that fishery in Port Royal Sound.
Just in the nick of time, DNA research revealed that the cobia that came into Port Royal Sound were special. The fish there were from a very specific group returning year after year to Port Royal Sound to spawn.
It was then that the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton began capturing males and females from this specific DNA group, breed them at their facility on the Colleton River, and from that, release tens of thousands of juvenile cobia in hopes of replenishing the decimated cobia stocks in the sound.
Hang in there, almost done with this history lesson.
To enhance the chances that our Port Royal fish will rebound, legislation was passed two or three years ago closing the sound and nearby state waters to harvesting cobia during the month of May, when they come here to spawn.
As I tend to do, when a cause arises that touches me deeply, I dive in head-first no matter how controversial it may be. I’ll blame my folks for this tendency, but no matter how much grief I get from opposing opinions, I just keep on trucking.
This soft spot of mine has kept me from taking a cobia for nearly four years now. I have caught a bunch but just when I think “maybe just one,” I remove the hook and release it.
Until this past week, I haven’t targeted cobia for that length of time. But not sure of the status of brownies in both state and federal waters, I decided to see for myself on three separate trips.
Two were with George Norton, a resident of Haig Point on Daufuskie Island whom I guide regularly, and one with Al Stokes and Will “Catfish” Thompson fishing alongside Waddell’s biologist, Jason Broach, trying to catch a “true” Port Royal Sound female to use as a brood fish at Waddell.
Intending to head offshore on my first trip with George, high winds and seas put a kibosh on our plan. Instead we went to Port Royal Sound, knowing that all cobia had to be released.
I will tell you that for three years, George has been great about “catch and release,” but every year asked me if he could keep just one cobia. I agreed that this year would be his year — but only one — to which he agreed.
Anyway, we caught and released five cobia that day in Port Royal Sound — great sign that cobia stocks were coming back. On our second trip, we were able to get offshore. For three hours, I chummed and chummed and every so often a huge hammerhead shark would come up right behind the boat.
Cobia love to hang with big sharks but each time it showed up, I never saw one cobia.
Just when I was about to give up, a rod bent double. George had his hands full and I knew it was a big fish. For nearly 20 minutes, that cobia gave him the “what for” and that big hammerhead stayed with the cobia the entire fight. For some reason hammerheads and big tiger sharks never try to eat hooked cobia and we were able to land his “one” cobia.
It was a monster and we immediately reeled in the other lines and headed in. Personally, I don’t think George could have reeled in another fish after that. He was totally spent.
The next morning, I was out again, this time with Al Stokes and Will Thompson in Port Royal Sound. Fishing side-by-side with Waddell’s Jason Broach and a large tank on his boat for transporting live cobia, we tried for a large Port Royal female to join the males already at Waddell. In all, we caught six between us, but they were all males.
With the season about to end, another trip is planned.
I will say this. It seems cobia in the sound are coming back, but until they do make a comeback, establish your own boat limits, no matter where you fish. One or two, not the six now permissible by law, is all the fish you need. With that, populations may just stabilize. It’s your call.