The vast majority of cobias spend the winter enjoying the warm, clear waters down in the Florida Keys. Guess they like it there! Who wouldn't?

In the spring, however, their urge to spawn sends many of them on a westerly trek along the Gulf of Mexico's northern shores. Lucky for us in Mississippi, this annual run of cobia - a.k.a lemonfish, ling, crab-eater, cobe, brown ones, crab-cruncher, and lemon -makes its way just outside many of our barrier islands: Petit Bois Island, Horn Island, East Ship Island, West Ship Island, Cat Island, and along the Chandeleur Islands to our south in Louisiana waters.

The run usually gets cranked up about mid-April, with the heaviest concentration of fish passing through during the first two weeks of May. Of course, not all of the fish will pass near shore, because many will concentrate around oil rigs and wrecks in much deeper water. Some anglers opt to anchor up on the barrier islands' outer bars and chum up the fish, while others prefer to run the oil rigs and sight cast.

No matter which method you employ, when one or more big brown-hued cobia suddenly appear behind the boat, you're quick to get the adrenaline rush of cobia fever. Although most fish run in the 20- to 50-pound range, good numbers of fish weighing 60 to 90 pounds ore more are brought to the docks. Pound-for-pound, a big cobia is a tough customer with a reputation for wreaking havoc on a cockpit cluttered with rods and tackle boxes.

The spring run of cobia draws a lot of attention to the coast, and major fishing tournaments like the Gorenflo's Annual Cobia Tournament held in Biloxi draws anglers from afar to compete in the 4-day event.

The following is a number of tips, tactics, and to-the-point facts from some of Mississippi's leading charter boat captains who know how to catch cobia. Although some methods vary from captain to captain, both of these well-seasoned anglers catch their share of the big brown fish.

Simpson on springtime

Capt. Scott Simpson of Impulsive Charters LLC has been a full-time charter boat captain for the past 12 years, and he spends a lot of time fishing for cobia around the westernmost range of their migration route. He likes it that way because on this end of the migration route, the fishing pressure is far less than around the legendary bars off the west end of Horn Island and the north end of the Chandeleur Islands.

"Areas like the big bar running southerly off the west end of Horn island, the north end of Chandeleur Island, and the tips off the bars in Dog Keys Pass located between the west end of Horn Island and the east end of East Ship Island are great areas to chum up cobia, but they get a lot of fishing pressure and boat congestion. However, what many people don't know is that there are many areas off Cat Island that attract cobia too," Simpson said.

"In May, I catch a number of fish while chumming off the north end of Cat Island, as well as the south end of Cat Island along the bar running from Goose Point extending southward to the Phoenix Spit Light. The beauty of fishing Cat Island is that it's merely seven miles off the mainland, a quick and easy run to the fishing grounds.

"Besides cobia, chumming these waters will likely lead to runs from sharks, bull redfish, and some stingrays that may weigh well over 100-pounds", he said.

"One of my favorite baits for cobia is a live mullet 5 to 8-inches long, but live catfish, croaker, ground mullet, eel, or white trout are excellent baits as well. As for the catfish, be sure to break off their barbs before depositing them in the live well; this way they will be easier and safer to handle when placing on a hook.

"When chumming, I like to cover the entire water spectrum from the surface to the bottom," Simpson said. "To do so, I'll put out a balloon rig at the surface, free line some baits around mid-depth, and soak some baits on the bottom using Carolina-rigs."

Simpson suggested staggering baits different distances behind the boat and setting the rod of the closest baits in the rod holders closest to the stern. Although they aren't cheap, live eels are a delicacy to hungry cobia, but they can be hard to handle. Simpson suggests using a dip net to retrieve them from the live well, and a damp towel dipped in a bucket of sand to create a gritty mechanism to handle the slimy and wiggly creatures.

"To rig for cobia, I'll tie a 100-pound-test SPRO swivel to main line, then tie on no more that 3 feet of 60- to 100-pound test fluorocarbon leader material and finish off the rig with an 8/0 circle hook. To fish an eel I prefer to go with an 8/0 live bait short-shank hook. At times, I'll eliminate the swivel and connect the main line and fluorocarbon leader with a blood knot. This way, novice anglers can't reel the swivel up to far and damage the rod's eye," he said.

"When anchoring up on bars, concentrate on 6 to 10-feet of water. For me, it seems that 8 feet is the magic, key depth that produces the best. Also, keep a short anchor line rigged up with a float on the tag end for this shallow water fishing. This way, if a big fish is hooked up and is spooling the reel, all you have to do is untie the anchor line and toss it over. Now you can run down the fish and come back to the anchor float after the fish has been landed."

When chumming for cobia, Simpson recommends using a Chum Churn filled with pogies, ready-to-go Killer Bee Bait Chum Bags, and kick it up a notch by adding an IV-type drip filled with pogie oil. He added that you can make your own effective chum blocks by freezing a mixture of cat food, pogie oil and baitfish like squid, shrimp, and crabs, with a bit of sand. Place in a chum bag hung over the side of the boat, and as it thaws, the tantalizing mixture will create a nice slick well behind the boat. He also recommended beating the bag periodically with a fish bat to break down the bigger pieces.

Simpson prefers fishing with heavy spinning outfits like Penn 7500 and 9500 reels mounted on matching 7-foot Penn rods. He suggests rods with a limber tip and a strong backbone, say medium to medium-heavy action in a 20- to 40-pound line class. He also recommends Penn 320 GTI reels, and he likes to spool most of his reels to the hilt with 30-pound-test monofilament.

"Historically it seems that the old Biloxi radio talk was that of the 10 o'clock morning bite and the 3 o'clock afternoon bite, times when it seemed that most cobia bites occurred," Simpson said. "Also, be sure to maintain a steady chum slick by beating and shaking that chum bag, and it wouldn't hurt doing some pre-scouting on the bars, especially since these shallows are constantly shifting. And while you're chumming, it's smart to fish some small baits on the bottom just in case some fresh baits like catfish or ground mullet can be added to the live well.

"Cobia can be found lingering around many of the channel markers too, and starting from the first two sets of channel markers just north of the west end of West Ship Island running out to the south, it's possible to locate good fish. And the tall range tower located approximately 2 miles east of the north end of Cat Island will hold fish too. Chumming for cobia often requires a lot of patience, so stay busy keeping that slick going strong, and pass the time telling fish stories until a fish appears."

Steve West: Islands

With more than 28 years of guiding experience out of Biloxi, it's safe to say that Capt. Steve West of the charter boat Mr. Champ is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable light tackle professionals in the Magnolia State. He has some time-tested tactics for catching barrier-island cobia during the spring migration.

"Traditionally, some of the best areas to chum for cobia are the Horn Island bar running southerly off the isle's west end, the outer beach off Horn Island down where the trees begin, and the bar off the north end of Chandeleur Islands," West said. "You can catch fish in 6 to 10 feet of water; however, I usually prefer to fish in 8 to 9 feet of water.

"Chumming is essential for luring fish to the baits, and I like to employ a Chum Churn chum bag, and it doesn't hurt to use pogie oil in an IV drip bag.

"Usually, I'll load the Chum Churn up with whole pogies, and I will often load up the chum bag with carcasses of small inshore fish I've previously caught. Shrimp boat by-catch is excellent chum, too, but it can be hard to acquire, especially early in the season. A number of anglers will save the refuse left over from a crab, shrimp or crawfish boil and will add the shells and such to their chum bag.

"For bait, a live mullet is hard to beat, but live white trout or hardhead catfish are great baits too. Of course, when I'm fishing the inshore reefs, I'll save all the pinfish and croakers for live bait as well. And it's wise to acquire live eels if you can get them, but I don't fish them until I lay eyes on a fish."

West believes in keeping the tackle light so anglers can enjoy the fight, and thus recommends fishing with 30-pound-class outfits that have a large line capacity of around 350 yards. He likes large Penn SSI spinning reels, Penn 320 GTI's, and Penn 4/0 reels loaded to the hilt on matching 7-foot rods, and since bar fishing is usually over a smooth sand bottom, the lighter lines and large line capacity reels are ideal.

"When chumming the bars, I like to fish four lines behind the boat at different lengths and depths," West said. "I like to fish one balloon rig way behind the boat and another half that distance off the stern. Two baits are fished on the bottom on Carolina rigs: one right under the chum bag with the other out a bit farther on the opposite side of the boat. On the Carolina rig, I'll use a one to 3-ounce egg sinker, 3 to 4-feet of 80-pound test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader material, and a 7/0 or 8/0 Gamakatsu Live Bait Hook."

West said that he keeps a "shotgun rig" at the ready, usually a large spinning outfit rigged with a 3½-ounce jig dressed in either bucktail or feathers. He recommends sweetening the jig with a piece of bait like a squid head or squid body for extra, alluring scent, and he likes to keep his live eels ready on a shotgun rig, too. He likes a tide with some movement, with his favorite time being right at the end of a rising tide when it starts to fall.

"Since (Hurricane Katrina), there have been numerous changes to the bars around the barrier islands, with many anglers having to come up with a new playbook for locating bar-cruising fish. The big bar off Horn Island's west end hasn't changed that much, however, the bar off the north end of Chandeleur is now one gigantic 3-mile long flat. No matter what the migration is going to happen, but it will be our job to figure out where and when the fish will appear."

Final thoughts

There are times when a uncooperative cobia lurking around the boat may be enticed into taking a bait by thrashing your rod tip wildly in the water. Also, there are times when a handful of small bits of chum can be tossed to the fish, getting it into a feeding mode. That's the time to toss a baited hook in with the chum. Take note: When boating a big cobia, make sure you have an extremely strong gaff, and as previously mentioned, make sure the deck is clear of any gear that a cobia's powerful tail may smash and scatter.

A fish billy club is an essential tool; it will take a swift and precise blow between a cobia's eyes to put the wildly thrashing fish to rest. The end-game using the gaff and billy club is as critical as hooking and fighting of the fish itself, so be sure to respect the power of the cobia, Mississippi's only official game fish.