Thirty-five miles south of Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico, we spotted a jack-up rig that seemed to be calling our names. As we approached it, we saw what we’d hoped — two cobia, a 40-pounder and a 10-pounder.
Dennis Meins, David Harris and Bo Hamilton of Biloxi scurried around the deck as Tim Reynolds of Ocean Springs positioned his boat to make a try for the fish. The veteran anglers spoke very few words as they prepared for a day of fishing for the big brown fish. They have fished together for 25 years, and know the job of each member of the team to ensure that they catch cobia.
The fishermen cast a live white trout. Although the bigger cobia came up and smelled it, it turned off. But instantly, the anglers cast out their lines baited with live eels, live shrimp and squid.
Hamilton picked up a large spinning rod with a big cobia jig attached to the end of the line, and started casting to the area where they’d spotted the cobia. High above our heads, workers on the rig pointed at the water.
“Those workers have better eyes than we do to spot cobia, and they can see from their vantage point on top of the rig to tell us where the cobia are holding,” Reynolds explained. “One disadvantage I have on my boat is that I don’t have a cobia tower. However, usually, if any workers are on the rigs out here in the Gulf, they’ll show us where the fish are.”
Then Reynolds moved the boat upcurrent of the cobia as the other anglers put out a variety of bait hors d’oeuvres.
Earlier that morning, after leaving the Isle of Capri Resort, we’d stopped at a live-bait fisherman’s boat. Harris and Hamilton investigated the baits the angler had available for sale.
“Almost any bait caught in a shrimp net will catch a cobia,” Harris said. “We use many different baits because most of these cobia we’re fishing for have come from south Florida up the Florida coast, passed by Destin and Orange Beach before finally swimming into Mississippi waters in May.
“In that process of swimming to Mississippi, these fish have encountered some of the finest cobia anglers anywhere. They’ve dodged jigs, live catfish and pinfish that anglers have cast to them throughout their entire journey. We try to present them with lots of various baits, hoping that there’s at least one bait they’ll take.”
Reynolds and his Cobia Machine, as the group is known, have a strict schedule. They generally fish a rig no more than 45 minutes, unless they start catching cobia there. If the cobia on the rig won’t bite, Reynolds and his team leave those fish and move to another rig where they hope to locate more-active cobia.
When they fish jack-up rigs, they may fish only 50 feet deep, but on this particular trip, we had to go out to the 200-foot-deep water to find the fish.
“Water color is the key to locating cobia,” Reynolds said. “If you can pinpoint pretty, greenish-blue water, you’ll generally find cobia.”
And find the cobia we did. On this trip, the six of us took eight cobia and released about the same number.
How to fight a cobia
As soon as Meins hooked the first cobia, Reynolds put his boat in gear to help Meins pull the fish away from the rig. But once the fish reached open water, Reynolds slowed the boat to a crawl, and Meins began to fight the cobia. I noticed that Meins didn’t put as much pressure on the rod and the fish as I’d seen most cobia fishermen do.
Once Reynolds determined the direction in which the cobia was running, he pointed his boat in that same direction and started to power the boat at about the same speed as the cobia. As Meins took in line, Reynolds moved the boat closer to the cobia.
“I always keep my boat pointed in the same direction as the fish is traveling,” Reynolds said. “We try to move the cobia closer to the boat as the fish is swimming. Also, we move the boat closer continuously to the fish. Actually we’re leading that cobia rather than pulling it to the side of the boat to keep from putting too much pressure on the fish’s jaw.”
Cobia fishermen often make the mistake of attempting to land the fish as fast as possible and fight the fish as hard as they can. By doing this, they put an extraordinary amount of pressure on their tackle and on the jaw of the cobia. Too much pressure on a hook will tear or wallow out a hole in the cobia’s mouth. Then the first time the fish gets some slack, the hook will fall out of the cobia’s mouth, and you’ll lose it.
“By keeping steady pressure on the hook and moving parallel to the cobia with the boat, we don’t excite the fish as much and cause it to fight as hard as the cobia generally will,” Reynolds said.
Like a cat stalking a mouse, Reynolds inched his boat near to the swimming cobia, while Meins used his rod tip to pull the fish closer to the boat. After the initial strike, Meins never fought the fish up and down, but instead kept steady pressure on it while pulling the fish closer to the boat.
Once the cobia reached the surface and swam close to the boat within range, Hamilton put the gaff on the opposite side of the cobia. With one strong sweeping motion, he gaffed the fish and brought it onboard.
“We’ve learned after years of fishing for cobia and fine-tuning our movements that the less you fight a cobia, the greater your odds are to get it in the boat,” Hamilton said.
A few minutes later when we caught an undersized cobia, Harris used a large dip net to land the fish and quickly unhook and release it.
“We like to catch cobia — all sizes of cobia,” Reynolds said. “However, we want to get the undersized fish in the boat and released quickly. So we use a long-handled, oversized dip net to bring the fish onboard, remove the hook and get it back in the water as quickly as possible.”
Chumming for cobia
Each time we pulled up to a rig, Jones, Harris, Meins and I cast out an abundance of live baits toward the stern. Also, Hamilton would go to the front of the boat and cast a cobia jig toward the rigs to try and jig up a cobia. When we came up to a single pipe, Hamilton would cast a jig up close to the pipe and let it fall about 50 feet. Then he’d pump and wind really hard and fast to entice the cobia to come up to the surface where the other fishermen could cast live bait to the fish.
Often, even if the cobia wouldn’t take the jig, it would follow it to the surface. Once the cobia arrived at the surface, then you could cast any live bait to it.
One time during the day, Hamilton jigged up a cobia. However, as soon as the fish came up to the surface, it went back down before the other members of the Cobia Machine could get baited up and cast to it. Hamilton threw the jig back to the same spot where he’d cast earlier. He made two quick pumps with his rod before the tip dove to kiss the surface of the water.
“I’ve got him,” Hamilton sang out.
Reynolds put the boat in reverse to pull the cobia away from the pipe. Hamilton didn’t rush the fish. He took his time, and when he finally could see the big cobia, he yelled, “Get some lines in the water; there’s another fish with him.”
“Most of the time if two or more cobia are holding on the same rig or pipe, the second cobia will come up to see what the first cobia is doing on the surface,” Reynolds said.
Harris had a live bait hooked up, and sent it out immediately when he spotted the second cobia. Reynolds held on to the first cobia to make sure the second fish would stay close by. When the second cobia hit the bait, and Harris had the fish hooked solid, Hamilton started bringing his fish to the boat.
With two fish hooked, Reynolds left his position at the wheel, and gaffed Hamilton’s fish. Then Hamilton took the gaff from Reynolds and brought Harris’ fish to the boat.
“If you’ve got experienced cobia anglers fishing with you, the person who hooks the first cobia on a rig won’t rush the fish to the boat, but instead will give the fish time to attract other cobia and bring them to the surface with it,” Reynolds said. “Instead of only catching one cobia, you usually can catch two and sometimes three off the same rig.”
That morning, before we had left Gorenflo’s Tackle Shop and Marina beside the Isle of Capri at Port Cadet, Reynolds ordered two boxes of frozen pogies. Since I knew we’d be fishing with live bait and cobia jigs, I asked why he’d bought the pogies.
“For insurance,” he answered with a big grin on his face.
At the next platform, we saw two big cobia holding just off the leg of one of the rigs, but as soon as we pitched our live bait, both fish dove for the bottom. This time, Hamilton’s jigging failed to bring up the cobia.
“Okay, Dennis, let’s start cutting up the pogies and chumming,” Reynolds suggested.
Meins quickly pulled out a cutting board and a fillet knife, and started cutting the previously frozen pogies into bite-size chunks. At the same time, Reynolds maneuvered the boat upcurrent of the rig. With the boat in position, Meins started throwing out hands full of chum, which drifted down and under the rig.
After 15 minutes, we spotted the cobia coming up near the surface to get the chum.
“Let’s let those cobia get close to the boat before we put out the live bait,” Reynolds directed his team.
As the cobia inched closer to the boat, Reynolds instructed, “Don’t cast to them; just pitch out your live bait, and let the bait sink at about the same rate as the chum’s sinking.”
This time, Meins tied into a big cobia on a large live shrimp that looked perfect for frying in a skillet. The cobia gobbled up the biggest shrimp that the bait boat had caught earlier that morning. Meins kept the fish hooked, hoping to pull the second cobia up close to the boat. But the second cobia apparently had seen this game before and chose not to play.
Meins’ cobia dove for the cover of the rig. However, by taking his time and working the fish like he had learned to do after many years of cobia fishing, Meins got the fish alongside. Then Harris gaffed it and brought it onboard.
Why you’ve got to go
The Mississippi Cobia Machine finds and catches cobia because they visit numbers of rigs each day they fish, and they have practiced their routine until the anglers’ responses and movements happen automatically.
“We’ll often hit 30 rigs or more in one day of fishing,” Reynolds said. “We’ve learned that the more rigs you visit in one day of fishing, the more cobia you’ll find, the more chances you’ll have to catch cobia and the more fish you can get in the boat.”
The Cobia Machine’s fishermen — all highly experienced and skilled cobia chasers — have fished together for so many years that they could likely leave shore before daylight, not return until after dark, never speak a word to each other and still catch plenty of cobia. Each man knows his job on the team, and every team member operates on instinct and a knowledge of each other that is poetry in motion.