When the dogwoods bloom, not only do the crappie begin biting, but cobia move from Florida and start inhabiting the Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches, wrecks, reefs and rigs.

The great sport of cobia fishing enables anglers to have delicious fish for the table during the spring, summer and possibly throughout the entire year.

What do you really know about cobia other than the locations of their spring and summer migration routes? We've talked with two of the nation's leading experts to learn more about these brown fish.

 

Cobia and Canada geese

Do you know what cobia and Canada geese have in common? Based on recent findings by Read Hendon and Jim Franks, fisheries biologists for the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, we know that both cobia and Canada geese migrate each year. However, just like some flocks of Canada geese don't migrate, some schools of cobia stay put.

Hendon's and Franks' research has added new facts to our understanding of cobia and has dispelled some long-held myths. Since 1988, this team has led a tagging program that has resulted in the tagging of 16,000 cobia, and they've discovered some surprising facts.

"We've learned that there's a group of cobia that overwinters on the Upper Gulf Coast and apparently doesn't migrate," Hendon said. "We've had a few recaptures of cobia during the winter months in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Catching cobia in the winter months on the Upper Gulf Coast is rare. We believe this overwintering may be a function of two different elements.

"We don't know yet the size of this population of cobia that's overwintering, but our best guess is that it's probably a small number. This assumption may be skewed by the fact that not many anglers fish for cobia during the winter months. When the reef fish seasons are closed, and this section of the Gulf Coast experiences winter storms, very few people are going offshore to fish for cobia.

"We've had reports from spear fishermen and helldiver groups who report seeing cobia around the deep-water rigs between 150- and 200-feet deep, suggesting that this is the depth the cobia prefer during the winter months."

Several years ago, Franks and his team went out in January to one of the deep-water rigs.

"We caught four cobia within an hour or two, fishing about 150-feet deep with dead bait," he said. "I was quite shocked that we caught these cobia. They weighed about 30 to 40 pounds each, and were in good condition.

"Another factor that may be preventing fishermen from catching cobia during the winter months is when anglers drop baits down that deep, more than likely they'll catch amberjack before their baits reach the places where the cobia are holding. Many fishermen haven't discovered Mississippi's wintertime cobia fishery."

Two winters ago, when guides from Louisiana had a hard time catching tuna out on the Midnight Lump, they went searching for other fish for their winter customers to catch. They moved east of the Mississippi River, started fishing around the deep-water rigs and began catching cobia.

Herndon and Franks haven't developed yet a plan that will provide the information they need to determine how many cobia overwinter on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

But they do know that all migrating cobia don't stop at the tip of Florida for a winter vacation. Also, not all the cobia come from or return to the waters off South Florida.

"From our tagging program, we've discovered that the cobia may travel much farther than we've previously thought," Hendon says. "A cobia tagged at the Farewell Buoy in Biloxi was recaptured off Hatteras, N.C. That particular cobia had to swim from Biloxi all the way around the tip of Florida and up the East Coast.

"We've seen quite a few recaptures of cobia tagged along the Upper Gulf Coast and the Biloxi area on the East Coast. But this particular cobia went farther up the East Coast than any other tagged cobia to date."

Not all fishes or animals follow the same routines each year. The more anglers learn about cobia, the more they realize what they don't know about cobia.

"There are cobia that stay in South Florida during the winter months and then move up the East Coast during the summer months," Hendon said. "But we don't know the size of that population because we don't have as many recaptures of tagged cobia from the East Coast as we do from the Upper Gulf Coast. Also, we've discovered that there may be another resident population of cobia besides the Upper Gulf Coast one that never leaves South Florida. We've had cobia tagged and recaptured during the entire year in South Florida and the Florida Keys."

If we learn more about cobia, including their preferred habitats, travel routes, eating habits, water depths where they like to hold and ways to catch them in the winter months, we possibly may have a cobia fishery all year long off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The cobia's a great fighting fish and one of finest-eating fish that swims.

Today, Hendon and Franks' research has taken new twists. They can track cobia with tags that send information to satellites and learn more about the places the fish go, the depths of water in which they travel and the factors that cause cobia to remain where they are at different times of year.

"Later this year, we'll know more about the results of our satellite tracking, which will give us the opportunity to learn more about the cobia as it swims," Franks said. "Right now, the information we gather is from the point when the cobia is tagged and captured. The missing part of our data is what the cobia has been doing and where the cobia's going from the time it's captured until it's recaptured.

"We want to learn more about the cobia and their habitat preferences. We're really hoping to learn how, where and when the cobia in the northern Gulf of Mexico decide to return to South Florida, and what factors make them move in deep water and cause them to come up to shallow water where they can be seen and caught. We don't know what prompts the cobia to move inshore or offshore, and we hope this satellite tracking will help us learn this information."

Hendon and Franks also have discovered that a cobia with a 33-inch fork length (the measurement from the tip of the cobia's nose to the fork of the tail) is generally a 2- to a 3-year-old fish.

"The oldest cobia we've ever examined by studying its (ear bones) was an 11-year-old female," Franks said. "Cobia usually don't live to be that old. Also, male cobia have a shorter lifespan and don't grow as large as the females. The oldest and biggest male cobia we ever collected was 10 years old and weighed about 65 pounds."

For many years, cobia fishermen have believed that cobia migrate from South Florida, go to the mouth of the Mississippi River to spawn and then return to South Florida.

That's not the case, according to Franks.

"The cobia don't necessarily go to the Mississippi River to spawn," he said. "They come into the northern Gulf of Mexico and generally spawn off the Florida Panhandle all the way across the northern Gulf of Mexico, perhaps as far as Texas. Spawning takes place throughout this region, and the cobia seem to spawn more in deep water than along the beaches.

"So we've learned there's no direct movement by the cobia toward the Mississippi River to spawn. What we can say for sure is that the northern Gulf of Mexico is the spawning ground for cobia. Apparently, the range they spawn over is much larger than anyone has previously assumed. The Mississippi River itself has very little, or nothing, to do with the spawning activity of the cobia."