One of April’s greatest gifts to Mississippi’s coastal anglers is the cobia, aka ling or lemonfish. Called “brownies” by some of its most avid pursuers, this delicious, feisty fish has been a traditional treasure on the Gulf Coast.
Each spring, they migrate up from the Caribbean to the northern Gulf Coast, eventually arriving on Mississippi’s barrier islands.
“It’s tied in to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, when the moon starts pulling currents north, bringing waters up from the Florida Keys,” said Capt. Robert “Earl” McDaniel of D’Iberville’s Whipasnapa Charters. “Usually, the equinox is when we start hearing about them reaching Destin (Fla.), and about two weeks later, we start seeing them here. Right after we start seeing the hardheads (catfish) show up, the cobias come in. You see pecan trees start blooming, cobia are coming.”
McDaniel has made the April cobia arrival part of his charter packages, although it has moved him further to the west in recent years.
“Every year in the spring, I start tracking the migration by checking the fishing reports over in Florida,” he said. “They show up in Destin first, then move west off Pensacola and we’re next. About two to three weeks after they start catching them in Destin, they’ll start showing up here.
“When you see the dogwoods bloom and the crappie spawning up in the north Mississippi reservoirs, the cobia will be here pretty soon.”
This annual migration of cobia, one of two in the Gulf — the other is from Mexico past Texas to the west side of the Mississippi River — brings the big fish here to procreate. McDaniel said the fish like to find water temperatures of 68 or 69 degrees before they get in the mood for love.
“They come here to spawn on our sandbars off the barrier islands,” said McDaniel, who has noticed a slight change in the fish’s behavior over the past decade. “Used to be, they’d like water anywhere from 7 to 10 feet, but after Katrina, it seems like they are a little deeper, like 10 to 15 feet.
“I’ve changed a little bit in where I go now, heading more south of Chandeleur, which means a long run southwest, even though I still check my old spots around Horn Island.”
His technique involves chumming, far different from Florida style.
“In Florida, like at Destin, they sight-fish spawning cobias,” McDaniel said. “That’s why you see all those big boats with flying bridges to close to the shoreline going back and forth. They’re looking for the big brownies.
“Here, on our end, you can’t do that. Our water is nowhere clear enough, so I chum and try to lure one up the chum slick to the boat. Positioning the boat is key to get the current to carry the slick to the targeted area.”
The bonus is “that a lot of redfish and sharks also pick up the slick and follow it in. When I have paying customers out there, they usually want more action than what we get just from cobia. With sharks and reds, there’s pretty much constant action.
“And, who doesn’t like battling against a 100-pound shark?”