Cobia 101: Tips to hook up with lemon fish

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin suggests targeting smaller rigs and structures for cobia, and making sure you keep your lure moving when sight casting to fish near the surface. Don’t stop if the fish charges, or it could very well lose interest.
Capt. Tommy Pellegrin suggests targeting smaller rigs and structures for cobia, and making sure you keep your lure moving when sight casting to fish near the surface. Don’t stop if the fish charges, or it could very well lose interest.

Target smaller rigs, keep lures moving when sight-fishing, guide says

Call them whatever you want — lemon fish, cobia or ling — but their firm, white meat is delicious, and it’s prime time to catch them off Gulf coast.

Cobias’ fall migration pattern puts them within reach for many anglers into the fall — from the beach line out about 15 to 20 miles — according to Capt. Tommy Pellegrin, with Custom Charters in Houma, La.

“Cobia migrate westward in the spring and eastward in the fall. So when they’re coming through the Florida Straits and following the beach and get to the mouth of the Mississippi River, they move offshore and continue west — that’s why they’re so far off in the spring for Louisiana anglers. They go all the way to Mexico,” Pellegrin said. “But in the fall when they’re coming back, the exact opposite happens. They’re on the coast moving east so when they pass Louisiana they’re still close. They hit that cove in the West Delta and ball up there because they hit the blockade, which is the river.

“That’s why in the fall the Florida and Alabama coast doesn’t get them close. They go straight across and head east — it’s just the route they follow.”

So cobia are there — you just have to find them. And Pellegrin shared some tips to put you on the fish.

“Use any big 8- or 9-inch curlytail jigs with a 2-ounce jighead,” he said. “For us, the best colors are chartreuse, glow and pearl.

“Target the satellite rigs versus the big giant rigs and any floating debris you come across: tie-up buoys, grass mats or anything like that. Then start looking for any fish you can sight cast to.”

That’s when Pellegrin said many anglers snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory when sight-casting: keeping the lure moving with a fish in hot pursut is absolutely crucial.

“If you throw a jig out and he comes charging up to it, and you stop it, he’ll probably turn on it. What did you do wrong? You stopped it,” he said. “If he comes charging on it to get a taste or a smell, pull it away from him. I’m not talking 10 feet away, but yank it a foot or 2 out of his smell-and-taste range, and he’ll charge it again.

“Next thing you know, you’re not fast enough — and he’s going to grab it. Do not stop your bait. If he’s going to bite it, he’s going to bite it on the run. Technically, cobia fishing is very easy. But you have to get beyond that ‘stop-and-let-them-eat mentality’ to catch them consistently.”

If you don’t see any cobia lurking near the surface, Pellegrin offered this tip to tempt the curious fish up from the depths.

“Make a slow circle around the rig in your boat — not fast, maybe 2 or 3 mph. If you’re moving clockwise, there’s a slick area where there’s no wave wash at about 5 o’clock behind you,” he said. “If a cobia is going to come up to look at you, he’s going to come up in that spot.

“If nothing comes up, send your jigs down and jig them coming up.”

Pellegrin speed-jigs all the way up from the bottom.

“Pull it up and crank it down. Pull it up and crank it down,” he said. “One time when you crank it down, it’s going to be moving the other way. You want to move it from the bottom to the top of the water column because you don’t know what level they’re at.”

If there are no fish at the surface, circling in your boat doesn’t work — and there’s no action down deep — Pellegrin said to move to another rig and try again; the whole process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes per location.

And if you can’t hook a cobia, try catching anything at all to drum up some potential interest.

“Hook anything, even if you’ve got to put a smaller jig out. I throw 8- and 9-inch jigs for cobia. Hook a red snapper, a bluefish, a hardtail — anything that will make action in the water,” Pellegrin said. “Cobia are curious, and no matter if it’s too big for them to eat, they’ll come and look at it.

“Always be prepared if you’re fighting a cobia and watch for trailing fish. Drop a jig on the trailer or toss it a live pogie or croaker.”

Pellegrin typically spools up with 65-pound Spiderwire braid and 3 feet of 80-pound leader when battling lemon fish. For live bait, he uses a 6/0 or 7/0 circle hook with pogies, croaker, white trout and more.

“Small hardtails are excellent, but if you use them, clip the fins. Don’t clip the tail where it’s bleeding; just clip the fins of the tail where he can’t swim real fast,” Pellegrin said. “Put him out there and you’ll get a cobia in a heartbeat.

“Hardtails are fast swimmers; the more active a bait is, the better.”

When you do hook up, Pellegrin said to enjoy the fight; cobia don’t usually swim back into a rig or structure.

“They typically don’t do like amberjack and snapper and head straight back into the cover and cut themselves off,” he said. “They’re more heading for open water, doing the running and jumping thing They want to bull their way through whatever is chewing on their lip.”

According to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, the daily limit is two cobia per person, with a 33-inch minimum fork length.

Editor’s Note: For more information, contact Capt. Tommy Pellegrin at Custom Charters at 985-851-3304, or visit

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Patrick Bonin is the former editor of Louisiana Sportsman magazine and