Annual feeding frenzy

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Annual feeding frenzy

BY JEFF KIDD<br>THE ISLAND PACKET
Published Sunday, June 2, 2002 in The Island Packet  |  2167 Words  |  /IslandPacket/sports/local

The flotilla bobs atop the white-flecked billows of the Broad River. From a distance, the densely-packed boats resemble an immense pin cushion, fishing rods jutting this way and that, threaded with hefty lines drawn taut by the current
coursing below.' They are the hungry seeking the hungry.' Thirty boats, 40 boats -- maybe more -- gather near the western shore of the river, most within casting distance of the pilings beneath the Broad River Bridge. Commuters
clog the roadway on S.C. 170, which runs atop the span, but on this late-spring morning, the traffic below the bridge is heavier than the traffic on top.' That can only mean one thing -- the cobia are running.' This migration of
angler and angled takes place each year from late April through mid-June. The cobia move inshore to feast on the smaller marine life in Port Royal Sound, which is formed in part by the Broad River watershed. The fishermen move to the bridge and
other hot spots along the Broad River to feast on the cobia, a species with a reputation for tenacity on the hook, tantrums on the boat deck and tastiness on the dinner plate.' The appeal is obvious: Cobia are the big game fish for the
little man.' "You don't have to have real big boat to fish for them," said Clark Lowther, owner of Lemon Island Marina, which is just a few miles by road and a quick bend around Daws Island by boat from the Broad River . "You've got
people in 14-foot aluminum boats fishing for cobia right next to the bridge. It's a chance to catch a really big fish for people who don't always get to go off shore and fish for monsters."' More than 120 boats entered Lemon Island
Marina's annual cobia tournament on May 25. The tournament is one of at least a half-dozen featuring cobia that is sponsored by area businesses.' The events remain among the most popular in local waters despite the construction of a new
bridge across the Broad River -- part of the S.C. Hwy. 170 widening project -- that has made Beaufort County's prime inshore cobia hunting grounds even more crowded than usual.' The traffic has hardly slowed this year's cobia run. In
fact, it yielded big fish a few weeks earlier than normal.' Stu Klausner of Hilton Head Island boated a 68-pounder on April 15. Don Meadows of Beaufort caught a second cobia weighing 68 pounds a few days later. Randy Higgins, who works
at Lemon Island Marina, boated a 60- and 58-pounder before the end of April and reeled in a 71-pounder on May 1. ' Don Hammond, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the impact of bridge construction appears to
be minimal and that his agency has noted no instances of unexpected pollution or habitat degradation.' "We monitor any type of marine construction like this on a regular basis," Hammond said. "I don't say that we're doing it any more
stringently than we normally would, but we do a good job of monitoring anything that might create a problem like creating pollution or damagingthings they're not supposed to be altering.' "So far, there has been no problem, and the cobia
season seems to get off to a good start."' Gluttons of the deep' Cobia are menacing ambush hunters. They lurk in the shadows -- near bridge pilings, channel markers, floating mats of cord grass, even anglers' boats -- waiting for
prey to swim past. Their bony mouths are an ample challenge for a hook point, but once a cobia clamps down on its prey, it means to have its dinner and will fight to the point of fatigue to keep its quarry.' Doug Gertis, a charter boat
captain who works out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, has boated thousands of cobia during a career spanning nearly three decades. But perhaps no fish was quite as memorable as the one a female customer caught while casting live eels to
cobia cruising the surface during a Broad River excursion about seven years ago.' A 25-pounder obliged with a strike, and after about 25 minutes of fighting, the lady finally brought the fish boatside.' When she looked down at
her catch, she was astonished to find the fish wasn't hooked -- the cobia had chomped down around the center of the eel and simply refused to let go.' "I'd never seen anything like that," said Gertis, who was able to land the fish with a
gaff.' Cobia are renowned for such tenacity, and there are few baits they won't snatch into their greedy jaws, particularly during their late-spring sojourn to Beaufort County's inshore waters.' De-finned saltwater catfish and
eels seem to be the species' dinner of choice. But crabs are a favorite bait, too, and cobia will take shrimp, squid, herring and practically any native baitfish. They're not shy about artificials, either -- topwater lures, slab spoons and
crankbaits will do the trick.' Cobia usually swim in loose packs, with a big female followed by several smaller males (the female will almost always take the first bait.) That means when you catch one cobia, you're likely to catch
another in the same proximity.' Because they're often caught near structure, cobia often break off by wrapping fishing lines around pilings and buoy chains. However, if you manage to keep one on the line, expect 20 minutes to more than
an hour of battle to bring the cobia boatside.' And beware -- as any fisherman who has boated a "green" cobia can tell you, the fish often saves its fiercest fighting for the boat deck.' Ticking time bombs' Lee Stokes, a
local outdoors columnist, has fished Beaufort County waters for four decades. His first rumble with a cobia remains one of his most vivid fishing memories, for it was a powerful demonstration of the fish's destructive powers.' Stokes had
recently moved to the area in 1962 and already was an experienced freshwater fisherman. But the 17-year-old didn't felt a cobia's sting until an expedition in a 16-foot aluminum jonboat with friend David Pointer. ' Almost as soon as
Stokes got his bait wet, a cobia hit his line.' "My buddy just said, 'Got one,' and my rod doubled over," Stokes recalled.' The fish ran hard and broke off Stokes' line, sending the rod tip hurtling back toward his face and
busting his lower lip.' Lesson number one: Don't forget to adjust the drag, even on suitably stout gear.' After re-rigging, a second hook-up came nearly as quickly, but the battle was almost a disappointment -- the cobia came to
the boat easily, showing none of the running power Stokes had heard so much about.' Or so he thought.' Little did Stokes know, he had hoisted angry jaws and scorned tail over his gunnel.' Which led to lesson number two:
Don't boat a cobia until it is slap worn out.' "He just laid there like a brown torpedo," Stokes said. "My buddy turned around and instantly started moving all of his stuff to the front of the boat. He knew what was about to happen, but
I wondered what the heck he was doing.' "I'm looking at the fish thinking the sucker looked like it was dead, then I asked for pliers. I guess fish the fish heard me."' As Stokes reached to remove the hook, the cobia exploded
like a short-fused firecracker. Tackle and gear flew overboard.' "We gave the boat to the cobia," Stokes said. "We just had to jump out and swim to another boat and waited for that thing to dehydrate."' Thirty-five minutes later,
the fish stopped its mad flopping, and the boys mustered the courage to swim back to their abandoned vessel. Once aboard, they discovered that besides flinging most of their gear into the water, the cobia had turned a Styrofoam cooler into a
pile of white confetti, sheared the front seat from its stanchion and punched a hole in their 6-gallon, metal gas tank.' "We couldn't run the engine and had to get towed back to shore," Stokes said.' Stokes arrived on dry land a
wiser fisherman.' "I had done a lot of freshwater fishing in my life, and I thought all fish acted the same when you get them," Stokes said. "But these are a different breed here. They don't play by your rules."' Stokes isn't the
only angler ruffled by his first encounter with a cobia. Gertis recalls a trip to the "Cobia Hole," a depression in the floor of the Broad River a few miles down river from the S.C. 170 bridge. As his party fished, two Marine officers in a
14-foot jonboat anchored alongside them, and in short order, one of them hooked a fish.' Although the Marines were using light tackle, the cobia didn't last long, and they boated the fish ... a little too soon, as it turned out.'
Cooler lids and tackle boxes flew as Gertis and his party looked on:' "One of the marines pulled out a handgun and said, 'I'll put an end to this.' He fired two shots right into the cobia's head."' The shots subdued the cobia,
all right. They also pierced the boat's aluminum hull. The Marines made a frantic dash to a nearby boat landing, bailing water as they went.' "They came back out about an hour later after patching their boat to apologize to us for the
disruption," Gertis said. "The one who fired the gun said, 'We handle guns every day, but we've never caught a cobia before.' "' The frenzy is on' Cobia creep into Port Royal Sound as the water temperature reaches the high 60s.
By the time the temperature climbs into the low 70s, the cobia run is on.' Hammond said scientists once believed the cobia came into the Broad River to deposit eggs, and that's one reason DNR monitors the new bridge construction.
Sediment stirred off the river bottom might aggrevate spawning fish.' "It would be more of a short-term impact in that it could possibly reduce spawn production for that particular year," Hammond said. "It would be something that could
be recovered from the following year. The failure of recruitment in one year would not be realized until probably two years later."' But the cobia probably aren't depositing eggs inshore, anyway. In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered
day-old cobia larvae 300 miles off Charleston's coast.' "They couldn't have drifted that far in that short of time, which told us they were spawning offshore," Hammond said.' Marine biologists now believe the cobia enter the
estuary to gorge upon the abundant crustaceans, shrimp and baitfish, which contain nutrients essential to the fish's gonadal development, Hammond said.' "But one of the questions I hear a lot is what is so special about the Broad River
estuary? Why do so many fish come here and not other places?" Hammond said.' The answer is the Port Royal Sound's high salinity. ' "The Port Royal Sound has a very low freshwater discharge," Hammond said. "Subsequently, it
experiences some of the highest salinities that appear in any of our other basin sounds. Plus, it has a deep water channel that runs all the way from the mouth of the sound all the way up to the Broad River Bridge, and cobia are primarily a
deep-water fish."' The feeding frenzy ends in mid-June, when adult cobia leave for the western edge of the Gulf Stream. As they depart, pre-adult cobia arrive, albeit in small numbers. Most of the fish, generally under the state's
33-inch fork length limit, stay just off shore and in the sound's mouth.' "Most of these fish are sub-legal in size," Hammond said. "A lot of fishermen who haven't fished for big fish much have a hard time understanding this. They've
never caught a 32- or 31-inch fish. They're like, 'This is the largest fish I've ever caught in my life, and you're telling me it's too small to keep?' They don't realize how big cobia get and what they've just caught isn't a fully mature fish
yet."' Anglers in pursuit of trophy cobia must resume the chase off shore or mark the time until the pugnacious predators return, same time next year.' "It doesn't last long, but it's intense," Stokes said. "The chance to hook up
with one of these fish is just too good to pass up."