Cracking the cobia code
  |  First Published: September 2004

THE live bait had only just reached the bottom, sending out a series of frantic vibrations in its struggle for freedom.

The nervous thumps and bumps hit overdrive when, out of the deep blue water, a sizable black shape appeared. I can only imagine the next series of events but I assume the last thing that slimy mackerel saw was a cavernous mouth the size of a bucket as the 30kg- plus cobia inhaled it like a jellybean.

On my end of the line a dull thump, followed by a steady whir of mono leaving the spool, indicated the whole dramatic event and when the lever drag was pushed to strike, the fire works really begun.

There’s no doubt cobia are a powerful adversary and pound for pound are getting up there with infamous species like yellowtail kingfish, amberjack and the aptly-titled samson fish.

And when you’re talking over 70 good, old-fashioned pounds, you can expect some blood, sweat and tears until either the fish or the angler throws in the towel. Thankfully, this time I opted for slightly heavier tackle than the sporting 6kg gear I normally take in search for cobes, and even so the 8kg gear seemed hopelessly underpowered.

The big bruiser slugged it out deep for most of the fight before surfacing after 30 minutes to show us how big he was. After 45 minutes we both began to tire and finally, as we hit the one-hour mark, the gaff was set and the battle was over.

To me there are few fish more impressive straight out of the water than cobia. Some are near jet-black with just a faint belly strip of white or light brown, while others are quite pale on the flanks with a vivid chocolate stripe and equally dark brown back.

The variations in colour only add to the appeal of these fish and can be directly linked to the environment in which they’re found. Fish caught in shallow water over sand, for example, are usually lighter than those encountered in deep water.

Either way, they all look great and put up a spirited battle that doesn’t usually end until quite a long time after being put in the esky.


The distribution of cobia is as varied as the areas in which they’re caught, covering virtually all tropical and sub-tropical waters in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales.

They’re basically a warm-water predator that wanders south with the Summer currents, returning north when the water temperature is deemed too cool. What is ‘too cool’ for cobia is debatable and is often up to each fish’s comfort level, but it’s usually when it drops below 20°. But that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter them in mid-Winter south of Sydney, as they’re a species that continually seems to rewrite any rules around them.

Cobia are without a doubt the front runner when it comes to inhabiting a diverse range of environments. There are not too many species likely to be encountered anywhere from the continental shelf to the brackish waters of a tidal estuary.

It’s not uncommon to find them mixed in with billfish hunting slimy mackerel or bonito considerable distances off the coast in mid-Summer, or to find them swimming a shallow bay in Winter dining on ghost crabs, small stingrays and sand flathead.

The next cobia to be taken by an angler spinning for bream in a favourite tidal creek won’t be the last.

Cobia are certainly where you find them. A good mate who had an equal passion for catching cobia use to quite regularly venture up here to South West Rocks in pursuit of them, but through a series of mistimed trips and some serious bad luck, he never actually got to land one.

Last trip, however, he returned home to Sydney once again a little despondent and actually caught two the next day as he fished for bream in the Hawkesbury River! As they say, fish are where you find them, and this saying rings loud and true for cobia.


I guess ideally, if you’re on the hunt for a cobia or two, the most consistent places to start looking are any close reefs and headlands that get a good flush of warm water from the north during the warmer months.

The exposed deep-water headlands on the North Coast can be quite reliable, particularly if there’s been a steady supply of bait and there’s a bit of run from the north.

Because these fish seem to disappear almost as soon as they arrive, it will pay to keep in tune with the LBG grapevine and head out virtually the second you hear they’re biting.

Same goes for the boaties. If you hear of a few cobia being caught on a local inshore reef, you really want to be on the water virtually straight away. Occasionally they’ll hang around a reef or headland for a week or so, but usually their visits are short and sweet and over within a few days.

I often jokingly remark that by the time you hear they’re on the bite, the odds are they’ll be miles away when you hit the water. Even when you’re Johnny on the spot and happen to be the first angler to find the fish, it’s probably the tail end of the run and they’ll probably be gone by sunset!

A strong dose of negativity has steadily been installed into me after years of chasing these highly nomadic critters. You can only get kicked in the proverbials so many times before you end up being scarred.

As mentioned earlier, cobia will eat virtually anything with fins, flaps and spikes, so bait choice needn’t be too particular. The biggest thing is being in the right spot at the right time.

If you manage to be on the reef or headland when the fish are around, there’s a fair chance you’ll run into then.

Lures like poppers, metal slices and diving minnows take plenty of fish, as do live baits such as slimy mackerel and yellowtail. Even dead baits like tailor heads, bonito and the like account for many good cobes, so as long as the bait is reasonably fresh and is put pretty close to their noses you’re usually in with a show.

Quite a few fish seem to bite more freely around tidal changes, and cobia are certainly among them. Some days you’ll be anchored on a renowned piece of reef and berleying heavily with a live bait out and the place will seem dead as a doornail.

If there’s a tidal change within a reasonable span of time, it’s often well worth putting in the extra time and see if the fish finally switch on. Time of day is usually less important than a change of tide so, if possible, be on the water an hour or so either side of the tide change.


Tackle for cobia should be fairly stout, with rods and reels capable of fishing 10kg to 15kg line classes with ease. You don’t need a broomstick and a reel the size of a dinner plate, just a quality outfit with a nice, smooth drag and some hook-setting power.

I usually use my Shimano TLD 15 loaded with 10kg mono on a two-metre Live Fibre (ZWS 70 LJ) rod. This kind of outfit will handle virtually any cobe (or mahi mahi, kingfish or Spaniard, for that matter) you’re likely to encounter in areas that aren’t overly snaggy.

In more rugged areas you may need to get more serious with perhaps a Shimano TLD 50 loaded with 24kg line. Cobia aren’t renowned for dirty tactics but, when push comes to shove, you can get the odd fish that heads for the nasties. Most fish, however, seem to play the game quite fairly.

When a cobe first comes up to the surface, I reckon quite a few people snap them off in the mistake they’re hooked to a shark. The dorsal fin hitting the top, the dark back and the wide head often lead to a severe case of mistaken identity.

When a decent cobia comes boatside, the fun and games really begin. Apart from big mahi mahi, these would have to be the worst things on a gaff ever and I reckon more cobia would be lost once they see the gaff come over the gunwale than at any other time in the fight.

When gaffing, keep moving whatever you do or they’ll roll up the gaff, even up your arm and flip off back into the water as quick as lightning. Sink that gaff into the fish and, whatever you do, keep it coming!

It’s the cobia’s combination of strange habits, brute strength, culinary qualities and sheer beauty that draw many anglers in. They’re a fish that always seem to have you racking your brain to work out. They seem to turn up when you’re not ready and they’re usually not around when they ‘should’ be.

This all adds to their appeal and should have you piecing the puzzle together for many years to come.

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