By David Rainer
Al. Dept. of Conservation/Nat. Resources
Capt. Richard Rutland can no longer express disappointment about the fishing at a certain Exxon-Mobil petroleum platform just south of Dauphin Island.
“I’ve never caught a fish off this rig, but I stop here every time,” Rutland said as he eased up to the rig to look for cobia lurking in the shadows of the rig structure.
“There’s a fish,” he said, grabbing a fresh menhaden out of the livewell. The cobia, also known as ling and lemonfish, was inside the rig structure, forcing Rutland to make a pinpoint cast just to the edge of a series of brace pipes. The menhaden splashed down and in a flash, the cobia attacked.
Rutland hesitated to make sure the bait had been inhaled, and then he loaded up the rod to let the modified circle hook do its work. When the rod bowed, he yelled, “Reverse, put the motor in reverse.”
With the tension of the rod and the boat in reverse, Rutland was able to keep the cobia from swimming back into the rig and its many sharp, line-cutting edges.
After a morning of catching undersized fish off the ships anchored outside the mouth of Mobile Bay, there was no doubt this fish would easily surpass the size limit of 33 inches fork length, measured from the fork of the tail to the tip of its snout. The daily creel limit for cobia is two fish per person.
After a few minutes, the 25-pound cobia was flopping on the deck of Rutland’s bay boat, and the day would only get better.
Normally, most anglers think of cobia fishing as a spring endeavor when the fish are migrating along the upper Gulf Coast after spending the colder months in south Florida. The fish then hang around our area during the summer months to fatten up on the plentiful baitfish and crustaceans in Alabama waters. The cobia don’t head back south until the fall, and Rutland discovered a way to catch them a few years ago.
“I guess it was about four years ago, a friend of mine just happened to catch one on a shallow reef in Mississippi Sound,” said Rutland, who specializes in inshore species like speckled trout and redfish. “I assumed cobia was kind of an offshore fish, so I decided to go look around one day. I started looking around channel marker buoys and rigs. I ended up catching three keepers the first time I tried it. It was in September.
“September and early October are my times to catch cobia near the shore.”
Our next stop was at one of those channel marker buoys or “cans” if you wish. We spotted another keeper, and it didn’t hesitate to take the bait. This fish settled down fairly quickly after being hooked, and I reeled it slowly to the boat after a short fight.
“You gonna gaff him?” I asked.
“He looks pretty green to me,” said Rutland, hesitating to throw a 35-pound cobia onto the front of his boat for it to thrash around. He decided to forgo his reticence and quickly yanked the fish in the boat as we kept our distance until the thrashing was over.
“We’ve got one more platform I want to try before we head in,” he said.
As he cut the throttle and hopped onto the bow of the boat to lower the trolling motor, Rutland said, “Look at the fish.”
A stream of cobia then swam between the boat and the structure as Rutland counted to nine. He picked out the largest one and tossed one of the few alewives that was in the livewell in front of the fish. The fish inhaled the bait as I threw the outboard into reverse. After the cobia made several trips around the boat, Rutland finally got it close enough for me to gaff the fish. As I was struggling to get the 40-pounder over the gunwale, Rutland gave a helping hand, and the largest fish of the day was soon added to the overstuffed fish bag.
Despite the fact we caught only undersized fish around the anchored ships last week, Rutland prefers to start his cobia trips around the ships that are waiting their turns to enter the Port of Mobile.
“The fish will sometimes get pretty thick around the ships this time of year,” Rutland said. “My favorite thing to do around the ships is to freeline a live bait, whether it’s a croaker, an alewife or pogey (menhaden).”
Rutland takes his cast net and catches bait before he heads out to the ships. The south side of Fort Gaines has been his most productive bait area. When he gets a livewell full of bait, he heads to the ships to start the day. He uses a 40- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader on the same size braided line or monofilament with a 4/0 Owner Light circle hook or 5/0 Owner live bait hook.
He said fresh bait is crucial to getting cobia, known for being finicky at times, to take the bait. He also uses a non-slip loop knot to give the bait more freedom of movement.
“You’ve got to have a lively bait with some erratic action,” he said. “If it doesn’t look right, the cobia will lose interest. I like for the bait to look as free as possible. I think some of my success is because of the loop knot.
“What I do around the ships is when I cast the bait, I pull extra line off the reel. You don’t want any tension on the line. If there’s any tension, the bait doesn’t look natural and the fish will leave it alone.”
Rutland focuses his attention to the bow of the ship around the anchor chain and the stern of the ship near the screw (propeller).
“You want the bait to swim down the bottom of the ship, and that’s where the cobia are usually hanging out – at the bottom of the ship in the shade,” he said. “You never know what size fish are going to be there. My philosophy is bigger bait, bigger fish.
“If I get a fish hooked up, I’m hollering for whoever is with me to get another live bait hooked up because nine times out of 10 there will be fish following the one that’s hooked. I’ve seen as many as eight fish come out with the one that was hooked.”
Rutland checks anything floating in nearshore waters or in the south end of Mobile Bay. He’s found cobia around floating logs as well as marker buoys, channel marker pilings and range markers.
“If I come up to a structure and spot a fish, I try to be as quiet as I can,” he said. “I then cast out in front of the fish far enough that I can get their paths to intersect. I don’t want to hit them in the head with the bait because they can spook.
“Then at other times, if I pull up to a rig and don’t see a fish, I’ll make a lot of noise. I’ll rev up the motor and slap the water with my rod. Cobia are curious, and sometimes they’ll come up to see what’s going on.”
With no cold fronts in sight and the water temperature in the low 80s, Rutland said the cobia bite could last through October.
“Until the water temperature gets down to below 68 degrees, I don’t think the fish are going anywhere,” he said. “They’re here because there is so much bait near the mouth of the bay, and the cobia are just gorging themselves to get ready for that migration south to warm waters.”
The only problem Rutland has when October rolls around is deciding which way to go, south to the cobia or north to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta for the phenomenal fall fishing for speckled trout and redfish.