To the uninitiated, the chaotic scene in Hawk Channel off Islamorada last week likely resembled the marine version of a rugby scrum.
Four large sport fishing boats bobbed on the ocean’s calm surface only a few yards apart, captains perched atop high towers barking orders to crew members below in the cockpits.
In response, the crewmen cast large, live baits on heavy spinning rods in whatever direction their captains ordered. After all, they couldn’t see what the skippers saw from 20 feet above the water.
On board the Catch 22, mate Hunter Barron tossed out a live grunt weighted with a six-ounce sinker and quickly felt a strong yank. He handed the rod — now bent in a steep arc — to 14-year-old Marcus Gallen and quickly cast another grunt in the same area. When that one got clobbered, Barron passed the rod to Gallen’s brother, Bobbye, 17.
Both brothers reeled up cobia in the 20-plus-pound range.
“It gets the adrenaline going,” Marcus said. “Not a piece of cake, but fun to catch.”
From November until about April, along the coastal waters of Southeast Florida and the Keys, anglers who know what to look for have a good shot at catching large, tasty brown and white cobias as they follow southern stingrays rustling up crustaceans on the bottom. Best conditions are calm winds and clear water for spotting the ray and its companions in waters 10 to 20 feet deep.
Finding them is not easy unless the cobias happen to pop briefly to the surface. Underwater, the ray and its companions have variously been described as brown blobs or a fuzzy wagon wheel with spokes.
“It takes experience and good eyes,” said captain Richard Stanczyk, whose family owns Bud ’n Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada.
Added Stanczyk’s brother Scott, captain of the Catch 22: “You have to be willing to ride around with no lines in the water, burn fuel and not catch anything for a while and be patient.”
Of course, cobia are not found solely in conjunction with rays. Many anglers have come upon them following a whale shark or sea turtle; congregating around wrecks, pilings and navigation markers; and, in late spring with wind against current, tailing on the reef with sailfish. According to fisheries researchers, cobia favor water temperatures above 68 degrees and will migrate to avoid colder waters.
Federal fisheries scientists and managers conducted a stock assessment of cobia in the Gulf of Mexico last year and found the species is not being overfished. Those Gulf fish, researchers said, can migrate all the way from Texas south around Key West and north in the Atlantic about as far as the Florida-Georgia line. Cobia found from Georgia north to Virginia are considered the South Atlantic stock.
“Abundance seems to be in a good place, and the rate of fishing doesn’t seem to be too high to be unsustainable,” said Luiz Barbieri, marine fisheries administrator at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Richard Stanczyk said he isn’t seeing as many cobia following the rays in Hawk Channel as in previous years.
“It used to be more consistent and a lot more of them,” he said.
But the Stanczyks and their fellow captains still locate cobia pretty consistently when conditions are favorable. Things happen fast, so they have to be ready.
On the day the Gallen brothers caught their cobia, the crew of the Catch 22 had spent quite a bit of time catching grunts, jack crevalles and other bottom dwellers on the reef.
“That’s why grunt is such a good bait — because it lives on the bottom,” Richard said.
When they located the cobia following the ray, they were ready with several 30-pound spinning rods with several feet of 60-pound monofilament leader tied to 7/0 live bait hooks. The leader was threaded through the holes on the six-ounce egg sinker so that the sinker couldn’t slide up and down. Each fishing line had a snap swivel for quick leader changes during the heat of battle.
With four boats competing for one school of cobia, each boat picked up a couple before their quarry dispersed. When the Catch 22 couldn’t find any more, the crew stopped and caught a limit of yellowtail and several large cero mackerel.
It had been a fruitful, first-ever offshore fishing trip for Bobbye Gallen.
“Pretty neat,” he said.