At first, captain Luis Rionda thought the dark shapes advancing toward his 34-foot SeaVee were a school of barracuda.
The mistake was understandable; the mid-afternoon glare on the murky Gulf waters hampered visibility - even from atop the boat's tower. But as they drew closer, Rionda could see the shapes were brownish, and one of them even rolled like a tarpon - its wide mouth gulping air at the surface.
"Guys," the captain shouted to our crew of four. "Get up to the bow right now and get ready to cast. It's a school of about 100 of `em."
He meant cobia. And we didn't wait for further instructions. Quickly, Nick Stanczyk, Jarred Scutti, Jack Siragusa and I baited our 20-pound spinning outfits with live pinfish and grunts from the live well. Then we rushed up to the bow in breathless anticipation.
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A gigantic herd of what looked like slow-moving railroad ties was now about 50 feet from the bow. Each of us made a cast and all four of us hooked up immediately.
To call the scene that erupted on the deck of the Cha Cha chaotic is like saying the New Orleans Mardi Gras is a small street party. Crossed rods, tangled lines, colliding anglers, and a lot of excited yelling pierced the gentle breeze more than 50 miles west of Islamorada. If you cocked an ear, you probably could have heard us whooping it up from as far away as Cancun. Fishermen live for days like this.
When the splashing and crashing was over, we had caught 30 cobia, releasing all but six - the largest about 39 pounds on a quick Boga Grip measurement. And Stanczyk and his friends managed about eight of them on an 11-weight fly rod using a garish, Mylar Deceiver pattern. I managed to break a brand new eight-pound graphite spinning rod into four pieces while fighting a cobia, but I still caught the fish with the line through the bottom guide.
"Really, really neat," Siragusa said after the umpteenth cobia go.
Now is the season when cobia who spend the winter around wrecks, reefs and ledges in the Keys start their migration north along both Gulf and Atlantic coasts to spawn during the summer months. The spot where Rionda found them is a 30-foot-deep ledge where he has caught them several times before.
"You'll get a school of 150 that will swim onto a spot and stay there," he said. "You go back the next day and there's a few less and a few less. `Till all those are gone, you won't get the next school of fish. But then, the next time you come back, there will be a fresh school. There's structure and a lot of feed on these spots - threadfin, blue runners, pinfish."
Rionda won't give up the locations of his favorite cobia spots, but he's willing to divulge tactics for ensuring a satisfying catch.
When Rionda first enters a cobia zone, he does not immediately set the anchor. Instead he idles or drifts in the vicinity, scanning the surface from Cha Cha's tower.
"They sometimes stay on the surface more when it's murky than the clear water," he said. "When they're on the surface, you don't want lead weights. When you anchor up, the cobias go down."
Eventually, Rionda did drop the anchor upcurrent of the ledge, but that was only after we had caught and released about a dozen, by which time the tide had picked up steam. The rapid current sent our chum flowing to the milling cobia, and they hovered ever closer _ even chasing the multi-colored fly to within inches of the boat.
Had the fish not remained on the surface, the captain said he would have used as small lead sinkers as he could get away with to deposit our live baits on the bottom.
Rionda uses mostly 2/0 treble hooks instead of the standard j or circle hooks. That's because a hooked cobia frequently spins like a shark and can easily throw a single barb.
One cobia enthusiast who would like to know a little more about the fish that reside in the Keys is Jim Franks, fisheries biologist with the Gulf Coast Research Lab at University of Southern Mississippi in Ocean Springs.
Franks and his colleagues have tagged more than 18,000 cobia since 1989, recapturing about 800 of them. The scientists have learned a lot about the species' migration, spawning and feeding patterns. Stocks, Franks said, appear to be in good shape. But there are some gaps in their knowledge.
"I'm interested in knowing why some fish don't migrate," Franks said. "We'd like to know about genetics and over-wintering. Do these fish ever leave?"
He hopes to deploy some satellite tags in cobia, which constantly record directional movement, depth, water temperature, and time of day.
Meanwhile, cobia anglers in the Keys can help with research by obtaining free tagging kits from the Gulf Coast Lab. To help, e-mail Read.Hendonusm.edu or call 228-872-4202.