Pilbara Cobia

John Robertson battles cobia in Western Australia

The cobia lit up as it aligned on the fly… Here we go, I thought, but it didn’t charge the fly. It would be a stretch to call it a chase; a better description would be that it followed. As I began to contemplate whether to recast the fly or to keep stripping, a subtle pause and the fly drifting down triggered the strike. I waited for the fish to turn its head away from me before applying a hard strip strike. The cobia powered off for home, and in those crazy seconds, time stopped. A knot lifted off the deck through my hands and popped the top off the fly rod, which disappeared into the dark blue water. Fantastic, this could be the second fish I’d lost for the day and potentially now the tip of my rod. Calm resolve was the key, with some good internal encouragement to be patient, as slowly the knot came back into my hands. As I unpicked the knot I could picture the fish down there somewhere chewing on the tip of a fly rod while keeping an eye out for some obstruction to rub me off. Thankfully the knot came free, and with a modified fighting technique now known as the ‘no tip lift’, the fish slowly came to the surface, letting me look it in the eye. Like some weird contortionist I grabbed hold of the rod tip while not high-sticking the three quarters of fly rod I was still using. The fish I’d hooked must have had a strange sense of honour, because it sat off the bow of the boat watching me rebuild the rod, as if waiting for it to be a fair fight, before charging off again and settling into a hard slog under the boat. Even in the closing stages of the fight it teased me, turning its head at the last minute and pulling a few metres of line to sit so close but not close enough. This dance continued four to five times before finally it slid into the net and relaxed. There was no yelling for joy: this fish had been earned, well and truly earned, but to explain that we need to go back a few months. GOAL SET At the start of 2017, I put some fly fishing goals in place and these included pushing the limits more on gamefish. Cobia were near the top of that list. They are an amazing fish (see FL#86) and in some ways full of contradictions. They don’t charge down flies like queenfish or GTs and they don’t slice through the water like mackerel. Rather, they slurp the fly down in an almost lazy fashion, but don’t let that fool you for one second. Once hooked, a cobia will deliver violent headshakes and head for home in a powerful run. On this first run the importance of a good quality drag comes into play as it needs to dissipate heat while you try to apply as much pressure as you dare to keep them away from finding touch. If you do stop the first run, then it’s a deep-down slog, and don’t be afraid to use the boat to get some better angles on the fish — in this way it is a real team sport. Cobia turn up in locations ranging from mangrove lined headlands to deep offshore reefs and eat a variety of marine life. Where they really come into their own for fly fishers is when they are hitching a ride behind larger sea creatures such as manta rays or resting in the shade of floating objects. This behaviour provides a great opportunity to target cobia in a sight-casting situation, resulting in the great visual spectacle that is the hallmark of fly fishing. With the idea in mind of targeting them on floating buoys, barges or manta rays, I started taking notes of when the rays come into my area. Around the busy port of Dampier there are plenty of options with regard to floating objects in the water. Looking for inspiration on the charts, I targeted areas that would get a little bit less fishing pressure. This resulted in one calm day in May, undertaking a long run to explore some likely cobia haunts. This first attempt would be a real eye-opener, giving some insights into the behaviour of cobia but more importantly their power and stamina in a fight. LOTS TO LEARN My intuition was correct — the fish had been found — I was looking at a large cobia sitting in the shade of a mooring buoy. The first offering was refused outright, this being a GT profile fly better suited to being stripped fast to a rampaging fish. It was interesting that fusilier and yellowtail scad were in the vicinity but didn’t excite the cobia. Switching to a purple and black Deceiver resulted in the cobia waking up. I have since found that they really like some movement in the fly, more so than just a baitfish profile, and having the ability to stop the retrieve and waft or drift the fly down again is vital to success. To date my flies of choice are either a 4/0 Pink Thing or 4/0 purple and black Deceivers. These flies, when paired with an intermediate or sink-tip fly line, give the greatest flexibility to match the depth of the fish and create an erratic and ultimately visual cue to the cobia, to eat. Now that I had its attention the fish ate the fly and proceeded to turn around, power off and find the anchor chain in the time I took to realise the fish was hooked. Wow, that was brutal. The next mooring buoy was not a repeat as we spooked the fish — it was sitting 10 metres off the buoy. Never mind, lots to try, and more importantly, lots to learn. The process of finding fish and enticing them continued all morning and the results, I can tell you, were not in my favour. When it was time to head back, the scorecard was six shots at cobia, three hooked, two broken fly lines, one shell-shocked angler and zero fish landed. UNDER-GUNNED? The long run home was filled with all those typical questions about what went wrong — fly choice, boat positioning, critiquing of every decision made during the day, and ultimately asking myself the question: was I under-gunned? As a cobia has a rasping jaw over slicing teeth, there is no need for wire and a good quality leader of 60–80 lb to give some abrasion resistance is all that is needed. In the Pilbara, most of my fish have been landed on a 10-weight fly rod. After the cobia thrashing I received earlier in the year I next had a go with a 12-weight. This is when I learnt an even more valuable lesson in how to approach these fish. In this case I spotted the cobia under its floating marker buoy and placed a long cast to the fish. This resulted in a hook-up only metres from the buoy. Even on a 12-wt you aren’t going to stop these fish when you give them that much of an advantage. It didn’t help that the wheelman was halfway through a sandwich and didn’t react in time. That fish won its freedom with a snapped 12-wt fly line wrapped around the buoy’s anchor chain, and that was now three fly lines down to these fish in a four-month period. From these experiences I learned that I wasn’t under-gunned on that first trip, but I was underprepared and didn’t approach these fish with the necessary respect. I now know that a long cast is still required and once the fish has seen the fly you must quickly bring the offering out into open water, tempting the fish to follow, which they quite often do if you have the right fly. I have even had cobia come and sit in the shade of the boat once they’ve been drawn out, or in some cases I have been watching the fly and searching the buoy only to look down and find the cobia has come up from the depths to investigate the boat. In these scenarios, don’t panic and think that the fish has been spooked. Instead, carefully get the fly back out into their field of vision and start working an erratic retrieve with long pauses. After having landed that very un-lucky fish that returned my rod tip for a fair fight, I went on to land two more on that day, in far less stressful ways, but still enjoying a great visual take and a brutal bare-knuckle fight, leaving my hands battered, my shoulder aching and muscles burning. It was all worth it — I had worked them out when stationed on floating objects. COBIA ON RAYS When cobia are following large sea creatures such as manta rays, they can be a bit trickier as they are typically sitting under the ray. You need to get a good cast in (seems to be a theme with all forms of fly fishing), so that the fly comes within their field of vision, otherwise they’ll keep on following the ray. Careful boat movements are needed so as not to spook the host as the cobia will always follow the ray if it disappears at speed, and the ultimate error here is to hook the manta ray! My first cobia off a manta ray to date is also my largest, and it is etched into my mind for a completely different reason to the fish described at the start of this article. This one was a ‘by chance’ fish. We were heading out to chase coral trout on a low tide and came across a pair of manta rays working a current line, with three very large cobia in attendance. I wasn’t going to get the fly rod out but my mate insisted. The first cast was a nightmare, going wide and short as adrenaline caused my arms to shake with excitement. I had to compose myself, clearing the deck of line with a long cast to settle the nerves. We moved the boat to get the right angle on these fish and watched as they ignored the fly off the back of the ray. The next cast was in front by a few metres with time to sink down below the ray as it passed. The erratic pause was started, all three fish peeled off and inspected the fly and I got my first real look at them. They were big fish and I can remember thinking to myself, I hope that large one doesn’t eat this fly! As the fish ate, all I could think of was how this was going to hurt, and it did. Even in relatively shallow water (12 m), the fish really made me work. If you want a stubborn brute to hone your fighting skills before taking on something even larger I can highly recommend the workout from a cobia.The skipper was great, with words of encouragement, especially when the fish was so close yet stubbornly refusing to come into net range. The tippet was always in the back of my mind, as I wasn’t expecting to be fighting such a large fish on this day. After 45 minutes I managed to walk back using the full width of the boat to guide the stubborn fish into the waiting net. My shoulder still aches when I think about that fish, an amazing capture. These are just two styles of fishing for cobia in the Pilbara, and I am sure that they apply to other parts of northern Australia. I have even heard of these fish showing up on flats at times — now that would be something to see. If you do happen to chase cobia on fly, make sure your fighting technique has had some practice and you’ve got some stamina, for they will really test you. Good luck.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.