No. 55–May Madness

We all know “March Madness” is about basketball and that it infects sports enthusiasts across the country. May Madness, however, is extremely localized and largely confined to a stretch of water between the east and west shores of our own Broad River. At the center of the craziness that may be observed when crossing the Broad River Bridge for the next month or so is a fish.

Rachycentron canadum, aka cobia, is the only member of the family Rachycentridae. Cobia somewhat resemble the most closely related species of this family of one, the remora of the family Echeneidae but they lack the dorsal sucker. They have an elongate body that is strongly rounded with a depressed head, protruding lower jaw, and short separate spines in the first dorsal fin. Also, unlike the remora with a rounded tail fin, the cobia’s is forked for speed.

Cobia inhabit tropical and subtropical seas world wide with the exception of the eastern Pacific. In our part of the world, although they are most abundant on our south Atlantic and northern Gulf coasts, they may be found from New York to Argentina.

As with the black drum of last month’s column, cobia have distinct migratory populations. A survey conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has recorded recreational cobia landings within the recreational range from New York to Texas. Tagging studies show the movement of fish in both directions between the Gulf and the Carolinas suggesting gene exchange between Atlantic and Gulf stocks.*

Throughout all but a tiny part of its worldwide range the cobia is known, in fishing lingo, as a fish of opportunity. Few recreational anglers “target” cobia in that they are mostly solitary in their movements and habits or found in small pods. In coastal waters they may on occasion be spotted hanging out at the surface around buoys and pieces of moderately sized free floating flotsam such as a section of plywood. In such instances the fish may then become the target of fishermen who had no intention of going out for cobia that day.

Due to the unique nature of the Port Royal Sound estuarine system, its high salinity, the waters of Beaufort County are that tiny part of the world wide range where cobia are singularly pursued. And with a vengeance, I might add.

Everywhere else cobias spawn in the spring off shore. Only here, in Port Royal Sound and St. Helena and Calibogue Sounds to a lesser degree, is there an annual run to inshore waters. Beginning in April and peaking in May, the popularity of this seasonal fishery has grown exponentially over the past ten years drawing enthusiasts from far and wide. There are days in May, driving across the Broad River bridge, one may see boats jammed shore to shore and nearly to the horizon up and down river.

Concerns have been raised in some quarters as to the sustainability of the resource under the rising fishing pressure but I’m not aware of any organized effort to address the issue of reducing bag limits at present.

Growing to more that a hundred pounds and averaging twenty to forty, the cobia is as robust a fish as an angler will ever have on a line. Be aware that care must be taken when bringing a cobia on board to avoid injury and damage to equipment by the violent thrashing of one very angry fish. The cobia bag limit is two fish per angler per day with a minimum length of 33 inches.

*Status of the South Carolina Fisheries for Cobia – Donald L. Hammond – Finfish Management Section, Office of Fisheries Management, Marine Resources Division, Technical report #89.