Cobia Cowboys: Targeting Jacksonville’s Wild Spring Cobia

Cobia Cowboys: Targeting Jacksonville’s Wild Spring Cobia

cobia will often look for mantas
Cobia are well known for traveling alongside large creatures, including manta rays. Anglers looking to target cobia will often look for mantas first.

A couple of decades ago, my wife and I found ourselves with a rare day off together that just so happened to have forecasted light winds and calm seas. We decided to go red snapper fishing on this beautiful day. While we were preparing to drop our boat in the water at the Mayport Boat Ramp in Jacksonville, Florida, she noticed a pair of young men strapping down a 10- foot step ladder to the front of their skiff. As we looked around the boat ramp parking lot, we noticed more bay boats and skiffs were doing the same exact thing.

As a military family, we were somewhat new to the area and had no idea what was going on. For full disclosure, I was raised on a farm in South Georgia, so I’m no stranger to “makeshift” engineering, and I was stumped about just what was going on. While waiting my turn to drop the boat off the trailer, I just couldn’t stand it anymore; I had to find out what was going on. So, I walked up to one of the skiffs and asked, “What’s the ladder for?” And as we waited to launch our boat, these young men let me in on the “not-so-secret” northeast Florida beach cobia fishing secret.

I knew from my Gulf Coast buddies that cobia patrolled beach off the Panhandle, but I didn’t know they did the same thing here off Jacksonville. They patiently explained how the cobia swim with the manta rays as they migrate northward along the beach. To catch them, they use a myriad of methods from wonderfully colored jigs to live bait. These guys were completely stoked to sight-fish cobia in their skiff with a makeshift tower! Their excitement for beach cobia fishing was infectious. They were what I call “Cobia Cowboys.” 

As a teenager in high school, Andrew Mizell would fly fish for cobia on Pensacola Beach in the Gulf of Mexico. He was already an avid fly fisherman and a fledgling Cobia Cowboy but did not have a boat or have access to a boat. Like a lot of us growing up, a boat just wasn’t an option for him to pursue his passion of saltwater fishing.

Florida cobia fishing

He had heard the stories of the cobia free-swimming just beyond the second sandbar off Pensacola Beach. One day, probably while daydreaming during English class about how to get out to those cobia, he came up with the idea of toting his father’s 10-foot ladder out to that second sandbar, standing on it and sight-fishing those cobia from a fixed position.

Although Andrew is a tall guy who stands probably 6’3” and the tides in Pensacola are not that drastic, none of that mattered as his teenage enthusiasm made this scenario completely doable. So, one Saturday in mid-April, Andrew acts upon his dream of catching cobia (on fly) from the beach. With a pocket full of flies and like a Navy SEAL with his weapon, Andrew puts his dad’s 10-foot ladder and his fly rod above his head and wades all the way out to the second sandbar. For his reward, Andrew released three cobia on that very first day — and like the cobia he released, he is hooked.

For all his teenage years and into his early twenties, Andrew repeats this cycle, even after his friends offer to take him on their boats. He had done something uniquely his that wasn’t easy or completely safe and, in my opinion, there lies the beauty of youth.

Andrew says Tax Day (April 15) was when he started targeting cobia and looked for Pensacola Beach water temps to be in the 68- to 72-degree range. A father himself now, he still pursues his passion of fly fishing as a guide and as the store manager for Strike-Zone Fly Fishing in Jacksonville. He still loves catching cobia but prefers doing it in a boat in the Atlantic Ocean.

Even though I’d caught cobia offshore in Jacksonville, I had never targeted them on the beach. These young cobia fishermen had piqued my curiosity and sparked my enthusiasm.

How to target cobia
You would be surprised at how a little elevation can make all the difference when spotting cobia in shallow water.

I fell in love with my new post-wahoo season obsession. Even though my results couldn’t compare to the truly remarkable Cobia Cowboys, I loved fishing the beach. I loved it so much that, in 2014, I started a cobia tournament named the Northeast Florida Ultimate Cobia Championship or (UCC014). The sheer enthusiasm and hyper-competitiveness of the participants was nothing short of amazing.

Through this venture, I learned a couple of tidbits of info. First, traditionally the biggest fish being caught (weighed in) in Jacksonville are usually during the first week of May. Secondly, because this was a “pick your days” tournament that gave the participants three days to fish over a 42-day period, it gave me specific insight into the trip-success rate of the participants. Simply put, the number of times a tournament participant declared a fishing day and did not weigh a fish. While this is not an exact science, it is an indicator on the fishery.

Being the tournament director also gave me a clear view of the northeast Florida beach cobia fishermen and it became overwhelmingly apparent that one of the best is Tyler Smith.

Tyler Smith either won or placed in the top five of the Ultimate Cobia Championship every year I was the tournament director. He does not fish a boat with a tower or a ladder. Along with his excellent memory and enthusiasm, his finest fishing quality is his eyesight. His exceptional eyesight allows him to spot rays at extreme distances and guide his boat to those rays in a manner that doesn’t attract attention until they’re hooked up. The Cobia Cowboys are extremely adept at noticing if anyone is making a b-line directly toward a ray.

how to catch cobia
Capt. Matt Rogers with a nice inshore cobia — find the rays and these fish won’t require much coaxing to bite.

Tyler usually starts making the run south out of Jacksonville searching for rays the second week of April. Sometimes he will go as far south as Cape Canaveral in search of beach cobia. Tyler says if he only had two weeks a year to take leave and target beach cobia in northeast Florida, it would be the last two weeks of April. His bait of choice is cobia jigs (bucktail-type jigs), but he also brings live bait and rigged whole squid. Why the jig? He explains that if you have a big cobia directly above a ray, it is easier to target that big fish only and get it to come off the ray with a good cast and presentation by working the jig correctly.

He also believes the size of the jig hook is essential to a proper hook up. He says that if he gets a refusal on the jig from the cobia, he always has a live bait ready to cast. His live baits are rigged with 6- to 10-feet of 50 lb. fluorocarbon and a ¼-ounce egg sinker. The egg sinker is there to give him better control of his cast for a more precise placement during the presentation to a big fish. Third choice for him is a rigged whole squid.

His greatest nugget of advice is that if you get a big fish to the boat to gaff it, hit it with the gaff as close to center mass as possible. He compares the “cobia crazy” that happens with a big fish to the violence and flexibility of a snake. He says while being a little cumbersome to get over the gunnel, the center of the fish cannot move near as much as the head or, heaven forbid, a tail shot, thus leaving the fish less chance of shaking off while on the gaff. Highfalutin’ “gaff snobs” will likely dispute anything that is not a head shot, but the logic of his mid-section gaff shot advice is sound.

northeast Florida beach cobia fishing
This big cobia was making a scene chasing bait in the shallows, but after a two-hour tussle, it landed on a sushi platter for Jake Rogers and Brett Jordan.

From a historical aspect, northeast Florida beach cobia fishing with the migrating manta rays has been around since the early 1970s. Capt. Roger Walker used to run charters out of the Mayport (Saint Johns River) Inlet. He recalls his first encounter with beach cobia came in 1973. He recounts that he was out with a couple fishing buddies that day trying to catch an early-season kingfish when he noticed a gentleman on a nearby boat fighting a fish up on the bow. As he continued to fish, he noticed this boat doing circles and taking an extraordinarily long time to get the fish in the boat. He watched this go on for such a long time he couldn’t stand it anymore. With his patience gone and curiosity boiling over, he instructed his crew to pull lines in and ran up to the nearby boat to see what the commotion was all about. 

He asked the gentleman fighting the fish what he had on. He replied, “Huge cobia.” The man then said they were everywhere — “Look for the rays; they’re all over them.” Roger then spots a ray some 300 yards away and throttled up to check it out. He says he never even made it to the ray as he came upon a pack of free-swimming cobia. All they had were dead pogies to coax the cobia to bite. And these cobia didn’t need much coaxing.

On this day in early May of 1973, they caught 16 cobia, ranging from 28 to 68 pounds. I asked Roger if he believed the steady decline in recent years of quality (30 pounds+) beach cobia was something that just started happening or has it been on the decline for a number of years?

His answer was dynamic in that it has multiple factors. First, he believes most all the beach cobia are resident fish. He explains that the combination of winter-time pressure on the resident cobia inhabiting bottom structure in 85-120 feet and the fact there are more spring-time beach Cobia Cowboys today produces greater pressure now than any time he can remember. He also believes the beach run of cobia is somewhat cyclical, as he notes there was a 10-year period in the late 1970s and ’80s prior to the increased pressure when no cobia was found on those rays.

cobia fishing baits
Squid imitations are like candy to a cobia in feeding mode, but a rigged whole squid is even better.

He believes, as do I, that the absurd closure in the Atlantic of red snapper has forced fisherman to seek new opportunities to catch a quality eating and fighting fish. This has led to additional pressure that may not have been realized if red snapper were available. He believes the dynamic combination of all of these factors has resulted in the recent decline of the 30+-pound fish we are seeing and catching.

Unlike the nonsensical federal closure of red snapper, Florida recently enacted common-sense regulations to help improve the cobia fishery. The new Florida Wildlife Commission regulations that increase the minimum size limit to 36 inches fork length and reduce the bag limit to 1 per person or 2 per vessel will help improve the cobia fishery in the near and long term for our babies who dream of growing up to be Cobia Cowboys and Cowgirls.

Until next time, please stay safe on the water and remember that great things happen when you take a kid fishing.

Capt. Tim Altman of HooDoo Sportfishing Charters in Jacksonville, Florida, can be reached at or [email protected].


Boat Lyfe