We were running a little behind, as you know sometimes happens on trips you’re trying to really prepare for. My buddy Adam (who writes a hilarious tale) was already at the rendezvous point, and I was quizzing him as to how the water was doing.
“Oh I don’t think we can go out there man. Way too dangerous. There’s three whole sets of surf and they look to be almost 18 inches tall…”, he said in a dire tone of voice.
With a smile I relayed the report to Chris (find him here), who chuckled. What Adam had described was a practically flat surf line, easily breachable. Our anticipation was ticking higher, like the ratcheting upward of a rollercoaster before the exhilarating drop.
When we rolled off the asphalt onto the sand we saw that Adam’s report was as good as his tone had been ominous – light wind and light surf. The green-blue water was not as clear as I had expected it to be, but we still had plenty of visibility. We trekked on, further and further down the beach, looking for a good launch site.
The clean waves washed gently up onto the shore as we pulled up and scanned the horizon for bird activity. I remember thinking to myself that these moments before the adventure actually begins are among the best – no idea what is going to happen, but absolute certainty that you would rather be there in that moment than anywhere else.
We unloaded the trucks, stowed our gear in the freshly inflated zodiac, attached the engine, and walked the boat out into the surf zone. A few moments of work had the engine putting along, and then we were off!
I was at the helm, trying to be gentle on an engine just out of the break-in phase, but I’ll tell you one thing we all agreed on; it was way better than paddling. With three guys and all our stuff the boat couldn’t get up on plane, but we still managed a respectable pace.
After a few minutes of us being underway, I looked back over my shoulder. I’m definitely not what you call an experienced offshore guy, and there is always that small, quiet twinge of fear as I get farther out. As a biologist, I have an intimate understanding that I am part of the food chain out there, and that patch of beach where we had parked was quickly receding into the distance… but then I grinned. Challenging myself to overcome obstacles is a big part of my fishing experience, and this was just one more to overcome. If here there be dragons, I would go out to do battle.
On the way out we saw signs of predator fish – hovering birds directed our attention to some water being churned up. They didn’t stick around long though, and I knew that trying to chase down nomadic schools like that can turn into a lot of running around for a lot of nothing in return. We discussed briefly, the consensus being we continue on to the structure.
After successfully - carefully - hooking up to a barnacle-encrusted beam, we waited patiently to see what, if anything, would show up. Almost immediately the spade fish made an appearance, ghosting upwards from the rig and becoming easily visible as they checked out the boat from a few feet away. Then came the Bermuda chubs, schooling with the spadies. I stood up, balancing against the rolling swells and trying to keep an eye in every direction at once; if something showed up, I wanted to see it. After several minutes of this, my eye caught movement some distance upwind. A loggerhead turtle slipped up to the surface, bigger than a manhole cover and sprinkled with barnacles over her back. Her light tan coloration made her easy to spot, and my eyes tracked her for a moment before they noticed something behind her…
Chris and I said the same thing – cobia! My heart was pounding as I stripped out line and tried to judge the distance. I wasn’t sure that I could make the shot against the wind but I was definitely going to find out. Two false casts and I hauled hard, heaving a hail mary cast to where I expected the fish to be by the time my fly got there. The bright orange billfish taper shot forward, carrying its payload of big chartreuse and pink bunny fly. The loop unfurled and laid the fly down in front of the smaller of the two fish. I let the fish see it and then began to strip, trying to elicit a reaction strike. The fish followed closely for a couple moments, nosing right up behind the fly and I tensed up, ready to strike hard to make up for the long distance… she wasn’t having it though; a short follow before being snubbed was all I got. After that, the fish disappeared and we didn’t see them again. We decided to move on to greener pastures.
We bounced around from rig to rig after that, spending an hour or so at each location. Once, while keeping a lookout for cobia, I happened to look up just in time to watch a six foot shark jump clear of the water by several feet, landing 60 yards away or so. While that would have been cool enough by itself, he showed us how spinner sharks got their name, turning tight pirouettes as his fins propellered through the air, flashing as sunlight shone off his gleaming tan-bronze skin before splashing back in headfirst.
It was now well into the afternoon, and fatigue was starting to show itself. The rolling swells were evenly spaced, but still liable to unbalance the guy standing up and watching for fish. We decided to hit up one last location for a while, and noticed that the wind had switched around. The current wanted to pull us into the rig, but the wind was pushing us away… which was fine, as long as the wind didn’t lull. A person in a rubber boat suddenly becomes extremely conscious of every barnacle on the rig’s structure. Fortunately, the wind stayed steady and we floated contentedly. The splash of the waves against the rig and the spaced out warning klaxon of the rigs was the only noise to be heard. My mind began to drift a bit, tired by hours of constant watchfulness. I began to imagine that the rigs were a slowly moving herd of huge creatures, hooting back and forth to each other in different tones to let the others know where they were...
I kept most of my attention down current of us, expecting that fish would come from that direction. Glancing back over my shoulder caused me to freeze.
“Oh (bleep)! Cobia!”
Less than twenty feet from the boat, the fish kept coming and dipped below us, surfacing again twenty feet down current. I laid a cast in front of it, but was ignored. Twice, three times more, same result. Switching flies didn’t help, although it did deign to eat a piece of chum. Then it disappeared back into the depths.
We were all starting to grumble unflattering things about cobia and their persnickety nature when suddenly Adam, who had taken over fish watch, noticed a different colored shadow in a school of spade fish. We stared at where he pointed, straining to pick up what he saw. Suddenly a dark brown form emerged from the spades – definitely a ling, and a different one this time. Bigger.
In an attempt to keep down tangles and clutter in our small vessel, I had reeled up and stowed the rod I had been using previously. The sighting of the fish prompted a hurried flurry of stripping line, trying not to wrap coils around anything as I tried to guess how much line I would need. About fifty feet I guessed, and laid out the cast. I led the fish by a couple feet and the fly dropped right where I wanted it but a foot short. I twitched it to see if the fish would react, and readied myself to pick it up again for another cast.
Without hesitation the fish swam to it and I watched the gills flare as his nose skimmed up out of the water; a supremely confident eat. I was so surprised that I almost hesitated too long on the hook set. When I came tight to the fish, he lunged forward, throwing water side to side with headshakes. Suddenly we had a whole new set of problems – namely, getting the heck away from the rig so the fish didn’t get into the structure and break me off. To do that, I stepped forward amidships, Adam slid back to fire up the engine, and Chris cast us off from the rig line.
It sounds easy, just reading about it, but when hooked up to a fish over 40”, swells are rolling in, and there’s not just a whole lot of room in the boat to begin with, it was impressive that we managed it so smoothly. Once safely away from the rig, I began to apply heavy pressure to the fish. It had behaved surprisingly well in the first minute or so in the fight when we were getting organized, but it was not happy when I started to lift him back towards the boat. We knew cobia by their reputation to be docile at first, and then go berserk once gaffed, so we were especially cautious when I lead the fish close. When the gaff went in, the fish did indeed freak out, almost immediately slipping off and sounding for the bottom. I let it run and made sure my line was clear of the gaff, and then immediately applied pressure again. A big fish like that can use a few moments of respite to punish you, and I wanted to make sure my first cobia came in the boat. A few minutes later, the fish was again at boatside, and this time there was no getting away.
We lingered a bit more to try and see if anything else would swim by, but that was it. We headed back in to shore as the wind kicked up, feeling like we had really managed to do something – overcoming uncertainty, adversity, and maybe even a little fear.
I can’t wait to do it again.