With temperatures in the 60s by day and 50s by night, the first part of March should provide ideal fishing conditions for many coastal species across the Panhandle--and after St. Patrick's Day, the arrival of the migratory species will really pump up the volume for anglers.
March is the classic month for arrival of cobia in the Panhandle, and with the water temperature off the beaches already in the low 70s, they should be right on schedule this year.
The brown torpedoes typically travel anywhere from just outside the second bar to a mile offshore, usually moving east to west in spring. They often swim just below the surface, making them exciting sight-fishing targets.
Cobia are sometimes called "crab eaters,” and they of course readily grab a small blue crab. But the best bait is often a live eel about 10 to 12 inches long; they're often available at area bait shops during the cobia season in March and April. Live pinfish and finger mullet also do well, and soft plastics that imitate all these also catch fish, though live bait is usually king.
One lure that's as good as the real thing at times is the pre-rigged Savage Lures Real Eel, which has an amazing swimming action and is available in 8, 12 and 16-inch sizes--all are deadly. The LiveTarget Mullet and Pinfish, both soft plastics, also do well. The Savage Lures are available at Fisherman’s Choice in Eastpoint, and other outlets throughout the Panhandle.
The most common tactic for boaters is to get out on the water at daybreak and motor slowly off the beach east to west. This puts the sun at the back of the captain, who usually operates from an elevated command post that allows him to see into the water. When a cobia is spotted, the boat is run in a wide arc around the fish and then allowed to drift as the target swims into casting range.
In the afternoons, the boats usually ease along from west to east, again putting the sun behind the anglers for best visibility.
Cobia can get huge--the state record, over 130 pounds--was caught off Destin, and though these giants are rarely seen these days due to fishing pressure, the fish grow fast, and cobia over 40 pounds are not uncommon. For that reason, stout gear is the ticket--an 8-foot medium-heavy spinning rod will provide lots of distance when paired with a 4000-sized spinning reel and 40- to 50-pound-test braid. Most anglers add a couple feet of 50-pound-test mono to stiffen the presentation and prevent the flexible braid from folding back on itself as the bait swims--it's tied in with a double Uni-knot rather than a swivel for ease of casting.
The boat limit on cobia in the Gulf has been reduced to two, total, this year in an effort to help the populations rebound after a slump in recent years. Minimum size is 33 inches to the fork, bag limit one per angler.
Kings and Spanish
Right after the cobia arrive, or sometimes concurrently, Spanish and king mackerel start to show up in area waters. While the cobia tend to travel in pairs or schools of three to five, the mackerels often come in schools of hundreds--or thousands! And since that's a lot of mouths to feed, they don't show up until the migrating bait schools arrive--they follow the bait all the way from the Keys as spring progresses up the peninsula. There are usually bluefish mixed in with them early, but the blues thin out as the water warms.
For Spanish and blues, a Clark Spoon with red bead head in size 0 or size 1 pretty much tells the tale--put several of these out a couple feet behind a one-ounce bead chain sinker and troll at a fast walk and you usually don't need anything else--the fish show up around the inlets first, then move into the larger bays and out along the beaches. Number 1 or 2 wire prevents cutoffs. Anglers who specialize in catching larger Spanish often get them with king mackerel live bait tactics, which we'll see below.
School kings can be caught on an upsized version of the Clark, a size 4, with enough weight to put it down a few feet at 6 knots. Some hook it up behind a number 1 or 2 planer, especially after the morning bite at the surface. A 2-ounce hair jig with a long strip of bonito or mullet belly also does the job for schoolies--it can be cast into breaking fish, or trolled rapidly. Or, for some real excitement, try tossing a big topwater chugger into breaking fish and working it hard--with luck, you'll see a big king skyrocket higher than your head with the lure in its jaws!
Anglers who are after kings over 20 pounds, usually tournament fishermen, rely on live bait slow-trolled around inlets, nearshore buoys and other gathering points. Cigar minnows, menhaden, ladyfish and mullet all are good kingfish fodder, with baits 8 to 12 inches long preferred by most. Most fish them on "stinger" rigs, with a single 5/0 or larger hook in the lips, a second 3X strong size 4 or 6 treble hooked just under the skin in the back to prevent cutoffs. The hooks are attached with Number 6 wire, and a foot or so of number 6 is also used to create a leader to a swivel.
These baits are trolled at 2 to 3 knots along the color breaks at the inlets, shoals and over offshore ledges where jumbo kings often roam.
At the Piers
March and April can bring some of the best pier fishing action of the year during a warm spring, with cobia, kings and Spanish all within reach early, and maybe a few tarpon around late if there's some 80-degree weather.
Most pier pros rely on live bait, which can be sabiki-rigged off the piers. The live baits are immediately hooked up on larger rigs and put back over the rail, with best action usually at the far end of the span.
When cobia are on the move, the elevated position of the piers gives anglers a great location for spotting the fish and getting a bait in front of them. It's a bit more problematic when it comes to landing them, however; stout 7 to 8 foot spinners, 5000-series reels and 60 to 80-pound test braid gives a good shot at handling even the larger fish. A pier net or bridge gaff will also come in handy; someone on the piers usually has one handy and will be happy to help.
Spanish and small kings, also readily caught on live bait captured with sabikis, can be derricked up with the heavy gear without netting, but larger kings will require net or gaff, or walking them all the way back to the beach.
Sheepshead spawn in March and April, and it's an opportunity to collect a cooler full of these very tasty fish. While most sheepshead caught the rest of the year will be only a pound or two, those caught during the spawn are sometimes five pounds and up, and they have some beautiful fillets on them when they get to this size and larger.
The fish spawn on hard structure, typically rockpiles, ledges and artificial reefs in 15 to as much as 100 feet of water. Some also show up to pick at the barnacles on area piers, docks and bridge pilings--they can be seen from the surface in many areas.
Fiddler crabs are a can't miss bait, but for those who don't want to go bait-wrangling, fresh-cut shrimp usually does the job. A size 1/0 to 2/0 hook and a chunk of shrimp tail about an inch long is right for fish to 3 or 4 pounds--larger ones can gulp down a whole shrimp tail. They usually bite on bottom, so the bait is weighted. Some anglers do well with a bare jig head with a cut shrimp tail on the hook--1/4 ounce for inshore and bays, heavier for deeper water or more current.
The length limit is 12 inches, but that's really too small to get much meat; those 14 inches and up produce a lot more. The bag limit is a generous 15 per person per day.
Sheepshead eat mostly shellfish, shrimp and crabs, and this gives their meat a light, flaky texture that's delicious any way you want to cook it. The big issue with them is their abundance of needle-like spines; they can be like trying to clean a pincushion.
One easy solution is to use kitchen shears to nip all the spines off before starting to fillet. This takes the pain out of the job. Like most fish, they're best if filleted, then skinned. The delicate flavor is great baked--just spray with olive oil, add fresh lemon slices and bake until a fork readily penetrates.