It’s officially fall here in Southwest Florida. As we creep out of the summer swelter, the occasional cool (eighty degree) northeast breeze begins to blow, kick-starting our fall turnover and one of the most exciting migrations of the season kicks off.
Thick pods of anchovy, silversides, threadfin, ballyhoo and finger mullet congregate tight to the beaches along barrier islands. This abundance of bait is the perfect fuel for southbound species, headed to the Florida Keys’ and Tortuga’s winter grounds. A variety of species take advantage of this migration. Ravenous tarpon, sharks, kingfish, mackerel, false albacore and cobia venture far inshore, gorging themselves just off the shore break.
With a few adjustments to technique and tackle, you can easily target each of these species until the second true cold front arrives in early to mid-December. One of my favorite species to pursue are chunky cobia hanging around threadfin herring and ballyhoo schools.
During the day, keep a keen eye on the horizon for diving pelicans or swooping gulls. Here’s a tip. If the pelicans are throwing back their heads to swallow, odds are, they are probably feeding on larger baits like threadfins or finger mullet. If you see the pelicans holding their bill underwater after a dive, odds are they are filtering small anchovy or silver sides out of the seawater in their gullet. This is a great way to identify bait schools at a distance and save some time.
Once you’ve found active bait schools, it’s best to begin working the outside edges of the bait. I prefer to use soft plastic swimbaits and jigs to work the upper, middle and lower water column. Cobia move throughout the entire spectrum. Some days, they can be easily spotted swimming along the surface and through the bait schools. This is a great time to use a lighter weight soft plastic eel and finesse the cobia into striking.
When they are holding deeper, heavy swimbaits and jigs are great for working down below the bait, where schools of cobia often hold, waiting for wounded or exhausted baits to drop down. Work your jigs with a medium speed retrieve, using short rod twitches to imitate a wounded bait on the fall.
While it’s great to try and target cobia in these big bait balls, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a number of other predators interested in your baits. Tarpon are common and pretty easy to identify as they roll or greyhound around the surface. Occasional schools of over-slot redfish are possible too, they are hard to miss when a big golden school of fish appears out of nowhere and quickly ravages a bait pod. For mackerel fans, add a short wire leader to your presentation and slowly troll around the bait pods. Kings over 50 pounds aren’t uncommon this time of year.
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