George Norton with an adult male cobia.

Every year around this time I am just like a scratched-up, old school vinyl record. Remember when you turned your record player on, walked out of the room and one of those scratches caused the record to skip? Instead of smooth-playing music, one segment plays over and over again until you walk back into the room and give the record player a quick knock until the needle passes by the scratch and the music continues on. 

So, what in the heck does that have to do with my fishing column, you may ask? One word says it all: “Cobia.”

I began begging for mercy for this wonderful fish 10 or 12 years ago when cobia stocks in Port Royal Sound were extremely healthy. In particular, the month of May was when large numbers of cobia would enter the Sound, and on any given day it was not unusual to catch a dozen or more cobia. 

With research on cobia and their migration habits in its infancy, day after day saw boats coming in with outrageous numbers of cobia, many in the 50- to 80-pound range. Because I was connected to the staff at the Waddell Mariculture Center here in Bluffton, I knew that most all of these large cobia were females and almost without exception, every single one of them was loaded with eggs that would be released so they could be fertilized by male cobia. 

A male cobia rarely exceeds 35 to 40 pounds and, because May is a prime breeding month, I began begging anglers to release the large females and instead, taking one or two of the smaller males. 

To put it mildly, my begging caused quite a stir, with some anglers telling me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and my prediction that stocks would crash if things didn’t change was pure hogwash. 

I am by no means a soothsayer but, as cobia fishing became more popular, the crash happened and since then state waters are closed for catching cobia the entire month of May so that, Lord willing, our Port Royal cobia can make a comeback. 

Instrumental towards this goal is the work the folks at the Waddell Mariculture Center have been doing year after year. The state-owned center is a hidden gem here in Bluffton, located on Sawmill Creek Road. 

The marine biologists there capture live male and female cobia with very specific DNA characteristics and, using huge tanks that mimic perfect light and water temperature conditions, they entice these fish to breed. It is truly a marvel to see. 

Just last year Waddell released 36,000 cobia in Port Royal Sound. It is hoped that enough of them will survive to adulthood to migrate back to the Sound, where they will breed as nature intended, so that one day stocks will once again be vibrant. 

Erin Levesque, Waddell’s director, informed me that this year they got an early start and, in large aeriated ponds on the property, they have nearly a million tiny cobia trying to get a start on life. The mortality rate is high with such young fish, but it is hoped they can match the record number released last year.

What concerns me the most is the cobia that migrate into our federal waters. Though I don’t cobia fish much at all, I counted 54 boats fishing for cobia at the Betsy Ross artificial reef last week. Having served on various boards that recommend catch limits, I was shocked when South Carolina set a limit of six cobia per boat. To me that is crazy, because one male cobia has enough meat to feed a small army. Add to that the continuing rise in popularity of catching cobia, they are being hammered from the time they leave Florida waters all the way up to the Chesapeake Bay. 

As for our cobia around the artificial reefs at the Betsy Ross and nearby Tire Reef, I don’t think many anglers realize that a portion of the females caught in these places might be part of the decimated Port Royal stocks that are either on their way to breed in the Sound or have just dropped their eggs in the Sound and are on their migration farther north. 

Maybe this column will set off a light in local anglers’ brains, encouraging them to let the big gals go. I can only hope this is the case.

Lastly, to keep a cobia, the fish must be more than 36 inches fork length. Here is where I really get heated up, when I see boats at the Betsy Ross gaff an undersized fish and, realizing it is too short, throw it overboard. I have seen this countless times and it drives me absolutely nuts.

Invest in a large landing net so that once boated, undersized fish can be released unharmed. It’s up to us to protect this wonderful fish.

Mark my words! If anglers’ attitude toward cobia doesn’t change soon, the feds are going to close down this fishery much like red snapper. 

Don’t be just a fisherman! Instead, be a responsible fisherman. Spread the word!   

Collins Doughtie, a 60-year resident of the Lowcountry, is a sportsman, graphic artist, and lover of nature.