On the ocean, it’s you, your wits and your prey. The lure of cobia and red drum makes the Beach a hot spot for fly and traditional fishermen.
by Ric Burnley
photography by Keith Lanpher and Harry Hindmarsh
I’m slowly motoring through the glistening ocean with a few fellow anglers. We’re a half-dozen miles off the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, our eyes all searching for the prize: a big brown fish.
Finally we spot a 4-foot-long cobia swimming just under the surface of the crystal-clear water. We turn around and start to close in.
When we get about 30 feet away, professional angler Colby Trow hauls back his long, thin fly rod and shoots a wild concoction of feathers and fur a few feet in front of the fish. He strips the line and the fly darts across the water. The cobia reacts, splashing and swirling just inches behind the lure. Trow strips again, and the fish lunges. Another strip, another lunge, the cobia grabs the fly and yanks, but misses the hook. The fish is teasing the fisherman – grabbing, slapping and chasing the lure all the way to the side of the boat, where it splashes its tail one last time and disappears into the blue.
This is sight casting for ocean prey, and it’s like big-game hunting: stalking a fish, sneaking up on it, shooting a bait, hoping for a hit. On the toughest day, an angler can spend hours searching the water for a single fish. On the best days, he might encounter huge schools swimming at the surface, looking for an easy meal. There are easier ways to catch these fish, but sight fishing isn’t about catching – it’s about the hunt.
To be sure, sight casting isn’t for everyone. It can be hot; bright sunshine is vital to spotting the fish swimming at the surface. It can be frustrating, and, like any other worthwhile pursuit, fruitless. But it’s intimate and purposeful; in the heart-pounding moments after you spot your prey, it’s just you against that fish. It’s about outsmarting the prey, hooking it, fighting it, beating it.
Sight casters can cruise around the Oceanfront, lower Chesapeake Bay and up the Eastern Shore looking for red drum, cobia, black drum, even crevalle jacks and striped bass. Big black drum, some weighing more than 80 pounds, can be spotted hanging around the rock islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The bridge will also host schools of striped bass and even squadrons of silver jacks patrolling the pilings and circling the rocks.
But cobia are the real star of the show. They can grow to 100 pounds and fight like a caged animal. They can be found hiding behind bridge pilings or under navigation buoys, shadowing turtles and stingrays, or just swimming out in the open.
As we patrol the Atlantic on this late August morning, we spot pods of porpoises, schools of swift stingrays, and even a rare and massive leatherback turtle. But no cobia.
Undeterred, Colby Trow stands ready on the bow with his elegant fly rod while another angler maintains watch on the hard-top with a beefy spinning rod.
Since sight casting requires bright sun, a fish hunting expedition doesn’t even start until after breakfast and is usually over in plenty of time for drinks and fish stories at a watering hole. For many anglers, the day starts at Long Bay Pointe Bait and Tackle on the Lynnhaven River, sight casting central and only minutes from the Chesapeake Bay. Shop owner Steve Wray says he has seen the sport take off in the past few years. “It seems like everyone is sight fishing,” he says. “We’ll have 20 or 30 boats in here buying tackle and fueling up on a weekday.”
The sport came to town about five years ago, Wray says, when a group of enterprising anglers brought back techniques they had learned in North Carolina and Florida. Before that, anglers looking to catch cobia and drum would anchor on the shoals of the lower Chesapeake Bay and blindly soak bait on the bottom. Two problems: This method produces more stingrays, sharks and other “trash fish” than target species, and – as Wray says – bait fishing is boring.
“Not many people have the patience to sit and wait for hours until the tide turns right,” he says. Sight fishing, on the other hand, is active and engaging. “You’re looking, searching, covering water, not sitting in one place and waiting.”
Another draw for sight casting, Wray says, is its simplicity. “It may not be easy to find a fish in a haystack,” he says, “but the tackle and techniques are pretty simple.”
To get started, all an angler needs is a heavy-duty spinning rod, a couple bucktail jigs, a pack of hooks and a bucket of live eels. Wray also recommends a good pair of polarized sunglasses. For protection from the punishing summer sun, he suggests a full suit of sun armor – long sleeves and long pants, wide-brimmed hat, even a light balaclava and fingerless fishing gloves. “The sun and wind and salt,” he warns, “will beat an angler down.”
After sight fishing came here, it took only a
couple years for the Beach to become a world-class destination, Wray says, and he has seen anglers from all over the country pulling into the fuel dock. “The charter guys are booked solid,” he says, “and a lot of anglers are bringing their own boats from as far away as Florida and New England.”
Not only do anglers come a ways to chase these fish, but the fish also travel from afar to visit the Chesapeake Bay. According to data from the
Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program, cobia that were marked with an identification tag in Virginia have been recaptured as far away as Louisiana. And red drum outfitted with a pop-up satellite tag have migrated to the edge of the Continental Shelf – 50 miles offshore. Still, not enough tags have been
returned to provide a clear picture of the migration patterns of these great fish. Program director Lewis Gillingham says, “We don’t know much about where these fish go in the winter, but we do know they return to Chesapeake Bay each summer.”
For red and black drum, that may be many, many summers. A red drum can live more than 30 years and grow as big as 50 pounds, and black drum will live more than 65 years and push 80 pounds, Gillingham says.
Cobia, on the other hand, grow fast and die young. While they can weigh more than 100 pounds, they rarely live longer than 10 years. “A 50-pound cobia may only be 6 or 7 years old,” he says, “and a 100-pounder won’t be more than a teenager.”
Not only are these fish big, but they also have a habit of swimming at the surface. “No one is sure why they do it,” Gillingham says. “Maybe to warm up, or maybe that’s where they find food.”
Whatever the reason, this behavior makes drum and cobia perfect candidates for sight fishing. “These species are sought after by anglers around the world,” he says, “and they live right here in Virginia.”
Which is what brings us all together on this boat on this hot, still, summer day. The diesel engines drone as we slowly patrol the open ocean. We maintain a silent intensity, searching the water.
Suddenly we spot one.
Bobby Kostinas, who’s been looking out from the hard-top, slings his rod. A bucktail jig arcs through the air like a feathered missile and splashes down a few feet in front of the fish. Kostinas jerks the bucktail once and the cobia pounces. The line comes tight and the angler drives the hook home. With the rod bent double, he climbs down from the hard-top and positions himself in the cockpit for the battle.
Cobia fight dirty. This one charges the boat, dives deep, cuts across the surface, shakes its head, even makes a dash for the propeller. The fisherman dances with the fish, retrieving line when he can, holding tight when he can’t.
After the two trade blows for half an hour, the cobia’s energy is waning. A few more charges and Kostinas has the fish bulldogging closer and closer to the boat. When the fish is in range, Kostinas’ dad, Russ, reaches down and snares the cobia with the net, then lifts it into the boat and flops the fish – a 50-pounder – onto the deck.
Even out of the water, the thick brown fish doesn’t quit fighting. It writhes and bangs around the cockpit. After it finally gives up, a photo is taken for remembrance, and the fish is lowered over the side and released. It gives the crew one last splash of the tail to say goodbye.
Watch our behind the scenes video by Harry Hindmarsh Late Summer Cobia below.