This popular species of fish once again fair game for anglers

After going virtually unmolested during their spring migratory run through South Carolina waters a year ago, cobia are once again fair game for anglers in 2018, at least on the northern portion of the Palmetto State's coast.

In 2016 the recreational and total annual catch limits of Atlantic migratory group cobia (Georgia to New York) were excessively exceeded, and the 2017 season was sacrificed to account for the overage.

Recreational harvest of Atlantic migratory group was closed in January, 2017 for the remainder of the year in federal waters, which extend beyond three miles offshore.

Since 1996, South Carolina has automatically adopted regulations and closures put in place for federally managed species, meaning cobia could not be harvested in South Carolina state waters either in 2017.

Adding to the frustration for South Carolina anglers in 2017 was the fact that cobia could be harvested in state waters (up to three miles offshore) in neighboring states, North Carolina and Georgia.

But with the 2016 overage accounted for, anglers are now free to harvest one of the brown behemoths known for their dogged fight and as superb table fare.

The month of May, when the cobia migration into and through South Carolina waters reaches a peak, will be a happier time in 2018, at least in the northern portion of the state.

The longtime minimum size limit of 33 inches for cobia is now 36 inches, but the state's coastline will have split regulations with Jeremy Inlet on Edisto Island serving as the dividing line.

North of Jeremy Inlet, the recreational bag limit for cobia is one per person per day or six per vessel per day, whichever is more restrictive.

South of Jeremy Inlet, the recreational bag limit for cobia is one per person per day and no more than three per boat per day.

In addition, the cobia fishery will be closed for the month of May in state waters south of Jeremy Inlet, where cobia fishing in the estuaries of Port Royal, St. Helena and Calibogue Sounds has been long been a rite of spring.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologists found cobia that enter those bodies of water to spawn in the spring are a genetically distinct population segment that is in jeopardy of collapse due to long-term overfishing. This will mark the third consecutive May the closure has been in effect south of Jeremy Inlet.

Cobia caught in Grand Strand waters are virtually all caught in the ocean, and Capt. Jason Burton of Murrells Inlet Fishing Charters is looking forward to being able to once again harvest them.

"I'm a big fan of the new regulations," said Burton. "One fish can feed a lot of people. If you harvest a 40-pound (cobia) you can feed the neighborhood."

During the catch-and-release spring of 2017, Burton was impressed with the cobia he encountered on near-shore reefs. On multiple days, Burton saw a large school of cobia, surprising for a species often found in singles or pairs.

"Some of the stuff I saw last year was amazing," said Burton. "We had 3-4 days on the reef where we thought they were spadefish, but there were 200-300 of those 20-25 inch cobia. They weren't big enough to be keepers but big enough to peel off 30 yards of drag and put up a fight for our (customers). One day we caught and released 30-35 of them. They were hitting mud minnows, spoons, anything we threw.

"I've never seen schools of cobia like that, maybe that's a sign the stock is healthy."