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Giant cobia and tiny sardines, Alabama’s massive fish migration

Millions upon millions of migrating animals are visiting Alabama right now and almost no one knows it.

In this case, the migrators have fins, not wings, and are slipping silently through the state’s portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

Cobia, wahoo, mackerel (kings and Spanish), tuna, tarpon, marlin and swordfish are the big predator species, but they are following the migrations of a world of smaller fish, such as round scad, short-scale sardines, menhaden, Atlantic bumper, blue runners, and anchovies. Sharks and sea turtles are also migrating through the area right now. Even coastal fish such as flounder and sheepshead undergo annual migrations.

Most fishermen are aware of the spring migrations of these species, when they return to our waters from warmer waters to the south where they spend the winter. Cobia fishermen in particular, follow the run of cobia as they move up the Florida coast and into our area. And the media makes much of the huge shark migrations seen every spring, when schools of hundreds of sharks are visible from the top floors of the skyscraping condominiums.

But somehow, many of our fishermen and most of the general public are unaware of the fall migration, when these same species come back through our waters on the return trip.

Count local fishing guide Richard Rutland as one of the few who is acutely clued in to the migrations. When my phone chimed up with a text one Sunday morning, I knew the fall migration was on.

This cobia tipped the scales at 52 pounds. It is probably about three years old. The big migratory fish like this are exceptionally fast growers. They can put on between 20 and 40 pounds in a year.

"Ling bite is off the chart if you want to go one day this week," read Richard’s text. Cobia are locally known as ling or lemonfish.

"I’m in. Pick a day. Pick two if you want," I replied. A word of advice about fishing and opportunity, anytime someone who fishes for a living sends a text like that, always say yes.

We were on the water at 7 A.M., the next day. First stop was to net some bait. Menhaden, which are undergoing a migration of their own right now, were ganged up around the mouths of the coastal rivers. We threw the cast net one time at Heron Bay Cutoff and had about 200 six inch menhaden. We headed offshore to an area known as the ship anchorage.

That’s where big ocean-going vessels, container ships, oil tankers, and the like, wait either to enter the port of Mobile, or for a cargo to haul. Sometimes, the ships may sit out there, about seven miles offshore, for weeks at a time. That’s when the baitfish starts to really build up around a ship, and the big predators. I won’t go into too much detail about our trip, but I’ll offer the following report.

Around a single ship, we encountered a school of a dozen cobia, of which we caught several. While there, we caught five 12-pound bonito – a member of the tuna family – king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, and saw three different kinds of baitfish in the water: Hardtails, cigar minnows, and Atlantic bumper. It was clear why the big predator fish were there. And it was clear the annual fall migration was in full swing.

These migrations are all about food and water temperature. They are as regular and predictable as bird migrations over land. To understand the Gulf’s migrations, study a map.

All the migratory fish listed above winter in two places, the edge of the Caribbean, down around the Florida Keys, or the area around the Texas/Mexico border and points south. Think of those two groups as a western group and an eastern group for each species in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the water warms in the spring, the eastern group travels up from the Keys along the west coast of Florida, past Tampa Bay, then through the Big Bend region of Florida, along the Panhandle through to Alabama. Meanwhile, the fish in the western group travel up the Texas coast, all the way around to the bottom of Louisiana’s boot. This is where the species mix and most of them spawn.

Think of the waters around Louisiana as a great big dating pool for fish, with the eastern and western groups spending the warm summer months gorging and fornicating together. Then, as water temperatures begin to cool in the fall, the two groups split apart, and work their way back around the coastline to their respective wintering grounds.

"What we went and did with the ling, Those fish always show up in the fall. They come in close to shore, primarily around the mouths of the bays, like Mobile Bay, or off Mississippi’s bay, and off Louisiana around Venice. And they’ll get in shallow where the bait is. I caught a 40-pound fish in 14 feet of water," Rutland said. "I think they come in close to stage up and gorge themselves on those pogies (menhaden). The pogies are getting ready to migrate too, and the cobia gorge on them to get ready to shoot back east. They run the panhandle, then the Big Bend, and on down to south Florida. And the fish in Venice and Louisiana, they go the opposite direction. You can watch the fishing reports and see where they are. They are all just eating everything. I find a lot of pogies in their stomachs, but I find a lot of crabs and a lot of hardhead catfish too."

Rutland said the migration ends as water temperatures dip below 68 degrees.

"As soon as it cools off, they’re gone. Then they’ll start to show back up again in the spring, soon as that water hits 68 to 72, which is usually mid to late April," Rutland said. "They are totally predictable, just like birds."

One of the interesting things tagging studies have shown is that some fish only migrate so far. For instance, along the way, as the species migrate north for the summer, many individuals will stop in an area and spend the entire season there, for instance, off Pensacola or Mobile Bay. Cobia, one of the most visible of the migratory species because it stays close to the coast, have been shown to often return to the exact same spots year after year. In some cases, tagged cobia have been recaptured on exactly the same buoy they were originally caught beneath, two and three years in a row.

One of the coolest things about fishing with Rutland this time was his new depthfinder, a Raymarine GS165. This is big sonar machine packing a serious technological punch. It is a far cry from the consumer grade machine on my boat. It’s 1,000 watt transducer is about five times more powerful than you find on most depthfinders, and is capable of shooting a whole spectrum of sonar beams. What this translates to is a very precise picture of what’s underwater.

"It’s pretty powerful," Rutland said. "It can reach depths of over 3,000 feet, with both sidescan and downscan. If I run over a school of baitfish, I can see each individual fish in that school. With the older technologies, they just appear as a big red blob, like a really dense school. The new machine I get this separation between fish. Like if I run over a school of amberjack, I can tell it is amberjack by the shape, and I can see the individual fish on screen. You can really see what you are looking at."

While we were fishing, I was standing in the back of the boat where I could see the machine, and I could see the different species moving through the sonar array. Bonito stood out in particular because they were moving so fast across the screen. Really cool.

You can book a trip with Capt. Richard Rutland here.

You can follow Ben Raines on Facebook, Twitter at BenHRaines, and on Instagram. You can reach him via email at braines@al.com.
You can watch Ben’s documentary, the The Underwater Forest, here on Youtube.

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