The azaleas and tulip trees are in full bloom along the central Gulf coast and that means one thing—cobia fever is sweeping the region once again.

The early warning signs start once the last nacho crumbs are cleared from Super Bowl parties. That’s when someone whips out a calendar and predicts the exact date when the first cobia of the season will meet the gaff along the Emerald Coast. For the uninitiated, that’s the stretch of emerald green water from Mexico Beach, Florida, west to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Once that first cobia is caught, the news can spread faster than a California wildfire.

You see, cobia fishing here is not just a contact sport; it’s an uncontrollable obsession. It’s bred into our genes like a Jimmy Buffett song. Grown men get misty-eyed describing their first trip. Jobs have been lost and marriages shattered over the hunt for these brown bombers. But the season only lasts a couple months, so you set priorities.

Known by several monikers (cobia, ling, crab crunchers, lemonfish), these migrating fish mosey inshore, typically east to west, along the shallow troughs off the beach. A prevailing southeast wind keeps them in close. Sight-casting is the name of the game in these crystalline waters, making keen eyes and polarized sunglasses a must. Being up high to peer down into the water is a definite advantage, too. That’s why all manner of craft ranging from 16-foot johnboats up to 80-foot convertibles sport towers of every description. Most are gleaming polished welded aluminum with full controls, electronics and a buggy top. But during the run it’s not unusual to see some made of PVC pipe or steel plumbing conduit. Or stepladders lashed to consoles, either. With manly amounts of duct tape, of course. OSHA safety inspections and seat belts are optional. The battle cry, “Hey Bubba, watch this!” is often heard echoing over the sand dunes.

Purists use long spinning rods to cast ling jigs at their cruising targets. These big bucktails come in more Day-Glo colors than the Merry Pranksters. Stick with chartreuse early and pink or orange later in the season, and you’ll be in good stead. Bait options include live eels, pinfish or catfish with the spines clipped off. Ever try to throw a writhing ball of slime at a moving target? It ain’t easy, but we all love a challenge, right?

Cobia are not the smartest fish in the animal kingdom. In fact, they’re slow and curious to a fault. They often swim in packs behind rays and turtles, making them easier to spot. But automatic strikes are not guaranteed. Once hooked, however, cobia fight hard and often jump and roll on the line. You’d better have the fish box open and be on your toes once that gaff point sinks home, too.

Do they have the same cachet as the celebrated blue marlin? No. They don’t have the stamina of tuna or the popularity of dolphin, either. But cobia do offer Southern anglers the chance for warm sun on their faces, the thrill of the hunt, a long-awaited pull on the line and a tune-up for the main event in the summer ahead. And that’s a rite of passage many of us crave every spring.