Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Toothy Torpedos
“The day was a bit of a bust. All we caught was this barracuda,” said a despondent angler. My jaw dropped when he showed me a photo of that fish.
By Justin Karnopp

This lucky ingrate, in my salt-stained eyes, had landed the fish of a lifetime. I’d just returned from my first epic saltwater foray on the edge of a barrier reef, via Southwater Caye, Belize. We’d spent a week sight casting under azure skies and exploring flats, mangrove-lined lagoons, and the outer atolls of Lighthouse Reef. We burned evenings while huddled around a thatch-roofed shack, relating the day’s events, with palms swinging overhead in the breeze. An occasional ray, porpoise or tarpon stirred up bioluminescent algae in the bay. Permit had eluded me, which I rather expected, but what really stuck in my craw was a missed opportunity to catch a big barracuda on the fly. As I interrogated that fellow angler from my San Pedro barstool, he inquired quizzically. “Wow, you’re really interested in barracuda fishing?”

Barracuda often swim where there’s unique scenery, whether that’s a beautiful coral head, a remote sand flat, or an interested bystander.

              “Yes, sir, I am,” I said. “I’ve caught tarpon and bonefish on this trip and it has been awesome, but I have been shut out on barracuda. That is my primary goal, to catch one like yours.”

              As we yammered over a couple of chilled Belikins, his eyes lit up as he related details of the encounter. Turns out, his original, solemn report belied reality: He was ecstatic to catch that ‘cuda. Likely, some other lodge guests downplayed the experience, and filed that barracuda away as bycatch, meaning wasted time in their pursuit of a Grand Slam.

              That exchange happened 20 years ago. The fly-fishing court of opinion hadn’t accepted the lowly barracuda as a worthy quarry. Today, anglers posing with barracuda grace the covers of fishing magazines and fill up Instagram feeds. Rightfully so—this apex predator possesses all the admirable qualities of a premier fly-rod gamefish. For example, barracuda occur in beautiful, intriguing habitats and present sight-fishing opportunities, playing to the hunter in all of us. The take and ensuing fight from a ‘cuda is often spectacular and tackle testing. Barracuda have broken my rods, snapped fly lines, and left me quivering in the wake of heartbreak. Additionally, barracuda are a highly successful species and can be found in subtropical oceans worldwide.

             On February 14, 2013, Thomas Gibson, of Houston, Texas, caught a 102-pound barracuda while trolling for tarpon near the mouth of the Cuanza River in Angola. While Gibson’s chance encounter is typical of tangles with the largest barracuda, fly anglers looking to specifically target big beasts would do well to begin the hunt off the beaten path. Having the capability to access less-pressured flats, cuts, and reefs greatly improves your odds of hooking a granddaddy. Consider packing a standup paddleboard (SUP) on your next foray to the Yucatan, Belize, or the Bahamas. These days, SUPS are highly transportable and can be reduced to the size of a carry-on, complete with a sand spear/push pole combo to “park” the SUP on flats for a final pursuit on foot. Savvy anglers pack snorkel gear on their SUP for scouting reefs and drop-offs, where big barracuda tend to hang out between tides.

You can catch and eat barracuda but you better be careful if you do so. Some barracuda carry heavy toxins. Most anglers choose to release these unique predators.

             Barracuda are both scavenger and predator. While the biggest are often found around reef edges in deeper water, these same fish venture onto the flats to hunt, particularly on big tides and full moons. When a large barracuda is spotted on a bonefish flat, utilize the element of surprise by landing the fly ahead of and to the side of the fish. Once your fly hits the water, give it a hard yank to garner the fish’s attention. That’s when the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Strip fast to imitate fleeing prey, set with a hard strip, and do your best to clear the line ahead of a reel-screaming run.

             Easier said than done, as I learned on a recent foray to Exuma, Bahamas, when I stumbled upon pay dirt in the form of an inland lagoon. That crystalline pond belonged to a shadowy figure patrolling in a figure-eight pattern. Under a high sun, the skinny water warranted a cautious approach. I slinked into position behind the fish and fired a cast. That ‘cuda immediately took interest and carefully stalked the fly. I stripped frantically and it was like a switch flipped in that fish—all but my leader was in a heap near my feet when the speeding ‘cuda grabbed the fly. That fishes’ speed outpaced my attempt to clear the line and I knew I was doomed. A loop of line wrapped around my reel and with a loud “snap” the fish went skipping across the lagoon with my entire shooting head in tow, leaving me despondent, and a fly line poorer.

              To fish barracuda, you don’t need elaborate gear or flies. Yak-hair streamers, four-to eight-inches long and armed with a trailer hook, are my go-to flies. An 8, 9 or 10-weight rod and a floating line or intermediate sinking line cover the bases while fishing the flats and cuts. For a leader, I use a loop-to-loop connection with 40 or 50-pound fluorocarbon and an 18-inch piece of the heaviest wire I can get away with. I’ve had a big barracuda gnaw through 30-pound, so 40-pound is a safer bet. In areas where fish have not been pressured, I think single-strand stainless steel, like shark anglers rely on, might be the way to go.

Big ‘cuda stalk the flats, looking for needlefish and bones. Take the author’s advice and the next time you see one of these beasts, give it a throw—you’ll be amazed at how fast these fish travel over a flat, and you’ll be equally impressed by that backing tearing off your reel.

            Barracuda are unpredictable and a chance to cast at one can occur anytime, anywhere. The biggest barracuda I’ve ever hooked was on that trip to Exuma. We were en route to a flat one afternoon when the sight of terns bombing into the water interrupted our commute. Upon investigation, the feeding frenzy was composed of small jacks. When the mayhem subsided, a scavenging beast arrived to clean up the scraps.

            Fortunately, I had a 9-weight rod, pre-rigged with wire. To mimic a floundering sardina, I plucked a five-inch long, red and white articulated fly from the box and threw at the fish. Without hesitation, that ‘cuda ate. I held on for a couple blistering runs. Unfortunately, when I tried to swing that fish to the stern the wire broke and the fish swam away to the depths.

            I took solace in having hooked a big barracuda and enjoyed a wild ride. Barracuda are always on my brain and one day, I’m hoping the pendulum swings my way.

COVER & FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAT FORD