Any time you travel to fish, you’re rolling the dice. Not only is it a crapshoot that the quarry will be there and be chewing, but also that the will weather cooperate. What do you do, for instance, when your day on the flats follows a blast of cold down the Jet Stream, and the intended glamor targets are digging deep? Think barracuda, a species grossly underestimated as a gamefish.
Don’t pass up the chance at a big 'cuda. It could be the highlight of your day. Photo by Capt. Nick Labadie
Violent in Nature
Aggressive yet often cautious, mature barracudas are not a gimme. In fact, hooking one usually requires finesse—often they simply track a fly and never commit, much like a muskie. But once you figure out their trigger, the bite comes with so much speed and ferocity that you absolutely have to do it again. And that’s not even taking into account what happens after the fish feels steel, which is when the turbos kick in and barracuda do their best to leave town, whatever it takes.
Barracuda are known for their violent strikes and spirited fighting. Photo by Brian Grossenbacher
While it’s natural to overlook barracuda when bonefish, permit, or tarpon are around and appear willing to play, there are times when throwing to ‘cudas can save the day. Even if you don’t spend all day focusing on them, there’s a lot to be said for an alternate species that supplies a much-needed fix of fish fighting and does it in grand style, with fast, powerful runs and astonishing acrobatics. That’s why it always pays to keep a rod rigged with a barracuda fly and a wire leader in reach.
Make no mistake, there’s a big difference between the small ‘cudas that often stack up over sand holes in the middle of a flat and the brawny, fish-stealing giants that cruise slowly or sit motionless in ambush, waiting for just the right moment to pounce on prey as substantial as a hooked bonefish. These fish are born with a chip on their shoulder.
Great barracuda grow quite large and can be targeted on many subtropical flats. Photo by Capt. Nick Labadie
Everything about a barracuda screams meanness and points to a quick path to carnage. The long, torpedo shape, to the menacing eyes, to that snaggletooth smile that threatens a loss of body parts for the careless, it's really a nightmare in fish form. They are, nevertheless, curious to a fault, often dogging a boat as if daring you to get something past them, always willing to flash their pearly whites so you know they are not bluffing.
Like wahoo and kingfish, popular offshore and nearshore toothy critters, barracuda are built for speed with a wide tail that instantly affords major torque and velocity with every sweep. They can zip up to 30 miles per hour in the blink of an eye. Relying primarily on the element of surprise and short bursts of speed, their plan of attack is simple and effective: remove their prey’s source of propulsion with the initial assault, making the tail the appetizer, then circling back to slice and crunch the rest of the hapless victim for the entrée.
Barracuda’s menacing countenance is in line with the fish’s aggressive nature. Photo by Tosh Brown
As a rule, there are two ways to consistently get ‘cudas on the flats: you can either coax a reaction strike or get a fish excited enough to give chase and bite. Both can result in savage takes.
A barracuda’s eyesight is amazingly keen, and the fish possess an uncanny knack for closing the distance between themselves and a potential meal in a hurry. But their predatory instincts appear wired to respond to movement, which makes them susceptible to a high-speed version of cat-and-mouse that starts with the angler putting the fly directly ahead of the 'cuda and slightly to one side so the retrieve mimics the natural actions of baitfish racing out of the predator’s way. That the approach often gets a 180-degree power spin and an explosive, water-tossing strike.
It's important to notice the direction a barracuda is facing because when they commit, they rarely give up. They frequently chase a fly even as you lift it out of the water, and you certainly don’t want to be in its path if the fish goes airborne in an attempt to nab the seemingly fleeing prey. While the reaction strike is crazy, the more typical barracuda shot calls for placing the cast across the fish’s field of vision at a right angle, then stripping the fly through its entire attack zone. This tactic requires the angler to steadily increase the speed of the retrieve to force the fish to ratchet up its commitment in order to intercept the potential meal before it’s too late.
With this approach, the bite often occurs right by the boat. Anglers adept at sparking a last-second grab take the rod and fly line in one hand—with the entire leader outside the rod tip—and prompt the 'cuda with a quick, sweeping motion to one side.
Single- and double-hook needlefish imitations and big poppers do the trick on flats ‘cudas.
Threading the Needle
Barracuda are not very picky when it comes to flies, but it does help if your offerings look like their favorite foods. Needlefish feature prominently on their menu, which is why imitations of the slender baitfish are the most popular barracuda fly patterns. Those that are brightly colored and flashy tend to be most productive. Chartreuse and neon green are the top color choices, followed by hot pink, silver, and bright blue. While it’s hard to get one moving fast enough, a popper—with the splash and commotion it creates—sometimes lights up even the most skittish fish. And, while a short trace of knotable wire connecting the fly to the leader prevents a cuda’s sharp dentures from severing its link to the angler, some fly fishers take their chances with 40- to 60-pound mono or fluorocarbon in hopes of getting more bites.
Adding barracuda to your flats fishing target list will save a lot of slow days and send you home with stories of epic eats and berserker fights with one of saltwater’s most audacious predators. You could also think of barracuda fishing as a way to test your cardiovascular system, because you can bet you’re going to be pumping some red blood cells when you get the bite.