Don’t get in the way of this fish.
“He’s over there, mon.”
I studied the water closely—innocent shades of green and brown—but there was nothing there, not even with polarized sunglasses. The flat deepened into three or four feet and seemed completely empty, but apparently it hid one of the fiercest predators found in salt water. Where? Bradley kept staring out there in a manner that left me uneasy, his hands on that gnarly pushpole. Dapples of sunlight and silence, not a sound from civilization, not even a whisper. Finally he moved, pointing to a battered spin outfit with a strange, two-piece green tube lure, rigged with wire, festooned with treble hooks. In my hand, the line looked to be 30-pound test, and somewhat weather-worn.
“You sure something’s out there?”
“Oh, he’s dere, mon. ’Trow ’dat ’ting at 10 o’clock as far as you can, and reel like crazy. I mean, fast.”
Port side, blind cast: The tube arced way out there and I cranked the bail shut before it hit. There was an explosion of white water, the rod bowed up, and the ’cuda, materializing from nowhere, sped off across the flat in high gear, making a shockingly long and low jump that would have shamed a kingfish. Pow! The line cracked and I lurched back slightly.
“Hmm, I think the line was getting old.” (The drag was a bit sketchy too).
“That’s okay mon, he’ll be here again tomorrow.”
We were on island time, after all, and it would be two more days before I flew back to the Land of Stress on the mainland. There was ample time to encounter a few more “barra,” which we certainly did. Bradley keeps a well-used rod rigged with a tube lure at all times for ’cuda, since that is his favorite fish on the table. The ’cudas roam these vast inland flats that Andros is so overly endowed with, undoubtedly preying on bonefish schools. Both predator and prey are very adept at camouflage in this super-clean water, with the Tongue of the Ocean providing daily tides.
Bradley spends his days stalking bonefish, but if he can pluck a ’cuda out by the afternoon, well, so much the better. His customers are impressed by the power of these fish in thin water, and Bradley often ends up with a fine meal. He much prefers these inland fish in the deep creeks and interior flats, of course. Though ocean reef ’cuda’s are eaten, inland fish are considered completely safe by life-long residents. The risk of ciguatera poisoning is related to the amount of time a predatory fish species spends on those reefs where the toxic algae flourishes.
I had seen big ’cudas on very shallow flats in the past, but couldn’t tempt them with standard jigs. Trolling lipped plugs over barrier reef coral is a cinch for constant action in warmer weather; friends Pete and Maya, living near Stafford Creek, took me out with offshore/reef guide Ricardo Riley. Trolling big-lipped plugs for grouper on that huge barrier reef means you’re going to see barracuda, even in winter. But this recent lesson on the flats was a firm reminder to always carry a couple of tube lures, which seem to trigger ’cudas like electric shock. You wouldn’t want to get between this fish and a tube unless “you want to draw back a nub,” as country folk used to say. This is a magnificent fish in shallow water and well worth going after, though they seem to have earned more respect in The Bahamas than in neighboring Florida.
Many bottom fishermen in Florida curse the ’cuda, and for good reason. During summer, the wrecks off north Florida (and many other regions) have residential ’cudas that take a daily toll of snapper, grouper and even kingfish hooked too close to the structure. North Florida anglers often long for autumn and winter, when their bottomfish can be cranked up without fear of attack. As for kingfish tournament anglers, one can imagine their anguish and wrath when a big king worth $20K is suddenly mutilated and disqualified by the local wreck’s wolf-in-residence.
The ’cuda has also received bad press, when anglers are chewed on while standing innocent in their boat. Maimed for no apparent reason, simply because some ’cuda got excited about something and shifted into high gear, jumping and arcing into the boat…with a mouthful of teeth any dinosaur would have been proud of. When a ’cuda accelerates into high speed, it has a tendency to soar like a javelin for quite some distance. Beneath the surface they are equally astounding. Wreck divers have reported single ’cudas going so fast after a baitfish, they wiggle in an S-pattern like a snake. Very fast and deadly on slower prey.
Bluewater ’cuda aren’t so impressive, often just making a few shallow dives with some groggy head shaking. While trolling for kingfish, the strike of a ’cuda is quite disappointing to eager trollers. Sometimes they may even jump, but rarely compared against those frequent, shallow water flights. In thin water, they’re simply a different beast altogether.
Problem is, like many other fish, barracuda numbers seem to be dropping in areas with lots of fishing pressure, like the Florida Keys. There’s no mystery there; couple a lack of respect from many anglers with no bag and size limit, and you’ve got a recipe for scarcity. Or worse.
Don DeMaria, a Lower Keys resident and underwater photographer says, “Sure, there’s not as many ’cudas as there used to be. There’s too many people down here. They’re not a well-liked fish anyway, unless anglers are having a slow day. You don’t see them being sold around here in reef country, but some Boynton Beach charterboats used to sell them. Years ago a friend of mine bought a bag that was supposed to be snapper, and he got real sick. Turned out it was ’cuda.”
Captain Bill Wickers Sr. in Key West, who runs the charterboat Linda D, has caught a few ’cudas in his time. He used to feed them to his cats, until they ate a bad sample. Reportedly, three cats died and the other two lost their hair.
Here’s what Wickers has to say about the local ’cuda population: “There are definitely fewer ’cudas than there were just a few years ago. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on them now. It would be great if they were considered a sportfish. Our charterboat association recommends the release of all barracuda not wanted for mounting. There are now very few killed that land on our dock. Most captains now recognize them as a valuable resource, especially on a half- or a slow, full-day trip. The tourists love to catch them. There has been pressure put on them by the longline shark boats that use them for cutbait. There is also a commercial market for them in Canada. They’re being purchased by fish houses on the east coast of Florida and sold in Canada. To my knowledge they are not being sold in the Keys, and I haven’t heard of any local fish houses buying them.”
So, there is perhaps a developing commercial market for barracuda—an unprotected species. Who knows? Ten years from now, big ’cudas on the flats may be rare compared with today—perhaps going the way of amberjacks, covered elsewhere in this issue.
Bradley’s email was down, but his friend advised me on how to prepare island barracuda: “Most times the Bahamians deep-fry all fish in about a half-inch of vegetable oil. They make a batter out of flour and spices (salt, pepper, hot sauce/hot peppers—maybe thyme and oregano but rarely) but that’s about it.
“I like ’cuda broiled on the barby or roasted with dill and garlic—but I’ve never seen that done by the locals. Being an oily fish, I think it’s better cooked dry and over a high heat,” he said.
He added a request: “Will somebody please send Bradley some more of those green tubes?”
First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, June 2005.