May 16, 2011
Toothy barracuda on the flats are a great winter fly fishing target.
Cold wind is rattling the palm fronds, I'm pullin' my jeans and shirt over long johns, I'll have to cast my fly down low, Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow!
Spanish mackerel demand that you cast durable flies and tie to heavy shock material.
You can sing this little ditty while you're fly fishing on those blustery December days when casting a fly is adventurous. Or, ridiculous enough to make you pick up a spin rod—not that there's anything wrong with that.
I'm not suggesting that December fly fishing is a waste of time. To the contrary, there should be warm, relatively calm days when you'd swear it's spring, and that will be window enough for you to stalk fish in the shallows, or, at least keep your flies out of your backside.
Yet severe cold fronts can happen in December, and certainly by January, putting the whammy on your shallow-water redfish, snook and bonefish plans.
Enter the oft-overlooked barracuda. Cudas will be on the flats in sometimes-great numbers from now through February, and many may be big enough to have a periscope. Yes, I exaggerate here a bit, but if you go to the trouble to rig up a fly rod for Ol' Snaggletooth, and hook a fairly big one in shallow water, you shall be an instant fan.
It goes without saying that long casts are a must for cudas, particularly on those bright, bluebird winter days. Unlike reds, little schoolie bones, and tarpon, cudas are not likely to cruise very close to your boat, or afford you a 20- to 30-foot, last-second flip cast. More often, they will lay up over a pothole or hump or debris on a flat, waiting in ambush. They are all knowing. This is one sharp-eyed missile that will not tolerate sloppy, noisy boat handling. A permit or bonefish has nothing on a cuda. For that reason, you must do everything right, and have a little luck on your side.
The perfect cuda is one that you spot early on, and preferably, one that is “looking the other way.” Most cudas that you spot cruising right at you before stopping on a dime have, well, already dimed you out. Cast anyway, because you just never know. I recall casting for the heck of it at a 15-pound fish that I spotted at the last second, only 50 feet off my bow. I'm convinced it detected the boat because it changed course the second the fly turned over and fell to the surface. Just the same, it charged and ate on my first strip. I was not expecting that at all, and I am not proud of the way I handled my fly line to clear it to the reel. You would've thought some kid sprayed me with an entire can of Silly String. Yes, the fish broke the leader and kept my fly.
If you can get within a hundred feet of a cuda, that's good. If you can pole or drift with 75, that's even better. Now it's time to cast. Rather than beaning the fish, go to the other extreme. Place the fly, whether a needlefish pattern, generic streamer, or popper, well in front. A conservative distance would be in the 10- to 20-foot range, maybe farther. Don't worry—a cuda will see it. How will you know that? The cuda will do one of the following: It will close in slowly. It may start slowly then run the thing down at cheetah speed. It may not budge (it saw you first). Or, it may vanish only to materialize six feet above the water, with your fly in its maw. There isn't a faster fish on the flats, before or after the hookup.
Many fly fishers have abandoned the so-called cuda flies, those bright-green, yellow, orange, or red braided, nylon jobs that must be stripped at warp speed, with two hands, to light a cuda's fire. It's a “fly-rod tube lure,” so to speak, and an impressionistic needlefish by design, but a flashy Deceiver can be better and much easier to cast. Also, a Deceiver will work without that hand-over-hand retrieve that makes you feel and look ridiculous, and makes you want to just pick up a spinner and lob a spoon. When all else fails, a noisy popper can be the cuda's meow. And best yet, there's no need for speed with a popper. Just lots of popping.
To increase your odds of hooking up, get the sun at your back, and the wind at your back or at least off your casting shoulder, and be ready to execute the speed cast. Fish a 9- or 10-weight rod, floating line (you might try one of the clear-tip varieties), a 9- to 11-foot leader, depending on wind conditions, and always tie a light wire tippet between your class tippet and fly. The idea is to land that fish after all. Go with coffee-colored wire, and use a haywire twist to give your fly freedom of movement while you're at it. Don't overdo the length of the wire bite tippet. You will cast a 5-incher much easier than a 10- to 12-incher, and the shorty will provide ample tooth protection, unless the fish inhales it. FS
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