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October 25, 2001

Cuda! Close-Quarters Combat

Take on the pit bull of flats, bays and offshore using light tackle and fly.

So you want to discuss a recurrent dream which you're conflicted about?
"Yeah, doc," I said. "See, I'm just drifting around at a bar, down at Key West, when I see her."
"OK, tell me about her."
"Well, I've been having no luck. I mean, striking out every time; you know how it can go" - the shrink nods, knowingly - "when she shows up. And she's beautiful. I want her, doc, in the worst way."
"I see. And what does she look like?"
"Well she's big. She's huge. I turn to my buddy and refer to her as 'Big Bertha.'"
"So you like them big, do you?"
"Heck, yes. Don't you? Anyway, she's got the most amazing teeth. She just sits there, with her mouth half open showing these gleaming white daggers that would do a tiger proud."
"And you consider this beautiful?"
"Oh, yeah! Who wouldn't?"
"So what happens?" the therapist asks, as he writes furiously on a clipboard.
"Well, she disappears. Just kind of fades away. Meanwhile my buddy and I decide to concentrate on getting some dinner.
Pretty soon, I'm looking at this beautiful yellowtail snapper, plenty big enough to feed both of us, when she reappears."
"You mean Big Bertha?"
"Exactly. And she rushes in to steal our whole dinner - in one bite!"
"Most unusual!"
"You think? Hey, it happens to me all the time. But anyway, she disappears again, and I hate her - because she took my dinner and left. But as we're heading home, I see her again. Well, maybe it's not her - they all look the same to me." The doctor looks puzzled. "Only this time she's resting in the clear water next to mangroves, maybe a foot deep."
"So she left the bar and now is sitting in the water?"
"Well naturally. And she's still gorgeous. And I tell my partner this time I'll get her. I mutter, 'Come to papa, baby,' and toss out a line. She falls for it! I mean hard - she literally leaps into the air 10 feet. It's a beautiful sight."
"So despite her size, this is a very acrobatic gal."
"You bet. She goes nuts and jumps again, then starts fighting me for all she's worth until, after 15 wonderful minutes, I've beaten her. I give her back her freedom after moving her back and forth in the water for a few minutes, and she swims away."
He looked at me solemnly. "Mr. Olander, I'd like to discuss admitting you for observation."

Of course things went a bit easier when I figured out that silly therapist thought this was all about a woman. While most anglers don't seek therapy for their conflicted feelings about barracuda, most do have a love-hate relationship with them. We hate it when big "logs" show up as they so often do, drawn to our anchored boats' hulls like magnets to steel, and curse them when we begin reeling in the head of fish after fish - that we'd intended as our dinner. After all, we hooked these fish ourselves. Why, it's thievery! It's un-American! And we despise them when we have to retie after they've bitten off in a nanosecond the rigs we so painstakingly made the night before.
But find one of these very same logs resting quietly in clear, shallow water; now you've got an M-80 with fins on your hands. One well-placed cast with a tube lure, surface plug or big streamer is often all you need to light its fuse. And when that detonation comes, more often than not, it is a violent explosion - of gleaming teeth and formidable tail fin, of a sudden rocket raging skyward, body twisting wildly until it crashes back into the shattered tranquility of a dead-still flat. Ah, now we love that fish-stealing, rig-trashing villain.
Fish Fatale: Exciting and Dangerous
It's not by accident that I describe the strike of a big cuda as occasion to love the species. It's not the species' fight that most endears it to anglers; barracuda lack the stamina of tuna, the enduring speed of wahoo or the unpredictability of tarpon. But few fish can match the beast at what it does best: attack. Its strategy is one of waiting motionless, with seemingly infinite patience, until some hapless victim moves within range. Then its assault, powered by that over-broad tail, comes almost too quickly for the human eye to follow, and the sting of a hook launches the finny missile skyward.
Ask a sampling of the world's top coastal skippers what makes these "marine muskies" worthy opponents for light-tackle fishing, and few hesitate to cite the strike.
"Barracuda are spectacular game fish. Their high-speed strikes, often at the surface, are magnificent, and the stunning leaps provide a great thrill," says Scott Bannerot, author of the Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing (McGraw Hill), and an enthusiast who's caught cudas literally around the world.
"I love the strike!" says Mark Nichols, owner of DOA Lures in Palm City, Florida.
And Capt. Richard Stanczyk, famed Florida Keys guide at Bud 'n Mary's Marina in Islamorada, admires the species as "a lightning-fast striker."
Capt. Pierre Pierce - marine biologist and marine sculptor in St. Augustine, Florida, who's caught barracuda all his life - says, "The strike is absolutely spectacular with incredible jumps."
But that same explosive power coupled with dagger-lined jaws warrant some notes of caution. Those who visit barracuda in their home turf don't generally consider them dangerous. However, great barracuda do have a reputation for being brazen and curious; their gaping chops and lurking demeanor have intimidated many a snorkeler or diver right out of the clear, warm ocean where the species lives, the world around. Yet outright attacks on divers are rare indeed.
When cruising transparent tropical waters, cudas seem to know what they want, and that's fish, not humans. But in murkier waters, or in the fury of a lightning assault, barracuda going after fish may end up in situations they never intended - such as colliding in midair with an unlucky angler. Some years ago, what seemed like a rash of such stories involving barracuda "attacking" people in boats, as the general media hyped it, spread an unwarranted level of concern. The clichŽ about being more likely to be struck by lightning does apply.
Yet talk to skippers and anglers who've spent enough years fishing where cudas are prevalent, and many will share incidents that have given them ample respect for the unpredictable nature of the beast. No, they don't ever leap out and "attack" anyone just to sink their jaws in someone's arm. But like a Minuteman ICBM that can't be recalled - once they're out of the silo, they're on their way - and woe to anyone who gets in that way.
"Barracuda fishing is fun," acknowledges Ralph Delph, one of the Keys best-known veteran guides. "But it can be very dangerous. A large cuda will run and jump, often as high as the head of a man standing on the deck of a flats skiff. While I've never had a barracuda hit anyone in my boat, I have found it necessary to dodge the razor-sharp teeth of airborne cuda!"
"Frothy" De Silva, a charter skipper in Tobago, has had anglers bitten - one by a mere 6-pounder that sailed into the cockpit, mouth open, and lacerated an angler's chest.
And Capt. Jim Sharpe in Big Pine Key, Florida, relates a midair mugging that occurred during a bout with a big cuda. "My son, Jim, had a young couple hooked up while fishing from our backcountry boat on the flats. During the fight, on 10-pound spin tackle, the cuda made a lightning-fast run around the front of the skiff and jumped very close to the boat. Jim poled away in case it jumped again." It did, Sharpe says, twice. "The first of these jumps was near the boat, and the second was right into the boat." The angler instinctively threw up her arm to block the incoming projectile, which severely lacerated her hand, requiring emergency-room treatment.
And Florida backcountry guide Steve Kantner won't forget the day when, fortunately, those aboard his boat were spared - but not the boat itself (or a kamikaze cuda). A large barracuda, charging after a blue runner coming in on a bait rig, crashed into the gunwale with such force it left an indentation in its skull.
Of course this is not to suggest anyone refrain from casting to cudas. But be alert, especially if a big one comes rushing up behind a rapidly retrieved lure since a leaping attack could put it on a collision course with anyone in the boat.
Common sense should dictate caution any time a great barracuda is brought into a boat for any reason. Most anglers, wisely planning to release their quarry, simply cut off the hook or lure unless it can be easily removed boatside. (Barbless hooks facilitate this in a big way.) Mark Davis, of Shakespeare Fishing Tackle and a longtime fan of these ferocious fish, quickly developed a healthy respect for them "after seeing many fish neatly cut in half by 'the ax' as we affectionately called them. In the blink of an eye they'd surgically separate amidships the same fish that took me a great deal of effort to steak through with a sharp blade."
Conning Cuda - Nail 'Em Like the Pros
Coming back to that love-hate theme, just as there are plenty of times anglers hope they don't see a single barracuda all day, many's the time barracuda save the day. Delph calls them "the mainstay of flats fishermen during the cooler winter months, and when winds are too strong, light-tackle offshore boats often fall back on them as well." He's heard his share of novice anglers who don't "know better" and spend a day targeting cuda say, "This is great! Let's do it again."
"They're definitely an underrated game fish," agrees Capt. Jeff Belsik, a Florida guide out of Big Pine Key.
And few would argue that cuda offer the most exciting opportunities where they can be sight-cast to, when observed in shallow water or on the surface farther offshore.
Interestingly, perhaps the most enduring memory of a great bonefishing day I enjoyed at Long Island in the Bahamas is not of all the bonefish that kept my reel singing that morning, but one big barracuda I spotted sitting motionless next to a tiny mangrove shrub in about a foot of water. Even though the boat sat close to 100 feet away, the black shadow stood out clearly over the white sand. Hurriedly, I rigged up a big blue-and-chrome Pencil Popper, heavy enough to easily go the distance with only 8-pound test to slow it down.
The lure landed well past the fish, and I began a "finesse retrieve" I've found can be effective and exhilarating with cudas: a very slow, noisy, irregular pace, full of long pauses and little twitches. More than once I've watched cudas rush such a lure after ignoring it when cranked quickly past them.
This one reacted typically: turning slowly to the source of the noise. But when it didn't charge the lure, I stopped and went into the twitch mode that appears to say, "Man, I'm so screwed up I can barely move: Come get me!" Sure enough, the cuda slowly repositioned itself and began easing up behind the lure. I let the plug pause, resting on the surface. The cuda stopped, almost seeming to sniff it.
I twitched, ever so slightly, so concentric rings started spreading out from it. In a flash, sending spray flying, the predator was on it. I set the hooks, and at that moment the cuda came straight up, all of 10 feet high, leaving anglers and guide open-jawed at the sight - one I obviously remember clearly.
Nor am I the only one who's found the finesse approach a good one to keep in mind. "Sometimes cudas fall in behind a lure being reeled fast and won't hit it," says Delph. "They may follow right to the side of the boat then shy away refusing to hit anything you throw. I make a practice to change to a jerky, twitching retrieve as the lure gets about halfway in. This almost always entices a strike by a reluctant fish."
On the other hand, when they're hungry, crank away: Belsik points out that, "You can't reel it too fast: They're so quick, they'll always get it if they want it."
Fly rodders find that big cuda make exciting targets, not usually requiring the long casts needed for spooky permit or bonefish. But lockjawed fish may need a bit of teasing. Both Sharpe and Bannerot like to cut off the tail of a large live bait such as a blue runner, speedo or goggle-eye (same favorites as for smoker king mackerel, by the way) then pull it away, just ahead of the charging fish. When it's feasible, Sharpe will dangle a live bait from a kite, lifting it out of the water over and over just before the strike, making the fish "very aggressive."
While De Silva is fond of a needlefish fly for Tobago cudas, Kantner likes short, braided tube flies. But more important than specific design, according to Stanczyk, is that any offering be bright and flashy. He also suggests using a fly with a little weight, having found that, "Cudas don't like to put their heads up at times in really clear water." He prefers to keep the wire trace light and hooks small. Stanczyk also finds teasing with live bait a good bet, though he'll toss out pilchards to "really fire 'em up."
Tube lures have been de rigeur among cuda enthusiasts since the '70s. Delph has found that tube lures draw plenty of strikes. "But I've noticed that anglers miss more strikes with them" when cudas manage to bite the tube and hold on, then open their mouths and, "unless the angler strikes hard and with constant pressure, the tube falls out."
Delph prefers a surface plug. So does Kipnis, when conditions call for one. "There's nothing like a cuda crashing a top-water plug!" he says.
From Bannerot comes another favorite. Put a strip bait on a shiny spoon (remember: divers are advised to avoid wearing shiny objects that attract barracuda), and it becomes "almost irresistible." One exception, Bannerot points out: around lighthouses or other heavily fished structures where big homeboy cuda hang and have become skeptical of artificials. Then it's time to throw 'em a live bait, he says.
Great barracuda will remain a fact of fishing life for anglers in tropical seas everywhere. The smart fishermen are those who, like the proverbial northern tourist, don't bring their preconceptions onto the boat. When greenhorns start hooking up these fearsome predators, they love it. Many veteran tropical anglers are smart enough to appreciate the omnipresent game fish as well.
For those who still haven't learned to love the cuda, well, I know this therapist.