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February 24, 2012

Lone Wolves of the Flats

Barracuda offer an exhilarating alternative for skinny water anglers

Capt. Greg Vincent, co-owner of H2O Bonefishing (; 954-364-7590) in Freeport, Bahamas, tells of a laid-up wintertime barracuda that his business partner hooked on a fly in only two feet of water. At first, they thought it was a tarpon because of its size.

Then the fish greyhounded, revealing its true identity, before slicing through the leader with its teeth. “We reckon it was in the 50- to 60-pound range,” says Vincent. “Of course, that was a rare exception in terms of size.”

That particular barracuda was alone, which is ­generally the rule for these fish on the flats. Yes, they do move into the shallows in the “wolf packs,” but then they disperse, each fish finding its own spot to hole up to wait for an ­unsuspecting ballyhoo or other morsel to swim by.

Enter the angler.

There are basically two ways to fish for these laid-up cuda: sight-casting or blind-casting. Effective tools of the trade for either technique include tube lures in loud colors, such as fluorescent yellow or red, or large topwater plugs, like Yo-Zuri Sashimis, Heddon Zara Spooks, Rapala X-Raps or Bomber Badonk-A-Donks.

Capt. Skip Nielsen, a renowned Islamorada guide (; 305-304-4197) says he prefers fishing just after a cold front, as the sun is bright and the strong northerly winds calm down. Where does he look?

“They love to warm up on an incoming tide on flats that have been heated during low tide,” Nielsen says.

Such a situation calls for sight-casting, in which an angler casts to an individual fish that he or the guide spots. The idea is to place the offering 8 to 10 feet in front of the direction the fish is facing.

In addition to plugs and tube lures, Nielsen ­particularly likes to use frozen, thawed-out ballyhoo rigged with two hooks in a Ha-Ha fashion. “Worked in a jigging or darting motion, they can outperform plugs and lures, and really get the job done,” he says.

But that’s not to say fishing cannot be equally good when it’s cloudy or windy. Blind-casting is the name of the game in conditions like this, and tube lures are ideal, as they ­effectively cover tons of ground.

Blind-casting tube lures can also provide for some ­absolutely jarring strikes, says Cyr, as anglers generally don’t see the fish coming until the strike. “It’s one of the most exciting ways to fish cudas,” he says.

Two Keys: Distance and Speed
But just because these fish are ravenous once they commit to a lure on the flats doesn’t mean they’re dumb. On the contrary, barracuda in skinny water can be downright tough. Cast too close to a sighted fish, and you’ll alarm him. Don’t cast close enough, and he won’t see it. Then there’s the business of coaxing a fish into striking, which can be intimidating, especially for beginners. And on top of all that is the fact that barracuda on the flats are often downright wary critters.

“They’ll sometimes follow a lure a long way before hitting, but if they get too close to the boat, they’ll feel your presence, and it’s game over,” says Cyr. “That’s what makes it so challenging.”

How to combat this? Memorize the first of two critical elements for cuda fishing: Long casts rule.

“The longer you cast,” says Cyr, “the more chances you’ve got of a barracuda seeing your lure, and the better your chances of not spooking the fish. If I have two people on the boat, whoever is casting farther is going to get the most strikes, especially when blindcasting.”

The proper tackle can help with this. Most experienced guides use a 7½-foot medium-action spinning rod capable of tossing a lure a long way. High-speed reels should be spooled with 15- to 20-pound braid, and anglers are wise to use a 4-foot section of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon and a 6-inch trace of wire leader attached to the lure.

Ben Secrest, vice president of sales and marketing at Accurate Fishing Products, suggests using spinning reels with a 6-to-1 gear ratio. But beyond that, it’s also important to engage the reel quickly at the very end of the cast.

“You want to close the spool just before the lure hits the water,” Secrest says. “That way, as soon as it touches down, you’re tight and are retrieving. I learned this tuna fishing with plugs, but it applies to barracuda as well. If you don’t do this, you have to wind at least six or eight strokes to come tight, and by that time, it’s possible that a fish has pounded the lure and spit it back out.”

Which leads into the second crucial point for cuda fishing: You can’t retrieve fast enough.

“The thing about a barracuda is when they’re chasing something, that something never slows down,” chuckles Rea. “Not with those big teeth chasing it! They always go faster, so you should always retrieve faster when in doubt. And always away from the fish — never toward it.”

This holds true for working lures in general. Retrieve them fast! It might be tiring on the forearms, but it’s important to get tube lures waking and bubbling just under the surface. When using topwaters, try mixing up your retrieve — walk the dog a bit, then rip it quickly on the surface. Doing so can help you figure out what they want (though, usually, it’s fast).

When a fish advances on a lure, “the key is to maintain that natural predator/prey relationship,” says Vincent. “It’s about reading the fish’s behavior. Once he comes at your lure, you’ve got to move it the way he wants to eat it.”

For years, Cyr has relied on a trick of sweeping his rod violently to the side when a cuda is in hot pursuit of an artificial. He’ll even do this right next to the boat, as long as the fish hasn’t spooked.

“I’ll holler: ‘Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!’” he says. “It makes the lure look injured, and it drives them crazy. That darting action is usually too much for them to stand, and it makes for a really fun strike, especially when it’s close to the boat. Then it’s just hold on, because you’re in for a treat.”