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February 24, 2012

Lone Wolves of the Flats

Barracuda offer an exhilarating alternative for skinny water anglers

The summer sun blazed down from an azure-blue sky as we drifted the flat near Key West, Florida, looking for permit. We hadn’t yet stumbled across any elusive sickle-tails, but peering to the edge of a sandy bar, two long shapes holding fast in the current caught my attention. Definitely not permit — but definitely something.

“Cudas,” deadpanned Capt. Mike Cyr from the poling platform. “Wanna have some fun?”

I quickly stashed the live-crab rod, grabbed a spinner rigged with a big tube lure and sent out a nice long cast ahead of the fish.

Immediately, one of the barracuda accelerated to the lure and smashed it with a recklessness that gives me shivers to this day. It rocketed out of the water like a torpedo and then headed to Timbuktu, with my reel screaming so loudly, I thought the drag might fail.

As I shrieked with joy, it suddenly dawned on me: No permit could possibly do what that barracuda had just done.

“You should see the flats a few months from now,” said Cyr as we maneuvered the fish boat-side. “They’re all covered up with these things.”

And so I decided right then and there that I had to come back.

Wolf Packs of Winter
It’s an ironic fact that while the great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) is one of the most recognizable game fish among those who have never even held a fishing rod, they are often written off as “junk fish” by many saltwater anglers.

Don’t you believe it!

Yes, Mr. Barracuda has a nasty habit of showing up at the most inopportune time, usually to severe some poor fish from the line of an unsuspecting angler. But each winter and well into spring, a phenomenon occurs throughout the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and most of the Caribbean that changes the hearts and minds of even the most hardened cuda antagonists.

In short, cudas take to the flats, and in doing so, they morph in a strange sort of way into a supersonic game fish.

“As cold fronts move through,” explains Capt. Justin Rea of StingRea Charters (stingreacharters.com; 3057440903) in Key West, “you’ll see big packs of them coming onto the flats. We call them wolf packs. Usually, there are a half-dozen to a dozen or so fish, all looking for a nice warm spot to lay up.”

In addition to warmth, these barracuda are looking for something else: prey. They move onto the flats primarily in pursuit of ballyhoo which, in the Keys, flood in from the cold, deeper waters of the reef in the Atlantic.

In fact, an entire food chain develops in the shallows with the seasonal movements of these ballyhoo.

“The barracuda come for the ballyhoo, and the sharks come for the barracuda,” says Cyr, a Key West native who runs C Hawk Charters (rampagemike@aol.com; 305-797-0643). “It’s Mother Nature at work.”

This vast cycle of life that blossoms in the shallows usually begins after the second or third cold front of winter, as water temperatures drop into the 70- to 75-degree range.

Timing on the calendar largely depends on the arrival of the fronts and where exactly you’re located in the Keys or Bahamas. But the cuda bite generally begins to fire up as early as mid-November, and for all intents and purposes, most of the flats throughout the regions are well populated with hungry fish by Christmastime. January, February and March are prime time for hot action, and barracuda will often continue snapping ferociously into early April.

Ferocity is the key word here, as the barracuda ­transforms from what was once a fish-stealing nuisance in its warm-weather deepwater hangouts into one of the coolest species you can possibly target on the flats with light tackle.

“Bonefish get a lot of press for their speed, but they can’t compare to a 20-pound barracuda on the flats,” says Cyr. “It surprises a lot visiting anglers, quite frankly. But all the guides already know — it’s one of our favorite times to fish the flats here.”

One Hundred Shots A Day
That’s quite a testament, given that the “big three” of the flats — tarpon, bonefish and permit — are generally long gone from the Keys, in terms of numbers, during these colder months.

As I learned firsthand, it’s certainly possible to encounter a lone cuda or two in the skinny water during warmer times of the year when these other game fish are present. But things become very different in the winter and spring.

“The numbers will just blow your mind,” says Cyr. “In a half-day trip, you can have 50 to 100 legitimate shots.”

Most of these fish hover in the 10- to 15-pound range, with a 30-pounder being an exceptionally large fish. Still, there’s always the possibility of running into a true giant.