The Florida Keys’ Monster Barracudas

Winter signals the start of a great shallow-water fishery, sightcasting for 'cudas.

Barracuda caught on a Rapala plug
An ugly mug. Barracudas get a bad rap, but in winter, they aggressively hit plugs over shallow Florida Keys flats. This fish ate a Rapala X-Rap Long Cast Shallow, size 12 (4 ¾ inches).Doug Olander

Big teeth make barracudas scary to novices and an ugly nuisance to many saltwater anglers. But with the right timing and tactics, even these unsung predators become targeted gamefish. As the water cools, 'cudas gravitate to shallow-water flats in the lower Florida Keys, where anglers can sightfish for them with lures.

The fish viciously attack plugs, and when stuck, they launch like missiles. In fact, catching these ugly buggers has become quite popular. The Keys hosts an annual all-release Cuda Bowl each year, scheduled around the same time as the Super Bowl.

To get a flavor for this unique fishery, Sport Fishing traveled to the Keys last winter with Rapala’s Dan Quinn to fish with Lower Keys captains Justin Rea of Sting Rea Charters and Tim Carlile. “We had a ball,” Quinn recalls. “There are lots of primo flats like bonefish habitat. When the 'cudas are shallow, they’re acrobatic.”

Cuda caught along mangroves
After hooking up just outside of some mangrove areas in ultra-shallow waters, Rapala’s Dan Quinn released a fierce-looking cuda.Doug Olander
Barracuda caught on a topwater plug
This ’cuda took a mad swipe at a Storm SW Rattlin’ Chug Bug, a topwater bait. Quinn says it’s a classic Storm bait, and he chose it because it was a good size. He worked it just about as fast as he could, popping and chugging as quickly as possible. When he would sightcast a fish and start working the lure, they’d explode on it. Quinn said that as the day warmed the topwater action improved.Doug Olander
Barracuda boatside in skinny water
Tim Carlile releasing a ’cuda caught on a No.14 Long Cast Shallow. “We fished a lot of skinny water that day,” Quinn recalls. “That’s in the color albino shiner. We were just experimenting with different ones. Ultimately, I don’t know that color had that much to do with it. They were so hard on baits with their teeth.”Doug Olander
Cold water keeps barracuda slightly deeper
Sport Fishing’s Doug Olander caught this ’cuda on a bone/chartreuse Long Cast Shallow. The lure is heavy, casts a mile and sinks fast, Quinn says. It needs to be retrieved quickly. This fish was caught around structure in 8 to 9 feet of water. When air temperatures are cold, the fish won’t come in as shallow.Doug Olander
Barracuda caught on a spinning outfit
Quinn fished a hot purple, 4-inch shallow-diving X-Rap with a jerk/jerk/pause action to tempt this barracuda.Doug Olander
Barracuda bait options
Prime Rapala ‘cuda baits (top to bottom): Rapala Saltwater X-Rap, size 8 in Hot Purple, 8 cm long; Storm Rattlin’ Saltwater Chug Bug, size 11 in Metallic Silver Mullet, 11 cm long; Rapala X-Rap Long Cast Shallow, size 12 in Albino Shiner, 12 cm long; Rapala X-Rap Long Cast Shallow, size 12 in Bone Chartreuse, 12cm long.Courtesy Rapala
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