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Spooky Barracuda

Author: Tom Rowland

The defining elements of winter fly-fishing in the Florida Keys and elsewhere are the cold fronts. As the wind increases and the water temperature decreases, bonefish, tarpon, and permit sometimes leave the flats for more consistent temperatures found in deeper water.

Capt. Tom Rowland with a client and a big cuda taken on a fly.
Redfin needlefish and scores of baitfish remain on the flat and offer a succulent feast for opportunistic barracuda gathering on the flats. With the reputation of the barracuda as a voracious and aggressive predator, many anglers pursue them with lofty expectations. Truthfully, big barracuda in shallow water can be very difficult to catch.

Big barracuda lay motionless in strategic locations waiting for passing baitfish. With their extraordinary eyesight, barracuda are able to spot their quarry from great distances. Because barracuda constantly look upwards and outwards to spot their prey, they become aware of a flats skiff advancing from great distances. Contrary to tarpon, bonefish and permit, when a barracuda sees the boat they do not usually leave the flat but tolerate our presence and simply refuse to eat. If the barracuda does not see the boat or the fly line in the air, the angler stands a reasonable chance of catching the fish.

To entice an outsized barracuda to eat a fly, anglers need to cast long distances. In fact, casts to wary barracuda need to be quite a bit longer on average than most bonefish or even permit opportunities. Spin-fishermen have phenomenal success with barracuda simply because they can throw a very lifelike lure 150 feet or more and rip it across the surface at 20 mph mimicking a fleeing needlefish or houndfish. Barracuda enjoy the chase as much as the reward and often follow for 100 feet or more.

Fly anglers can not imitate that action very well, but fly-fishing methods are very productive in their own way. I try to spot the fish from at least 100 feet away and set up the first shot at 70-80 feet. If my angler can get the fly to the fish at this distance, chances for hookup rise dramatically. Present the fly so that it lands well in front and beyond the barracuda and travels away from the fish.

Throwing the fly across the fish's field of vision allows it to get a good look at the fly with both eyes. I have found that barracuda tend to initiate the pursuit more often if the fly is presented in this manner. Begin stripping and twitching the fly slowly to get the fish's attention.

As the race begins, speed up the retrieve by stripping faster and longer. Continue stripping fast and let the fish come up right behind the fly. Do not slow your retrieve. If the barracuda does not eat the fly at this point, continue stripping quickly until the fly is 30-40 feet from the boat and then sweep the rod tip through the water while extending your arm to the side, bringing the fly right to your feet. Barracuda are reluctant to eat flies if they have become aware of the boat. However, if a barracuda focuses his attention on a fly before he sees the boat he will track the fly within inches of it.

Often the barracuda feels as though the fly will escape underneath the obstruction (the boat) initiating the strike. If the skiff comes too close to the barracuda before the cast is made, the fish becomes aware of the boat and becomes agitated. Anglers can witness the fish turn away from the boat or slowly move away. The ideal shot is to the single fish facing the boat. Sometimes the fish are aggressive towards all flies thrown in their direction but because of weather conditions and the general mood of the fish, even long casts will not convince them to eat the fly.

In the case of spooky barracuda, anglers can change their terminal tackle to accommodate the situation. I routinely use a 12 foot tapered leader made of hard monofilament. I use a standard bonefish or permit taper for my leader construction and usually taper to 12-pound test. The butt section is connected to the fly line with a nail knot with a lock. The taper is created with blood knots throughout the leader.
Barracuda have the tools to lay fingers to the bone.
Barracuda have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that are not only sharp on the point but also on the sides like a double-edged knife. These teeth will shear any monofilament and the only material that will stand up to the task is wire. Choices in wire are varied but the basic types are solid or braided. I have come to prefer the solid wire for barracuda and I only use a 3 to 6-inch shock tippet comprised of 30-pound wire. I connect the wire to the leader using an Albright knot and attach the fly with a Haywire twist. The shorter shock tippet may result in a few fish biting through the class tippet, but I have found that I can get a much larger number of fish to bite the fly.

I am careful to use lines that are camouflaged in some way. A few years ago I began fishing with the clear fly lines on the market. I have had great success with both the floating and the sinking clear fly lines. Numerous and varied fish have been caught on my boat with clear lines that would have been spooked with a brightly colored line. Clear lines are wonderful for barracuda and highly suggested. I also dye my standard lines for all species. The colors that I have found least offensive to permit, tarpon, bonefish, and barracuda are olive, black, dark green, and brown. I use Rit dye or waterproof markers to color the lines permanently. These colored lines resemble the natural vegetation in the water and have proven to spook fewer fish. For barracuda, I prefer a clear line for a stealthy presentation.

In many situations, barracuda are in very shallow water. Large and heavy flies will often spook them upon entry. Big barracuda will eat very small flies and sometimes prefer them. Try using small flies that enter the water without a splash. Using small flies for big barracuda is my favorite. Watching a "cuda" chase down a fly that he thinks is a real fish and not simply aggravating the fish into striking is one of the great joys of fly-fishing. Conversely, big flies can be the only things that can convince a big "cuda" to eat. Flies 12 inches and larger are excellent patterns to throw at "cudas". I use extra-large flies on tough fish in deeper water.
Barracuda action in the keys.
I carry a wide variety of flies in many sizes, sink rates, colors and shapes that I use on a regular basis. Whether I am using the extra large or the small flies, I have found that barracuda will often short-strike. I have begun tying tube flies for a few reasons. First, tube flies enable you to create flies of any size. Secondly, you can place the hook anywhere within the fly. I choose to locate the hook even further back than the end of the fly. Simply include a piece of aquarium tubing between the tube fly and the hook with the length that you require. Also, try different patterns than the normal baitfish patterns. Some very large barracuda have been caught on bonefish or permit flies.

If the barracuda are simply too spooky to approach in the boat, wade if you dare. Wading can put you within casting range of barracuda that see the boat from great distances. Be careful of both the barracuda and more importantly, the sharks. Huge blacktips, lemons and bull sharks are on the flats specifically to eat barracuda. Use extreme caution when releasing barracuda as a big shark will literally stop at nothing to eat a barracuda.

When fishing for barracuda, always carry a pair of gloves and an extra long pair of pliers. The best I have found are Hookouts. These pliers will keep the barracuda from biting your fingers. Handle barracuda gently but firmly. Always point their head towards the water with no obstruction in the way. If the barracuda lunges or squirms, simply toss it in the water. A loose barracuda in the boat can do serious damage to passengers and to the boat.

Even though barracuda are supreme predators that attack every chance they get, most days prove that they are also wary and reluctant to eat flies. By changing your tactics slightly and using these techniques, fish that were previously spooked by the boat may now be caught.





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