One saltwater fish that has intrigued me year after year is the barracuda. My encounters with these great fish have ranged from incidental interaction while I was casting to other fish to actually targeting these toothy predators. Many anglers who have spent much time casting a fly in saltwater for a marquee species like the bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon have felt the power of a barracuda. My personal "How to Catch Barracuda on the Fly" book is still being written and seems to evolve year after year, so in reality, it will never be complete. But here are some observations and experiences about casting a fly to this bad-attitude fish.
Barracuda eat fish
Yes, I have hooked and even landed barracuda on shrimp and crab flies, but when I am targeting giant barracuda, I am typically casting a baitfish fly. One thing I pay close attention to is what fish in the water will be on the cuda's menu. A cuda may demolish a purple and green pike fly you had left over from your Alaskan pike fishing trip last year, but at times, they become as picky as your six year old son or daughter. I have in my toothy-critter fly box patterns that look like actual baitfish, as well as those big, nasty flash-and-neon flies.
Barracuda are ambush feeders ..Yes ? No ? Maybe ?
I often find large barracuda lurking motionless in a well-concealed spot waiting for a clueless fish to swim by. They seem to know where the best ambush points are on the flat. It may be a patch of turtle grass that is adjacent to a clear sandy bottom, or even next to a sunken log on the tip of an island, but hide they do.
If you can approach these fish without detection, strip a fly into the water they are staking out, it may produce some great cuda fly fishing. If you are detected, your chance of success will diminish, so be careful when approaching a likely hiding spot. Even after I have alerted a cuda to my presence, I have still have provoked it to eat a fly. Keep in mind they are opportunistic feeders, and even if they know you are there, a well placed and stripped fly may look like an easy meal. I have had countless cat and mouse games with a cuda in this exact scene. They may eat a fly on the first cast, or it may take a couple different fly offerings and a hundred casts, but it is a fun and very addictive contest.
I have a problem with taking cuda rejection personal, and I tend to leave only when I hook the fish, or it finally gets so pissed off it swims away. I typically do not make a cast where the fly lands right in front of the cuda. I make a cast to where the cuda is not and strip the fly back to where the big mean & nasty is. The old rule of thumb is to strip the fly as fast as you can to provoke a cuda to eat it. After many cuda encounters, I now mix the speed I strip a fly. I have had them not only explode on a fast stripped fly, but also eat a sinking non-stripped fly or popper, or even smack a fly that I was slowly stripping it in front of them, so don't get hung up on the old theory they will only eat a fast swimming fly.
Some of my best cuda fly fishing has been when I find a giant cuda swimming through a flat. I believe they are lazy fish as a rule when they are not eating. When I find one swimming, it seems they are looking for a new hiding place, or they are looking for dinner, so your chances are now 50/50. I like to pinpoint their direction and cast a fly well in front of their path and then time it so I strip the fly a few feet in front of their face.
If I am casting a top-water popping fly, I often cast in front of the beast, but several feet to the side of where they are swimming. I then use the disruption the fly makes on the surface to attract them. One thing I have learned is if a cuda attacks your fly, but is not hooked, just let the fly sit there in the water for several seconds. Many times the fish will return, thinking the motionless fly is a stunned or wounded fish. A cuda eating a top water fly is an experience that will make you question the purpose of life. Barracuda also will move with the tide looking for more productive feeding opportunities and ambush points as the smaller fish change their location with the tide.
Look for clues
On more than one occasion I have been directed to the location of a barracuda by the water exploding off in the distance of a flat. It is a violent event that ends poorly for some of the flats inhabitants. Generally, the barracuda will remain close to the scene of the crime, and this will give you ample time to move in for a closer look. Sea birds flying over a certain body of water are often a good sign for finding a predatory fish feeding below. Most fish do not fly so if you see a fish departing its watery home, there is a good chance that a cuda may be lurking below. What is know as "nervous" water" may also indicate a predatory fish attacking small baitfish below the surface.
Barracuda are creatures of habit
I have found giant barracuda to be extremely territorial. There is indeed a pecking order when in comes giant barracuda staking claim to the best water of the flats when it comes to finding food. I have found the same barracuda in the same location day after day. I have also witnessed them chasing off other fish in the area that presented competition. They have a predictable pattern about them that has helped me dial them in and develop a better plan of approach for the next day.
Blind casting for Barracuda
Elements like heavy winds, cloud cover and rain have at times forced me away from sight fishing and casting to all the cool fish on a flat. This has been a great way for me to continue fishing by casting blindly in water where I know there has been cuda. Casting and stripping baitfish patterns or popping or gurgling a surface fly has saved many fishing days for me on a wind blown or cloud covered flat, By covering as much water as I can by making long casts into deeper water, over and near reefs to making a long cast over grassy flats, next to buoys or rocky points, sunken logs, ship wrecks or any change in the contour of the bottom has produced some very large cuda fly rod battles for me. What is really cool about blind casting into the ocean is you have the opportunity to catch a number of different species of fish. Some of the fish I have landed casting blindly in the ocean have ended up being the coolest fish of the trip for me, even if they were not on my intended fish to catch list.
Gear and Knots
The great thing about putting a cuda rig together is with the exception of the leader, my bonefish or permit fly rod will work great in most situations. I typically will use a 8 or 9 weight rod with a floating line. Out of the fly rods I have with me on a day of flats fishing, I always have one close by rigged with a leader that can withstand sharp teeth. Make sure you have a good reel with a solid drag system built for saltwater! Nothing will blow up a cheap-ass reel faster then a mad barracuda. A good supply of backing should be on the reel as well. The leaders I use are about 9 foot long that have a wire tipped section of at least a foot in length. I have used the toothy critter leaders sold and also purchased spools of 10 to 30 pound test coated wire leader to use as tippet without issues. I use a non-slip mono loop knot to attach the fly to the tippet and an Albright knot to attach the coated wire leader to the mono or flourocarbon section of the leader. They even sell premade tippet sections that have a swivel on both ends where you can attach the fly and main leader. A long needle nose set of pliers is a must !
Fighting and landing a Barracuda
Barracuda are violent creatures that will crush a fly with such speed and anger your heart will skip a beat when it happens. When they discover the fly is not that soft tasty meal they had anticipated the barracuda's anger is translated into speed. The power and energy of this initial connection will curl your toes. I have no idea how fast these fish can swim, but I have seen them eat a fly and in just a few seconds be 50 yards away.
They typically swim in a straight line. Try and determine where they are heading and get pointed to that direction. The speed is hard to explain but my main goal is to clear any slack fly line until it is all on the reel as the fish is screaming away, I get pointed in the direction of the fish and hold the rod high over head to try and keep as much of the fly line off the water as I can. I then start cinching down the drag on the reel as the fish starts to lose energy from it's initial run. I also try applying pressure when I can by reeling and pulling on the fish with the rod.
One thing I like to do is to have the rod pulling in the same direction the fish is swimming, this seems to make them think twice about heading that direction and makes them want to turn. When they turn direction, it seems to deplete more of their energy, so I repeat this to help wear them out faster. I won't go as far as to call a giant barracuda a one trick pony, but if you are still hooked up after the first run, your chances of landing this fish are good. Two or three good long runs with each run getting shorter then the previous runs seems to be the name of the game.
At times I have seen these fish jump several feet in the air and land back in the water screaming line out of my reel and not miss a beat. When they finally call uncle, they have left nothing in the tank, they do give it their all! Do not forget about those teeth! They can be easily handled by grabbing them by the tail avoiding those teeth. Slide your free hand up the belly to just behind the gill plate and pectoral fins, and wallah! You are now ready for your hero picture.