On a recent trip to a remote, angler-void section of the Caribbean, I had shots at permit, bonefish and barracuda that were the size of small canoes. Shots at any saltwater flats fish are special, and landing a permit, tarpon, bonefish, or even a barracuda, on a fly will imprint a lifetime memory.
Giant barracuda are common on these flats, and the interaction can be explosive. But casting a needlefish fly and furiously stripping it in front these ferocious fish can be a frustrating game of cat and mouse. Despite their vicious nature, you never know when one will eat a well-placed fly. On many occasions, I have humbly waded or poled a boat away from a giant barracuda that just would not eat.
Protruding far from the shoreline and separating two beautiful and classic permit and bonefish flats was a treacherous rocky point. The remote trail leading to the point had a mound of aging conch shells. The waves breaking onto the point produced tide pools that were perfect hiding places for crab, shrimp and small reef fish.
Barracuda food was everywhere, but wading and walking on the jagged, eroded bedrock with the incoming waves was difficult and potentially tragic if I slipped and fell. But with giant barracuda on my mind, I trekked to the tip of the point. At first glance, I noticed the torpedo shape of a large barracuda swimming away. Sizing up the scene unfolding in front of me, I knew I had to wait for the fish to return and face me to have a chance at it..
I had a hunch it would return because I was confident I approached undetected. I decided to make a cast to get the line out so I could intercept the fish upon its return, then I would only have to adjust my casting direction when the barracuda reappeared.
A split second after the needlefish fly hit the water, a giant, dark object appeared from a water-filled pocket off the tip of the point. For some strange, inexplicable reason, my mind immediately recognized it as a grouper, which was the furthest thing from my expectations.
I still recall the initial shock when it grabbed my fly, which quickly turned into a surreal battle against a fish typically hoisted off the bottom by bait fishermen, not fly rodders. At the end of my 20-pound-test wire leader was nothing but brute strength and bullying force.
The grouper’s initial move was testing myself, my 10-weight fly rod and 20-pound wire tippet by streaking toward the jagged rocks beneath the breakers. After a few powerful pulls, the grouper beelined offshore and fly line screamed off my reel. In what seemed like an instant, the backing snaked through my ferrules as the fish passed through the surf and headed toward deep water beyond second-largest barrier reef in the world.
I realized I could soon lose the grouper, and worse yet, the encounter was so unlikely my friend who was fishing the adjacent flat for permit would think I was crazy if I shared the tale. The thought of losing the fish, as well as me holding it in triumph for the camera, raced through my conscience. I vowed if I lost the fish, I would take this improbable fish story to my grave and never speak a word about it because I would surely face doubt and ridicule.
The grouper continued to scream out backing until it reached the outer reef. The battle turned dire when I discovered it had snagged my line on the rocks. In a last-ditch effort to continue the fight, I stripped more backing off the reel to give the fish slack and hoped it would free the line and fish from the reef. It was a desperation move, but the only other options was to break off the fish and hope to recover my fly line.
Amazingly, the fish sensed the slack and changed direction, freeing line from reef. I was able to resume pressure on the the fish, which was finally tiring, and I worked the grouper toward the tip of the rocky point. The fight was far from over as it zig-zagged around point, and I tried to steer it toward me while looking for a safe place to land it, which was almost as challenging as fighting the fish.
Waist-high breakers crashed onto the jagged point, and I knew fish would become anxious as it approached the rocks. I felt the butt section bend beneath the cork as I inched the fish toward me, and a lucky strike hit like a lightning bolt when a perfectly timed wave lifted the bastard toward the point and dropped it into a bowl-shaped tide pool.
It lay gasping, its brown, mottled skin a perfect camo pattern with the tide pool, but its thick, tapered sides and over-sized head looked ridiculously out of place, like a bull laying in a kid’s wading pool.
Rather than being haunted by a story of a big, strange fish that got away, the fish gods had smiled upon me, and to my grave I would carry the memory of an epic battle and a crashing wave that dropped a massive grouper at my feet in a perfect sized tide pool.
I even had a picture to prove it.