Anglers pursuing the flats’ “Big Three” should take a close look at barracudas, too.
[by Henry Cowen]
When I first fished the flats around Andros Island back in the 1990s, I had tunnel vision and could see only bonefish through the glare. Ditto for my Bahamian guide; when he saw a long shadow about a hundred feet away, he told me to get ready for a shot at a big fish.
As we poled within range, he dejectedly said, “Forget it, mon, it’s a big cuda,” and we turned away to look for more bonefish. Since then I’ve wondered why we passed an opportunity to toss a fly at such a big fish. And since that day, I’ve told guides, ahead of time, that if we see a big barracuda, I want to throw. Having done just that, many times now, I can tell you without hesitation that barracuda are one of the most amazing flats fish to target, ranking right up there with the Big Three, meaning tarpon, permit, and bones.
Here’s why: They are big and strong and willingly attack flies. In fact, they are the most aggressive fish you’ll encounter on the flats. And once hooked, they’re no pansies—they may jump repeatedly before greyhounding you into the backing. I’m not sure why any angler wouldn’t love to tangle with that kind of fish in knee-deep water.
Cudas can be found on tropical flats around the world. Florida, Mexico, Belize, and the Bahamas are just a few places where anglers might hunt those fish. And slowly, barracuda are shaking their “second-rate” image, with many anglers now realizing just what they’ve overlooked. In addition, catch-and-release barracuda tournaments are popping up, including the Cuda Bowl, which is held in Key West, Florida. That tourney attracted 75 anglers in 2018. The winning angler caught a total of 247 inches of fish, with the largest specimen stretching to 49 inches. Try matching that tally in a permit-fishing tourney.
Anglers who target barracuda find them cruising slowly along the shorelines or laid up near mangroves, waiting to ambush their next meal, their favorite quarry being needlefish and juvenile bones.
I remember fishing Abaco Island many years ago and having an opportunity to throw at a big cuda laid up near the mouth of a creek. I put down my bonefish rod and quickly picked up my cuda rod and made a cast, which landed less than 10 feet from the fish. Before I could get the slack out of my line, the 20-pounder exploded on my fly and we were off to the races. I set the hook, but the cuda immediately popped my rig. I assumed it grabbed the fly well past the wire bite guard and bit through my 20-pound tippet. The cuda lazily swam back to its laid-up spot to await its next meal. I tied on another fly, with a wire bite guard, as my guide poled me back into position. The cuda was resting next to a creek with my fly dangling from the left side of its jaw. I made another cast and in a matter of seconds was hooked up to that superaggressive fish, which now had both my flies in its mouth. Once we landed it, I was able to retrieve both flies.
I remember another cuda occasion, for not-so-pleasant reasons. Back in the mid-1990s, I led a group trip out of the Andros Island Bonefish Club. My partner in the boat that day hadn’t caught a bonefish over five pounds, so we headed to the fabled West Side to target large bones. I told my partner to stay on the bow and take all shots at bonefish. I asked only one thing in return—if we saw a big cuda, I wanted him to step off the bow and give me the shot.
After two hours of poling, the guide said, “Big fish, mon. One hundred and fifty feet ahead.” My partner readied himself, and as we got within 75 feet, the guide said, “No, huge cuda laid up.” I stepped to the bow, stripped out 60 feet of line, and held my goto Cuda Killer fly in hand. Those West Side flats are milky white, which creates a fuzzy haze, and makes spotting fish a challenge. In fact, I didn’t really see that cuda until we were within 50 feet of it. I made what I thought was a damn good cast, the fly landing within four feet of the fish. I made two long, quick strips and expected a take, but to my surprise, the fish didn’t move an inch. I was stunned. This was, after all, my go-to fly that is never refused. And I thought I’d made a perfect presentation. Moments later, I heard the guide giggle. I gave him a questioning glance, and he said, “Great cast, but he don’t eat with his ass, mon!”
I’d cast to the wrong end.
Over the years, I’ve learned that you fish cuda as you would any other predator; always have your fly land in front of a fish and move it across its path; always represent a fleeing fish and don’t allow the fly to swim at your target; once the fly lands, get it moving fast with a series of quick, long strips or a hand-overhand retrieve. Put those elements together, and a cuda will bolt 10 feet for a fly and inhale it in a nanosecond.
When it comes to flies, cudas can be selective, but there are a few can’t-miss patterns. Big cudas are extremely opportunistic and will eat many things on the flats. Shad, needlefish, and especially small bonefish are some of their favorites. I developed my go-to cuda pattern many years ago, and Umpqua Feather Merchants dubbed it the Cuda Killer. In my opinion, it is a must-have fly on the flats. It imitates baby bonefish and large shad. Place this fly within eye distance of a large cuda, and you are nearly guaranteed an eat.
Given the opportunity to sight-fish for barracuda on a shallow, tropical flat, any angler will be hooked on this mostly under-the-radar fish.