One of the most exciting fish on the flats is a barracuda. Yet, many experienced anglers scorn them, and I really don’t know why. Admittedly, they aren’t as powerful as some other flats species, but nothing can jump as high or as far, and their speed is unmatched. Best of all, most tropical flats harbor enough cudas to give an interested angler frequent chances at them.
The best shallow water fishing for barracudas occurs during the cooler months, from December through March, in Florida and throughout the tropics. While some big cudas range the flats at any time of the year, it is during the colder months that large numbers of them appear on the flats.
One favorite haunt of a flats cuda is a white sand hole surrounded by green grass. Some of the largest barracudas I have ever seen on the flats of Florida, the Bahamas and in Central America, have been fish lying over a white sand hole. These holes will generally be several feet deeper than the surrounding water. Ideal conditions are a flat with three to five feet of water on it, with a sand hole 7 to 10 feet deep. The big cudas lie perfectly motionless, like a rocket on the launching pad. When any hapless prey comes within striking distance, they streak through the water and grab it.
Cudas also can be found near many wrecks and almost any wreck in 10 to 60- feet of water that is fished infrequently will hold them. Especially during the cooler months, you can expect to find racks of cudas hanging around a wreck. When we fished the wrecks off Key West in the mid-1960’s, we had no Loran, and so we ran “By Guess and By God” to where we figured the wrecks would be. Actually, it wasn’t as difficult to locate the wrecks as you might think. Once in the general area, say within a quarter mile of the wreck, you would begin to see fish, especially barracudas. And over the wreck would be swarms of them.
Fly tackle for barracudas is pretty simple. If you are fishing the flats, longer casts are sometimes required. Here, I favor a shooting head–using a floating line. A size 10 shooting head on a rod that calls for a size 9 line will allow a good caster to toss the fly at least 90 to 100 feet. I’ll get into technique for flats fishing, but for now, let me say that a longer cast can often be advantageous.
Offshore fishing for barracudas is completely different and a long cast may be only 30 feet. In such cases a standard weight-forward size 9 or 10 floating fly line is ideal.
Leaders can be short, and 6 feet is ample in most cases. Barracudas are rarely leader shy. What is important is that there be a wire trace between the fly and monofilament leader. Either solid trolling wire or braided wire can be used. You may occasionally lose a good cuda if you use a wire leader of 5 inches or less, but I recommend 4 to 5 inches of wire as ideal. A longer wire trace has two liabilities. One – it is often difficult on a longer cast to turn over the leader and fly (especially into the wind). Two – cudas have extremely good vision, and a leader longer than 5 inches seems to tip many cudas that this is something they shouldn’t go after.
There was an old adage that to get a barracuda to strike your fly, you had to make an incredibly fast and long retrieve. It’s certainly true that cudas tend to follow a long distance – and then, at the last moment, turn away. But I no longer tempt cudas into striking with a fast retrieve. There are two techniques that work well for me. A popping bug is often the best way to get a cuda to strike. I use a popping bug that makes a good bit of noise but is fairly easy to cast. The best are made from Ethafoam, but you get one fish per bug. Balsa wood and cork popping bug bodies work fine, too – but all poppers have a short life when cudas grab them.
To get a cuda to hit a popping bug, make as long a cast as possible off to the side of the cuda and beyond it. Don’t cast closer than 15 feet from the fish, and throwing the fly often 20 to 30 feet away from and beyond the cuda works better. Begin an instant retrieve. You don’t have to rush it, but ALWAYS keep the bug in motion. The constant popping and gurgling seems to trigger most cudas into striking.
The other method is the most effective for me when you encounter a cuda in the shallows. Select a streamer fly approximately four to six inches long that’s easy to cast. Two of the best flies for this are simple patterns to tie. Use a long shank size 2/0 hook and tie an under wing of yellow bucktail with a red bucktail upper wing. Put a liberal amount of copper or gold Falshabou between the two colors. The other pattern I have had great success with is a white under wing and chartreuse upper wing – with the f lash material – the wing, of course is of bucktail. One other fly that does well for me is a Lefty’s Deceiver in all white.
Locate a cuda on the flats and approach close enough that you can cast and still make an easy backcast, once the fly has hit the water. Throw the fly about 10 feet in front of the fish, and end the cast with the rod low. As soon as the fly touches the water, raise the rod in a sweeping motion. This will cause the fly to streak through the water. Then at the end of the rod’s sweep, make a backcast. Come forward and drop the fly again in approximately the same place. Make sure the fly drops at least ten feet in front of the cuda – if it has changed position. The cuda will become very excited and often will chase the fly as it sweeps through the water. After two or three such presentations, drop the fly ten feet in front of the cuda and begin a fairly fast retrieve. Usually, the cuda will rush the fly and grab it.
When fishing in deep water, especially if you are near a shrimp boat or over a wreck, the procedure is entirely different. Lure the cuda or cudas near the boat by throwing overboard small dead fish, crabs and other chum. The cudas will move in to within a few yards of the boat and begin taking the offerings. Once you have them feeding well, throw over some more chum and toss either a popping bug or a streamer fly near the chum. Such a cast need not be more than 10 to 15 feet from the boat. It is very important that you do not move the fly. Let the cudas think it is simply another piece of chum. If they don’t take the fly immediately, simply repeat the operation. This method is near foolproof and can be very exciting fishing.
You can also suspend a blue runner or other tough baitfish on a stout rod at let it struggle on the surface of the water. The struggling baitfish will really turn on cudas (as well as many other wreck species). Actually, this live bait teasing method is even more exciting than the chumming technique, both work well,
If you have not been catching cudas on a fly, you have been missing some of the most exciting fly rodding in salt water.