Barracuda may be the most underrated saltwater species to catch on a fly. After hooking one, imagine this scenario: the fish is on the end of the line thrashing and running, suddenly the line goes slack. You think the fish is off but he's not because you stand in amazement as you watch a 5 foot barracuda leap 15 feet into the air like a missile being launched from below the surface of the ocean. This is an impressive sight and a very frequent occurrence making the barracuda a favorite of fisherman.
Alas, they are not considered by many to be game fish, and remain the troublesome partner of the flats that contain the other species we seek.
They are primarily seen in tropical and subtropical areas where they serve as apex predators as they have no natural enemy. Once they become small adults in the 18-24 inch range they are virtually unchallenged by predators. They are incredibly agile and strong and can swin as fast as 40 miles per hour (~80kph).
Fly Fishing for them can be incredibly difficult at times as they are true speed demons. What does this mean? Well if the bait (or fly) isn't moving fast enough the barracuda will not chase & attack it. They love the chase and the challenge of a fast moving prey. It also makes them less likely to be attacked or injured if they remain in their safety zone until launching after food.
There are different techniques for enticing them to strike but like any other fish, sometimes they eat and sometimes they don't.
1. Double handed strip
2. Zig-Zag spey
3. "Dry" fly casting
*Alternately you can also troll a fly behind the skiff but this is just for the fight as there is no casting, set or hook up to experience. This technique requires no specific casting skill or technique what-so-ever. It's just mentioned for you to keep in your back pocket for that particularly bad day when you just want to fight a fish. (we've all had them)
Make sure you use a metal tippet at least 12 inches long. It can be wrapped wire or tyable nylon covered steel. It really doesn't matter, just make sure you have enough tippet & flies as you'll be re-rigging after each fish. Barracudas destroy everything, without exception. They always destroy your fly, tippet and sometimes your line and leader. We had one almost give a reel a fatal melt down in Belize a few years ago.
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Distinctive Features & Description
Barracuda are a top predator in tropical, subtropical and temperate waters. They are at home in all kinds of environments within those regions, from shallow flats to reefs to deep-water wrecks.
There are several species in the Sphyraena genus. They all have similar feeding habits, body form, and generally unfriendly attitudes. For example, no matter the species, all 'cudas are elongate and missile-shaped, with strong, broad tail fins and canine-like teeth. They are all extremely fast and are inclined to jump when hooked. Even a moderate-sized 'cuda can bolt off on a short burst at a clocked 27mph (43kph). These things are sleek and purposeful; malice with fins.
Because the various species are so similar, for the most part we're going to treat the large, abundant, and fly-rod-accessible great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) as a proxy for the other species.
'Cudas are generally a pale bluish-silver. There sides are often marked with black Rorschach-y spots. Their camouflage is such that they can be extremely difficult to see on the flats.
Viewed up close, there is no mistaking a barracuda for other saltwater fish. From a distance, though, they have been mistaken for sunken logs, sharks, and huge bonefish.
Great barracuda can grow to about 6.5 feet (2m) and 110 pounds (50kg). That would be a tremendously huge specimen, though.
Distribution, Habitats, & Habits
Pacific Ocean 'cudas of various species can be found from California down through Central America. These 'cudas are generally smaller than those found in the Atlantic Ocean and more easterly waters, and they aren't as promising a fly-rod target. Go for them when you find them, but it's hard to go out and fish strictly for them expecting consistent success.
For fly-rodders, 'cudas on the flats is where it's at. 'Cudas can be almost anywhere: they live in the Atlantic (allegedly as far north as Massachusetts in US waters), throughout the Caribbean, down to the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil, and off both coasts of Africa. A good rule of thumb: If there are flats and there are bonefish, there will probably be barracuda.
Barracuda and Food
Needlefish are historically the shallow-water 'cuda's favorite prey (at least in the fishing literature). They will, however, devour pretty much anything that swims near them. This includes hooked bonefish, as many a flats angler can attest. But they will snap up a shrimp, squid, or crab given the opportunity.
Sharks are the shallow-water barracuda's main predator; sharks and 'cudas are reputed to have a great deal of ill-will toward each other. Sharks certainly are attracted to the smell of 'cuda blood, and 'cudas do seem almost to enjoy taunting sharks with their (the cudas') incredible speed. And of course, they compete for food.
It should be noted that barracuda flesh may contain the toxin known as ciguatera. For this reason, they are better released than eaten, unless you are absolutely certain that your fish is toxin-free. Lots of Bahamians, for example, seem able to tell which fish are likely toxic and which are safe to eat. Still, we err on the side of caution; why take the chance? Let 'em go.