The Barracuda of Florida
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" Do but fish this stream like an artist and peradventure a good fish may fall to your share." — IZAAK WALTON.
IN the various works on game fishes in this country and Europe, I have never seen the barracuda included among those fishes worthy the angler's attention, and as the result of several years' sport with this long, rakish craft in the Gulf of Mexico, where it was taken with rod, cast-line, and grains, from one to six feet in length, I welcome the opportunity to do it tardy justice. My attention was first attracted to the fish by meeting a Conch on the reef, who answered to the name of " Barracuda'' I learned later that he had earned the title as a result of a sanguinary battle with a very large barracuda which had attacked him when swimming, lacerating him so severely that he carried the marks for life.
At first glance the inland angler familiar with the muskallunge would possibly mistake the barracuda for this gamy fish of the lakes, as it is long, slender, and pikelike ; a silvery arrow, a privateerlike fish, trim, alert, and possessed of remarkable cunning. Its head is long and pointed. The mouth wide, the lower jaw slightly protruding, giving it a bulldog appearance, which in old fishes becomes the support or base of a single large tooth, a companion to others of large size and bladelike shape which make up its armament. The first dorsal fin stands up alone like a leg-of-mutton sail, boomed out by five spines. The second is equally isolated, corresponding to the anal. The tail is forked and a powerful organ for propulsion, and very expressive in the sense of the tail of a cat, vibrating in a singular manner when the fish is about to pounce upon its prey.
There is a single genus, Sphyrana, and twenty species, S. barracuda (Walbaum) of the Gulf of Mexico being the subject of this chapter. It attains the length of between six and seven feet, and the weight of sixty or seventy pounds, this being my personal observation; and I have been informed by " reef combers " that larger specimens have been taken. The range of the fish appears to be from Brazil to North Carolina, but the outer Florida reef and the warm waters of the West Indies are its favorite haunts, where the large individuals enter the deep-blue channels of reefs and the smaller fishes frequent the shallow lagoons. The color of the barracuda is influenced more or less by its environment. I have seen them on the gray or nearly white coral sandy bottom of a lagoon when their simulation of the tone was almost perfect. The large specimens are frequently dark green above, or gray ; the sides in the young splashed with black, occasionally having a decided black stripe ; the sides and under portion of adults silver; some of the fins dark.
About the keys of the Tortugas group the fish is found in great numbers. The spawning occurs in early spring. Very young fishes are rarely seen ; others from eight inches to two feet being common in the shallows. Certain barracudas school, this being particularly true of the Californian species, to be referred to ; but the great Florida barracuda is a " solitary," an ugly, fierce, and threatening fish, and I can conceive of no "countenance" more savage and vindictive among fishes than this, coming, as I have seen it, out of the blue as it followed, wolflike, stealthily in my wake when sculling a dinghy across the channel. All my catches were made from Key West to Loggerhead, within a radius of sixty miles, and most of them in the beautiful blue arterylike channels which encircle Garden, Bush, Sand, Bird, and other keys, where they could always be found. The fish is extremely curious, and so marked are its peculiarities that I was continually comparing it to land animals. In its curiosity it called to mind the antelope, as by certain actions it could easily be attracted within reach of the grains or so that I could cast a live "shad " (Xystaema cinereum), mullet, or young garfish before it. This was accomplished in an absurdly simple manner, none less than by tying a bit of white cloth upon a string about four feet long and trolling it behind. As a result, sooner or later, I would see the ugly pointed jaw and black eyes of a barracuda come out of the gloom and approach to within a few feet, moving first to one side, then to the other, shooting ahead slightly, then dropping astern, but never making an effort to attack. The fish was merely curious, and would dash away at the first alarm.
By this it must not be assumed that it was an easy fish to take with the rod ; quite the reverse in my experience, and I have frequently spent hours in attempts to beguile a barracuda. In fishing for large specimens I found the borders of the channels, where the coral had broken away, forming an opening into a lagoon, a favorite resort, and by sculling the boat along the edge, either with the rag out, or slowly manipulating the oar, a barracuda could almost always be " flushed." Then a hook, baited with live fish, — shad preferred, — was slowly dropped over. In many instances the fish would dart away, but if it so happened that it was hungry, it would poise, its tail vibrating, its hypnotic eyes glaring upon the victim, its muzzle slowly sinking and following as though to charm it ; then it would move on, never rushing or darting, but in measured movement, the personification of dignity, until its nose touched the bait, when it would snap it up so rapidly that the eye could not follow the motion. The bait was generally seized by the tail, and the great fish would rise very slowly, holding the struggling shad for a moment, perhaps two, apparently enjoying its struggles as it beat against its muzzle in desperate efforts to escape ; then would come another gulp, and the silvery bait disappeared.
Such was a typical strike, the entire operation being distinctly visible from my position in the stern of the dinghy. When the bait was swallowed or taken entirely into the mouth, I would slowly reel in until all the slack was taken ; by that time the barracuda would feel the fine copper-wire leader and would give a convulsive shake of its head, then fairly leap into motion, as it tore the line from the reel, becoming at once a type of activity. Fifty, one hundred or more feet of the line were taken before its rush was stopped, then like an arrow it circled the boat, hissing along the surface as I jumped for the bow and as I hooked it, whirling the light dinghy about and towing it up the channel as would a small shark. Slowly the reel would eat up the line, and finally, seeing the boat, the fish would dash down with an impetuous rush, making the click sing again, rising to circle the boat once more and again slowly coming in after a splendid display of strength and power. Such a fish would often defy a single man, trying to gaff his own fish, for an hour and then drench him, as it thrashed the water in a final struggle, snapping viciously and seizing the woodwork in its ugly teeth in rage or agony.
Another method of taking the large barracuda was to have a boatman row me along the channels, and troll, using mullet or sardine bait; but the most satisfactory method was to first attract their attention, then take them when all their movements could be observed. The capture of a six-foot barracuda is by no means an easy matter if the rod is used, and even with a cast-line the fish makes a long and vigorous fight, never giving up. The tackle employed in this sport was similar to that used in white sea-bass fishing ; but the line should be light, a number twelve cuttyhunk ; that is, if the angler wishes to fairly match his skill with that of the fish. The leader should be a long, slender, copper wire ; the hook small (I preferred a 2/0 O'Shaughnessy, though many use a larger hook) ; the bait proportioned to the size of the fish. For the largest barracuda a mullet four inches long is sufficient. It is a purely carnivorous fish, requiring bait with shining sides, like mullet, sardines, gar, young of their own kind, scorning, at least in my experience, crayfish, shrimp, worms, conch, and other baits in vogue on the reef for other fishes.
This barracuda affords excellent sport in all stages of its growth, the young, from one to two feet long, being very gamy and remarkably cunning. A favorite place for them was off the shores of a key from which I could distinctly see every object thirty or forty feet from shore. The fishes could be seen lying motionless a few inches from the bottom, so simulating it in color and tint, that they often appeared the very ghost of fishes or shadows, the latter, under the noonday sun, being more conspicuous than the fish. In this case I used live or dead bait and cast far beyond them, then manipulating the line with the greatest caution so that the bait could be dragged within their line of vision. The moment a barracuda noticed the dazzling silver of its sides, it would move slowly toward it. For this sport my rod was a nine or ten ounce bass rod slightly shortened, so that it would not be too pliable, as I found that a twenty-four-inch barracuda is the superior of a much larger lake trout. On would move the barracuda, as though propelled by some mysterious force, until its pointed muzzle penetrated the very sand beneath the bait, which, if dead, I now gently moved to make it simulate life. The fish would gaze at it for a few seconds, then back off to move slowly forward again, tipping it over, as though wondering what was the matter ; and if there was anything suspicious about it, at this stage my fishing often ended. They confessed to an overweening curiosity, nosed the bait and moved it, when I succeeded in making it struggle, but often would not take it. Again my patience would be rewarded by the lightninglike snap, and the fish would rise proudly to later take me knee-deep into the water to save the slender rod or line.
The bait of baits is a live, vigorous sardine or the "shad " referred to, and frequently I had negro boys accompany me along shore with a fine cast-net, or a long piece of mosquito bar, with which small fry could be taken and used fresh from the water when a good-sized barracuda was located. Such lures would rarely, if ever, be refused, though I have known certain fishes to scorn every attempt to attract their attention. In fishing in deep water, peering down into the channel to watch the graceful jellyfishes or the long purple anchor chains of the physalia as it moved along, I have seen the muzzle of a huge barracuda come into view, the arrowlike form moving gracefully, imperceptibly by, like some grotesque torpedo with staring black eyes. Such fishes are dreaded by old " reefers," and many stories are related, especially of the Bahama barracuda, which suggest that as regards fierceness, the fish should be classed with the shark. Yet it was my custom with others to swim across and through a deep channel daily where large barracudas were abundant, and so-called man-eaters more so ; but we were never disturbed, and the only reliable instance of a barracuda attacking a swimmer, that came under my notice, was the one referred to. Regarding the vicious reputation of the great fish, Jordan and Evermann say that it is " sometimes dangerous to bathers, being fierce as a shark."
The barracuda is an edible fish. Outside what might be termed " pan-fishes," as yellowtails, grunts, and a few others which are excellent, I would give it the first place ; yet on the Cuban coast and in some of the West India Islands the fish is supposed to be poisonous at times. This was certainly not true seventy miles from Cuba, where I caught and ate the fish every month in the year. At Bahama and along the reefs of the West India Islands and at our province of Porto Rico the barracuda attains, according to common report, a very large size, eight feet being mentioned as its maximum growth by the United States Fish Commission.
Of the habits of the great barracuda in its solitudes, little is known. The fish so interested me by its singular personality that I watched it whenever opportunity offered, and it was always the uncompromising foe to small fry, lurking near schools of sardines or mullets, creeping upon them with the slightest display of motion on the part of its fins, conveying the impression of a Machiavellian cunning, of ferocity coupled with " ways that are dark," its entire make-up being suggestive of the tiger which creeps upon its victim and delights in playing with it.