The California Barracuda
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"Angling is somewhat like poetry, men are to be born so." - IZAAK WALTON.
IN May or June the picturesque, lateen-rigged boats of the Venetian and Portuguese fishermen of San Pedro, California, go out in search of the barracuda which is due at this time, corning in from the outer and deeper sea, or from "down alongshore," that mysterious locality where many fishes winter. They have two or more hand-lines boomed out to starboard and port, and before the stiff trade, fly over the Santa Catalina channel trolling for the California barracuda, probably the most valuable food-fish on this particular piscatorial horizon. The fisherman has a cord or sheet fastened to his boomed-out lines, and when a strike comes, or the bone jig is taken, he hauls the line aboard by this contrivance and brings in the fish hand over hand, without even luffing for courtesy.
The discerning angler may read between the lines the truth. This barracuda is the antipodes of its Floridian namesake and kinsman, and its appearance in these pages is due to one fish, one of many taken, which made a gallant fight, and the fact that barracuda fishing is one of the sports and pastimes all along the coast of Southern California from San Diego to Santa Barbara and beyond. It comes in large schools, in this also being totally unlike its Gulf of Mexico cousin, and often tints the very waters a delicate yellow with its vast numbers. In looking down from the boat thousands of pointed muzzles and black eyes are seen, the fishes often lying so thick that they appear to be a solid mass; so closely packed that I have hooked a fish accidentally by jerking it up among them. At such times the barracuda will not bite. You may dangle the most luscious morsel at its very nose, but it will scornfully pass on ; at others, especially in water slightly rough, the schools appear to break up, yet retain a certain continuity, and then they bite ; not occasionally, but all the time, and seriously interfere with yellowtail fishing. This, with apologies to the devotees of the barracuda.
Owing to its sharp muzzle, it is somewhat difficult to hook the fish, and it has an aggravating method of nibbling at the bait, or nosing it. The novice, thinking this a genuine strike, gives M. Barracuda the " butt " and misses again and again, reeling in to find that this inglorious sampler has bitten off a piece of the tail of the sardine as a souvenir; hence, the fish has become known as a promoter of invective on the part of the boatmen who are baiters as well. To obviate all this, the angler should not endeavor to hook at the first nibble but, if it is a decided strike, should slack off the line, overreeling for a few feet, thus affording the fish an opportunity to swallow the bait. If hooked some individuals surrender at once, refuse on any terms to be a party to sport of this kind. One fish, which I hooked, deliberately swam toward me, saving me the trouble of reeling, and I doubt not would have jumped into the boat, as they have been known to do, had not the dismayed boatman, with an ill-concealed " Well, I'll be dogged ! " jerked it aboard with the gaff.
To offer this as a type of the California barracuda would possibly be a libel upon the species argentea, as nearly all fight as well as the average pickerel of seven or eight pounds. The fish referred to at the beginning of the chapter was taken on an eight-ounce split bamboo trout rod, with a number nine cuttyhunk line, and gave excellent sport ; making fine rushes, swerving from side to side, and finally at the surface, lashing the water into foam, acting in so gamy a manner that the boatman expressed the opinion that it was insane. A trout rod is too light for the barracuda, which runs up to fifteen pounds and is often four feet in length. I would suggest a light greenheart, or a split bamboo, such as would be used for pickerel in Eastern waters. The barracudas are taken almost entirely by trolling, although the professional fishermen " chum " them up at times, and when they " get them on the run," haul them in as fast as the lines touch the water, using a white rag as bait, the barracudas, like mackerel, losing their heads and snap-ping at anything. The most satisfactory sport I have had with these fishes was to cast into a school where they were biting, and by reeling quickly take them ; in this way they will often follow the bait up to the boat, displaying no fear.
The California barracuda is Sphyraena argentea (Girard) and like its Gulf of Mexico relative belongs to the family Sphyraenidae. It is a long and very slender fish, the lower jaw projecting, the muzzle sharp and pointed, the eyes black and conspicuous. Its colors are brown or green above, the belly white. When taken from the water the back, like that of the yellowtail, often takes on a bluish, almost iridescent, hue. The fins are tinted a light yellow, so that when the fish is seen deep in the water, it is sometimes mistaken for the yellowtail. Along the mainland the barracuda rarely ventures inshore, most of the catches from San Diego to Santa Cruz being made from one to five or more miles from the surf ; but at the islands,— San Clemente, Santa Catalina, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and San Miguel,—where deep water sweeps the very rocks, the barracuda is caught not one hundred feet from shore, great schools moving up and down the fringes of kelp — the fishes' highway in search of anchovies, sardines, and squid, the food of its choice. There are several " runs" of this fish, which mean that large schools move in, or up the coast, at intervals. That they follow the general contour of the mainland is certain, as in the spring the barracuda is first reported from Coronado; then the fishermen catch them from boats off Redondo and San Pedro, and it will be often two weeks after this that it appears at Santa Catalina and other islands, where it is taken with more or less regularity up to August and sometimes later ; in September it disappears.
The barracuda spawns in San Diego Bay and at San Pedro, and I have seen young barracudas about two inches in length in Avalon Bay and hence assume that this harbor is also a spawning ground. The young were in the kelp in schools of perhaps two or three hundred, and were remarkable for their shyness, it being almost impossible to catch them, and for the rapidity with which they moved. The entire school, as though prompted by a single thought, would dash away several feet and take up a position, all headed in one direction ; and when alarmed, make a second move, always preserving a certain continuity, most interesting to the observer, peering down through the olive-green fronds of the kelp. I have never observed at any of the islands a barracuda between the very small specimens and the adult, but intelligent fishermen have informed me that barracudas of all sizes are found in the fine bay of San Diego.