Barracuda: A kind of fierce tropical fish that has strong jaws and sharp teeth
I’m headed out early again way before first light, creeping slowly out of the RV park in the dark, lights dimmed. I hoping to avoid waking my sometime fishing and drinking buddies in their nearby trailers, an august assembly of accomplished tarpon and permit fishing mavens. I’d have to explain how I could eschew those iconic game fish, instead pursuing a holy quest for as many barracuda as I can catch (and release) in one day. They already turn their noses up and make sport of me as the Kayak Cuda Buddha for my unfailing devotion to these toothy torpedoes! My destination for this quest is the colorfully named Toptree Hammock Key. The launch point is at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.
I’m on the water at first light, but even though the tide has just peaked, I am having to paddle rather than peddle in the shallow water as I head north. I can hear the fins below the boat scraping on the hard corals that dot this hard-bottom flat. Which is a good sign usually because barracuda tend to prowl these areas. Finally I make it to the old bridge that links Summerland to a series of smaller keys. It was apparently blown out partially by the last big hurricane, so a span is missing, and the trail to it from the ramp is getting overgrown. I’m continually amazed at all of the abandoned and storm-wrecked structures that abound in the Keys, testimony to the hardy and fool-hardy souls who actually lived on them, farmed them, and raised families before being driven off by hurricanes, bugs, disease, or the heat. Most are overgrown and wild again, part of the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. Maybe a harbinger of things to come as sea levels continue to rise down here. But I’m not about to let dark thoughts of climate change deter me from my barracuda quest! Those thoughts are better contemplated over a margarita.
As I creep closer, I see the falling tide is flowing hard around the bridge abutments, so I figure there must be some barracuda hiding there, picking off forage fish washing by. My first cast with the trusty Mirrolure MR18 is greeted with a solid hit, and a nice 20″ barracuda comes to the boat after some strong runs. A good start. But the bubble is soon burst as my kayak runs aground on a grassy shoal near the bridge, and I discover the water is only a few inches deep under the span and far out into the Niles Channel to the east. My hopes of joining the Century Club–catching over 100 fish–are starting to fade! So somewhat dejectedly, I head further north towards Wahoo Key, where I find another expansive, beautiful hard-bottom flat. I bail out of the kayak and begin wading in the beautiful clear water as the sun starts to light things up so I can see anything that moves. I spot a couple of long darker forms near the shore that seem to be moving and loft a cast that way. One of the shadows darts towards the sinking lure and before I can even crank the reel once, KERBLAM!!
I’m onto a pugnacious two-footer that does a couple of cartwheel jumps then heads dead speed ahead right at the me. I dodge to one side, and he runs smack into the yak with a loud thump. Unbowed, the cuda then reverses course and speeds out into deeper water. Finally I turn him and make a long-distance release as he executes one last jump. Now I’m in the clover–for the next half hour it’s a follow and usually a fish on every cast. The fishing gods are smiling. Then I see something busting bait around the little islet in the channel between Wahoo and Toptree Hammock Key. Ignoring the wise old saying of never leave fish to find fish, I can’t resist and start peddling west. The water deepens at the south end of the island so I put on a lure that dives, hoping to coax a big cuda that like to hole up in these deeper spots. My second cast produces a strong strike, and I
think I’m onto a good one. But the fish comes in too easily…and I am face-to-face with a writhing, prehistoric-looking lizard fish! He’s barely 8 inches long, but has a set of nasty teeth and an ugly disposition to match . After gingerly extracting the hook and dispensing with the lizard fish, I catch several two-foot cudas in the trough around the south point then circle around to the other side and right into a shallow, soft grassy mess of a flat that requires me to use my paddle to push through the muck. After getting some needed upper body exercise and reaching some deeper water, I peddle post haste back to Wahoo Key where the fast action continues. By the time I take my break at 10 a.m. for a chaw on turkey jerky and peanuts, I am up to 30 or so cuda plus a half-dozen snapper. And one lizard fish.
After the snack, I ferry west to Toptree Hammock Key and catch more cuda and a couple of decent black tip sharks on the northeast shoreline. When I hit the northern tip of Toptree, the cuda fishing heats up again, and I’m reeling in one after another–nothing giant but lots of fun. When reach 50, I figure I’ve earned a break from the sun that’s really beating down now. I’m lucky to find a little shade in a cove just around the point in the shallows where I can get out of the kayak. I stretch my legs, then sit back down and dangle my feet over the side of the boat as I feast on my lunch of barbecued pork chops, fresh olives, sourdough bread…all washed down with the mandatory RC Cola! It’s fun watching
all the little fish and odd miscellaneous critters in the crystal clear water….another world. Thankfully the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are missing in action again! And before long, a pair of curious black tip sharks appear scouring the flat in front of me, getting bolder with each circuit. I toss out a couple of chunks of cuda sans hooks, and they immediately ferret them out and gulp them down. What gorgeous creatures, so perfectly built and adapted for these waters!
After gobbling down my healthy high-energy dessert bar (aka Almond Joy), I continue my
pursuit. The wind is light now on the lee side of the key and with the sun high, I have an expansive view of the flat. What a treat. I can see for hundreds of yards out. As I wade south I have excellent action, often hits on every cast, usually a medium size cuda and sometimes a scrappy little snapper. After all this exercise, I hop back in the yak and head towards a cove that shows up on my Google Maps–it looks like a good hideout for the big cudas that so far have been scarce on this trip.
My first cast with the Mirrolure produces a nice 24″ cuda followed quickly by three more. Then it happens, as I reel in a smaller one, a giant torpedo slashes in and grabs the little guy. It’s a four-footer, and I am fast on to him, but just for a second until he bites through, leaving me only a head dangling on my line. Yikes, that generated a shot of adrenaline. The cove produces another dozen medium-sized fish, and I spook a couple of more big ones that shoot off like missiles when they see me. Undaunted, I continue down the shoreline, racking up more fish. I am nearing 100 now.
I think of wading again, but decide to wait till I hit the next cove around the bend. Just then a two-foot barracuda nails my lure and zings out towards the deep channel to the west. But as he bolts away from the boat, a dark shadow intercepts him in a big boil and nearly jerks the rod out of my hand. It’s big bull shark, at least six feet long. I pull hard, hoping to set the hook in the shark. He begins to tow the kayak and me out into deeper water, then all of a sudden he’s off. I reel in what’s left of the unfortunate cuda. Probably just as well. I have no idea what I would do if I had wrestled a shark that big close to the boat…and bull sharks are particularly truculent, especially with a hook in their mouth of nasty teeth! Visions of Capt. Quint in the movie Jaws sliding screaming into the mouth of the big white shark flit through my head!
After my nerves calm down, I continue the crusade and the next cove puts me over the century mark, way over. By the time I hit the south end of Toptree Hammock Key, I’m pushing 150 fish caught and released, and have developed a severe case of Cuda Elbow. My left elbow is aching from cranking that reel handle at light speed for 12 hours!! Sadly, I know no one back at camp will give me any love or sympathy.
A stiff east wind hits me as I emerge from the protective lee of the key, signaling perhaps it’s time to head back to the ramp which I can see in the distance. On the way, I duck behind as series of mini-islets that provide a little shelter. The shoreline here appears to have been ravaged at some point by a hurricane or high winds. Dead mangroves are toppled over into the water, providing what looks like perfect habitat for a good-sized cuda to ambush its prey. So naturally I can’t resist and pitch my red and white Mirrolure (that recently survived the shark attack) to the edge of a thicket of branches. The lure hits the water and disappears in a big eruption, and my line slashes through the water. It’s that big one I’ve been waiting for all day. He shoots to the surface, shaking his head above the water like a big bulldog. He must be at least 4 feet long. After a couple more sizzling runs, I get him close to the boat, but he blasts off again, not ready to give up the fight. He rips off 50 feet of line from my reel then skyrockets high in the air, his tail two feet above the water. What a stunning sight, right out of an outdoor magazine….but as he tumbles one way, I see my lure is flying the other, and he’s free!! I smile and tip my hat to this magnificent creature. I’m happy with my Century Club status, and can at least brag and embellish the stories about the monster cuda and that big bull shark I lost when I get back to camp and the pool deck at the lodge. If I hurry, I should be able to make it back for mango margarita time.