As water temps trend downward, shallow-water fishing in the Lower Keys will feature some new players. Large jack crevalle, ladyfish, speckled sea trout, blacktip sharks, along with a few snook and redfish, will become more common, while the summer targets of bonefish, tarpon and permit become harder to find in the cooler water. One fish of particular interest on the flats during the winter months is the great barracuda.
Keys’ cudas come in all sizes--from diminutive specimens of 6 inches, to bruisers measuring close to 5 feet. A typical-sized cuda is 25 to 40 inches, and weighs from 5 to 20 pounds, but you will see them much larger than this at times. What’s different in the winter is that the large fish will come into very shallow water to warm themselves, making excellent sight-fishing targets.
A standard 15 lb. spinning rig loaded with 200 yards of braided line will suffice for these fish, although you could go a bit lighter or heavier if you like. Also, one thing that helps in catching cudas is a reel with a high retrieve ratio, enabling the angler to retrieve lures at a faster speed. My reels have a ratio of 6:1, but a 5:1 ratio will work. Anything less than that is tough to move fast enough to catch the big ones consistently.
I’ve had barracudas hit a lot of different lures over the years, but for the best fishing, I would recommend either a tube lure (cuda tube) or a 1/4 oz. silver spoon. The tube lure, sold in all the local tackle shops, is considered the gold standard for hunting big cudas. It’s a bit heavy to throw and retrieve, but it does bring out the predator instinct in a cuda, and is easy to see for both the angler and the fish. The only real downside to the tube is that not many other fish find it interesting, so this rig is one-dimensional. The silver spoon, however, is a great lure for several species, and might be more useful if you are only taking one or two rods with you. If using the tube, simply double the braided line and tie directly to the (provided) swivel with a 6 loop uni-knot. For the spoon, you’ll need to add about 4 inches of #5 wire for a bite tippet, then a swivel, then tie your main line to the swivel.
To find cudas on the flats, pick an area with a fairly light bottom, or some light patches, and at least a little bit of current. Working lee shores will make it easier to spot fish. You’ll generally see them sitting still, rather than swimming, because they are very much an ambush style predator. Most times, they appear as a greenish-gray log sitting over a sandy patch, or behind a bit of structure, like a sponge, rock, or mangrove root. Bright sunlight is a big help in spotting fish. But on cloudy days, blind casting on the up-current side of shoreline points and isolated mangrove clumps will get a fair share of hits.
As for presentation, it’s common to hear something like this: “Throw it at them and reel as fast as you can.” And if you do this, you will catch a few cudas. But, if you take the time to refine your technique a bit, you’ll see your catch ratio go up considerably.
First, position yourself as much in front of the fish as possible, but at least 90 degrees, before making a cast. Throwing from any angle behind the fish is a tough sell. Also, try to have at least 50 feet between you and the fish. (You’ll see why in a moment). Once you’ve got the kayak into position, you’re ready to present your offering. Make a cast well in front of, and well beyond, the fish. I prefer to start further away; say 4 feet past and 4 feet in front. If the fish doesn’t see my lure, I can always throw the next cast a little closer. But, throwing too close will spook the fish, and they’re tough to fool after that. For the retrieve, you want three speeds: slow, medium, and FAST; in that order. Start your slow retrieve and WATCH the fish’s reaction. He should move towards your lure, which is when you switch to medium speed. You’ll then see the cuda fall in directly behind your lure, not unlike a heat-seeking missile. Now is when you hit overdrive and literally crank AS FAST AS YOU CAN! You should get a vicious, slashing strike at your lure and then the fun really starts! Greyhounding jumps, spool-dumping runs, and wildly unpredictable changes of direction are common with these wonderful game fish.
The two most common errors I see anglers make with barracuda fishing are: 1) setting up too close to the fish so as to not have enough space to employ the 3-speed technique, and 2) not cranking fast enough at the end of the presentation. I can assure you, you cannot possibly crank too fast for a barracuda in hot pursuit! But reel too slowly and the fish will simply follow it all the way to the boat and turn away. It does feel funny at first to crank the reel so quickly, so practice and develop that top-end speed. It will catch you more fish!
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