Fly Fishing for Barracuda: The Forgotten King of Saltwater Flats
Overlooked by many fly anglers, the barracuda should be flats fishing royalty thanks to its blistering speed, snarly attitude, and aggressive takes of a fly
It's a fish that doesn't get much in the way of respect, even if it should.
It being the barracuda, a sleek and speedy predator that according to the Orvis endorsed guide Rob Woodruff is often a forgotten fish of the tropical saltwater flats in the fly fishing wonderland of Belize.
In some ways, barracuda are simply the Rodney Daingerfield in a fish world littered with high-gloss magazine photo specimens of more glitzy and glamorous Caribbean species like the tarpon, permit, and bonefish.
According to Woodruff, most of his saltwater clients pay little attention to the barracuda when they travel to Belize's El Pescador Lodge, the 2017 Orvis International Lodge of the Year.
Little attention until they catch a 'cuda, that is.
"You can sight cast to them in skinny water, just like a bonefish," said Woodruff, who caught his first 'cuda in the Florida Keys a number of years ago. "But they are faster than bonefish; they jump, which bonefish don't do; andthey've got a bad attitude.
"In many ways, they really are the kings of those flats."
Woodruff and his fly guide wife, Jenny Mayrell-Woodruff, grew to love this underrated and snarly species several years ago when they tied the knot in a memorable Oceanside wedding next to a turquoise blue tropical flat in Belize.
Since then, they've been hosting a couple of saltwater fly fishing trips each year, guiding clients to Belize's three piscatorial kings (tarpon, permit, and bonefish) and the predatory speedster ready to stage a palace coup.
"Oftentimes, you're watching and seeing the whole thing happen in this gin clear water," said Woodruff, a three-time finalist for the Orvis Guide of the Year award. "Barracudaare very aggressive and will trail a fly for a ways. If you speed it up, often times they will hit it very hard and even blow up on it like a bass will."
At the same time, aggressive or not, Woodruff says these razor-toothed fish aren't always pushovers that will pounce on a fly as soon as it hits the water.
Orvis endorsed guide Rob Woodruff (right) calls the barracuda a day-saver, often willing to put a big bend in a fast-action nine-weight fly rod even if the tarpon, permit, and bonefish aren't cooperating. (Rob Woodruff photo)
"They get very smart pretty quick and can be hard to fool," he said. "You can catch them, but you'll often have to work for them."
One key to catching barracuda on the fly is to have the right fly tied on, one that is long and greenish in tint.
"You want to imitate a needlefish," said Woodruff. "One needlefish pattern that I've come up with uses the Blaine Chocklett body tubing material, bite proof wire coming through the body - which is about 10-inches long - and a single Owner Aki 2/0 short shank black hook.
"The hook is at the end, back in the dressing of the tail instead of being further up in the body of the fly."
Woodruff, who has been a commercial fly tier and designer much of his guiding career, started tying this bright greenish pattern after noticing that most hookups were on the back hook in a tandem hook rig.
He also found that many of the slim profiled flies he purchased to chase barracuda with - especially the two-hook models - were often too heavy with their length, their hooks and a bit of epoxy added in.
So Woodruff set out to improve the barracuda mouse trap, eventually coming up with a concoction that reminds anglers of a tube fly even if it isn't. Add in a 3D Living Eye from Flymen Fishing Company and the fly looks more than real, to a barracuda at least.
"The key is making it so light that a barracuda will trail it for a while, then you rip it fast, and they can't help it and it triggers a reactionary predatory strike," said Woodruff.
A second key is to cast this fly it on the right fly rod and reel set-up.
"You want a fast action nine-weight fly rod and you need a fly line that you can throw pretty far," said Woodruff. "I like to throw something like the Orvis Ignitor saltwater line. It's a weight-forward floating line, but it's almost like an integrated shooting head in that it tapers down fairly quickly and you can shoot it out pretty good."
Since barracuda can run a good ways when hooked, Woodruff uses a large arbor saltwater fly reel with a 100 yards or more of backing.
As for his nine-foot low visibility coffee colored leader, Woodruff uses a hand-tied system that incorporates 18-inches of 20-pound test Rio PowerFlex Wire bite guard, Orvis Mirage fluorocarbon, monofilament, and a trick from Kevin VanDam's bass fishing playbook, a Mustad KVD Strong Swivel (barrel swivel).
If the fly itself and the fly rod and reel setup are both keys, so too is putting the fly into the wheelhouse of a barracuda, something that is occasionally accomplished through blind casting into likely looking spots.
"They tend to hang out on humps out on the flats, especially those that have turtle grass," said Woodruff. "They also hang out around a point that drops off into the deep part of the flat or a channel. They hang around those ambush points, waiting for things that come down the channels."
But like the so-called glamour species of the flats, the bread-and-butter kind of fishing for the barracuda usually comes from sight casting to them.
"You want to cast it way past them, with the fly coming within three or four feet away as you bring it back with long, rapid strips," said Woodruff.
"When you get the fly to them, you want to speed it up as much as you can, especially if they show any interest," he added.
"If they trail it, you want to make it appear as if the fly is running (from them), something that will often trigger a strike."
Once hooked, the barracuda - which can measure three or more feet in length - puts up a very worthy account of itself.
"They put up a very good fight," said Woodruff. "They are the fastest thing on the flats and they will make several good runs. And when you get them close to the boat, they start shaking their head and body violently.
"These fights last a good five to seven minutes, so they are not over too quickly, but then again, they aren't the 30-minute plus ordeals that can wear someone out."
One word of caution - handle a hooked barracuda with considerable care when you get one to the boat.
"You do have to respect them," said Woodruff. "You have to be pretty vigilant when you're unhooking them because those teeth really are razor sharp.
"But I think that's part of the fun of targeting a barracuda on the fly, having a little bit of excitement at the end."
From a surly disposition to attacking flies with power to sizzling runs into a fly reel's backing to a little extra excitement at the end, what's not to like about the barracuda?
Even if it does happen to have an unfortunate reputation as the Rodney Daingerfield of the saltwater flats.