Monday, May 21, 2018

The ocean's fearsome foe

GULF OF MEXICO — Dave Zalewski didn't like the looks of his bait well.

"We'll just have to make do with what we have," he said.

We were 25 miles out, and it was close to noon. It was hot, humid and even the baitfish had taken a siesta.

For two hours, we had tried our best to hook a big barracuda, a mainstay for charter boat captains during the dog days of summer.

"They are a lot of fun, especially for kids," said Zalewski, who has been running an offshore boat out of Madeira Beach since the 1970s. "If you like a lot of action, they can't be beat."

Open-ocean slashers

Barracuda are good sport. These open-ocean predators eat whatever is available, including a variety of baitfish, as well as Spanish and king mackerel. These voracious eaters are the bane of tournament anglers because a big 'cuda can slice a 40-pound kingfish in half with just one bite.

This creature's sharp, razorlike teeth helped it earn the nickname "tiger of the sea."

The International Game Fish Association's World Record Game Fishes book lists categories for eight species of barracuda, the largest being the Guinean, which is found in the eastern Atlantic, along the coast of Africa. This fish is a real monster, reaching more than 100 pounds.

But our local variety, Sphyraena barracuda, or great barracuda, is no slouch. It can weigh more than 80 pounds and get as big as a grown man. This barracuda will not only devour a hooked fish, it will also try to take a speared fish off a diver's stringer.

The smaller barracuda, more common in our local waters, sometimes gather in schools. But the big ones, like the kingfish they pursue, tend to be more solitary.

Escape artists

So it came as no surprise when these ravenous beasts made quick work of the variety of baits that we trolled over the artificial reefs and wrecks as the sun climbed in the sky.

It seemed every mackerel we caught got ripped apart before it made it to the boat. And each time we did happen to hook a barracuda, its teeth would saw through the wire leader in seconds.

"I'm getting a little discouraged," Zalewski said after we lost yet another baitfish to the marauders. "It looks like we are going to have to go bottom fishing."

Then, just as he was about to hang up his planers, another 'cuda hit and jumped several times, putting on quite a show.

Aerial acrobatics such as these have helped contribute to the barracuda's fearsome reputation. Hooked barracuda have been known to land in boats and, at times, severely maul anglers. Over the years there have been scattered reports of barracuda "attacking" fishermen, in addition to incidents involving divers and swimmers. The latter can usually be explained by sunlight reflecting off a piece of jewelry, which under water looks just like a reflection off a baitfish's scales.

According to the International Shark Attack File: "Fatalities from barracuda attacks are rare. In 1947, a death off Key West was attributed to a barracuda, followed by another case off the coast of North Carolina in 1957."

But the barracuda's large caninelike incisors are intimidating, especially when one is at your feet thrashing around the deck.

"Let's get this fish back in the water," Zalewski said. "Now let's try for another one."

Zalewski grabbed the last blue runner out of the bait well, rigged it for trolling and dropped it in the prop wash. He let out about 25 yards of line and watched. The baitfish was there less than 60 seconds when it was hammered by something big.

At first we thought it was a shark, judging by the bend in the rod. Then the fish jumped and its long, silver body glistened in the sunlight.

It took about 20 minutes to bring the brute to the side of the boat. The fish, 5-feet long and as thick as a man's leg, laid there for a second.

"Quick," I said, "hand me my camera."

Then the fish turned its head to the side a fraction of an inch, cut the leader and slipped back down to the darkness below, a great battle from a great opponent.


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