“Fish Week” is drawing to a close, but I couldn’t allow the entire week to pass without telling the tales of the battles between man and fish…where the fish wins. Two of our stories revolve around the titular hunter of the not-so-deep, the speedy and sleek barracuda.
You are my sunshine
It was on one of the many aquarium fishing trips into the Upper Keys. There are times that burn themselves into your memory forever. This was one of mine.
The usual crew was with me that trip. Dad, Sister and perhaps friend. This area was different than our Bear Cut escapades, lending itself to each of us breaking off into our own areas of the reef.
I was working in the rocky shallows, looking for damsel fish and sergeant majors; the water was probably only a little higher than my knees. The process consisted merely of leaning over with the mask and snorkel and waiting, net at the ready. Occasionally, I would pry up a rock with my knife, a standard blade sheathed around my ankle.
Coming up from a particularly long wait, I stretched and glanced around. The water was crystal clear, and in those shallows, the sun allowed you to see all the way to the bottom. But I didn’t need to see that deep. Not to see what was waiting patiently less than a dozen feet away.
A large barracuda was floating near the surface and clearly eyeing me. Now, water has a way of magnifying things, making fish appear bigger in the water. Still, I would venture to say this guy was between 4 and 5 feet long.
People always talk about sharks as the scariest creature of the depths and they surely make great movie fare. But you’ll come across far more barracudas in the shallow Keys than you will sharks. ‘Cudas have rows of razor sharp teeth, a mean looking demeanor and are lightning quick. My grandfather had a barracuda head hanging in his den. I don’t know how big that ‘cuda was, but the head was over a foot long and the open mouth and teeth remain one of the more frightening fish I’ve ever seen.
So it was not surprising I felt a surge of fear when viewing this ominous looking fish. Barracudas generally don’t attack humans, so I knew something had to be attracting him. Sure enough, rookie mistake, my knife was not fully sheathed and the blade was reflecting the sunlight with an attractive glint. Just the sort of glint a bait fish might make off its scales.
In a study of slow motion to put a mime to shame, I reached carefully down and nudged the knife back into its sheath. The ‘cuda made no notice; just hung there in the water. I slowly pulled one leg back and placed it down. Then I moved the other leg. And again. A foot backward. Two. Three.
Darned if the barracuda didn’t follow me. I didn’t dare look back to see if I was getting close to the shore. I kept my eyes as focused on the ‘cuda as it did on me. Another couple steps and now the water was below my knees. Another and another, and now it was to my calves.
At that point, the water became shallow enough that the barracuda decided to pass up on the possible meal, especially since it wasn’t shining anymore. I waited several more moments after I couldn’t see it and then ran for shore and simply stood there for some time.
I did go back in the water that day, but I made sure to leave my knife on the beach. And I will admit to looking around several more times than usual, but the barracuda never returned.
Thanks for lunch
When Dad and I were out on our regular fishing trips, we had a regular routine as our rental time drew to a close. We would hunt down one of our favorite fishing holes and drop a few lines to try and pick up a grouper or two.
There are plenty of great fishing charts that can be used to map your favorite holes. These charts are wonderfully accurate and detailed, showing depth drop-offs and various other points of usefulness. So marking the map carefully wasn’t a problem, which made returning to good fishing spots easy.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones who returned to those spots, as I would soon find out to my dismay.
On the end of one of our better fishing days, we dropped anchor and dropped lines looking for grouper to round out our catch. I got the tell-tale sign, a whopping big hit and then basically a dead weight to drag to the surface.
About two-thirds up from the bottom, the pole jerked again and the line suddenly started spinning out. Dad and I sat more erect. This was no way for a grouper to act! About 30 feet away from the boat we saw something strange: a long, sleek body and a fat round head. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before.
A few moments later, the line went slack and whatever I was reeling in was a lot lighter than what I had started out with. Sure enough, when the line was fully retrieved, I had a gorgeous grouper head, which ended just behind the gills. Let me once again express my awe and admiration for the barracuda. The cut where it had gulped the meat of the grouper was as clean as any TV “super knife” could have made. I mean perfectly straight. Extraordinary!
Judging by the size of the head, we guessed the grouper was probably about 12 pounds. What a meal it would have made. What a meal it did make…for the ‘cuda.
A few weeks later, we were in the same spot and I was reeling in another fish. This one was fighting, so I didn’t think it was a grouper. What do you know but the line starts spinning again, this time only for a few seconds. Dad and I both knew what we would see when I reeled up. This time it was a grunt head, probably about a four-pounder. Sliced clean, like with a blade.
I’d like to think that barracuda appreciated us fishing there and giving him such nice meals so easily. As annoyed as I was losing the fish, I have since then always appreciated the skill of the barracuda over the brawn of the shark.
Beware the Allimud!
Our final tale takes place in the Everglades, so you know it won’t be about barracudas. What it is about, I cannot say, for we never did see the creature then and have no more clue about it now.
This was back when Dad and I took out the 10 foot jon boat with our little 7.5 hp electric motor. I usually liked using the fly rod in the canals while Dad liked running a worm. There were bass to be had that day and, as ever, it was just great being out on the water with Dad. I have to say, even the days we caught nothing were still fine days, Dad and son out on the water.
As we were heading back (why do these things always seem to happen when we’re nearly done for the day?), I took up Dad’s rod and trolled a weedless worm near the bottom. At the speed we were going, I wasn’t looking to catch anything, but it’s just fun having a line in the water and a rod in your hands.
Suddenly I get a monster hit! Since I wasn’t expecting anything, I nearly lost the rod. Dad cut the motor immediately as I struggled to make any headway with the line. I must have had the drag too light, for the fish began pulling line out.
Tightening the drag, I found it impossible to reel in the fish. Then, in a scene you could only see in a movie, the little jon boat began to be drawn back with the fish! I mean, c’mon! Loathe as I was to relinquish the rod, I gave it up to Dad, expecting his greater strength to win the day.
Sure enough, he started getting some line back in, but he was straining at it. He let out an exclamation of surprise at the fight, since there’s generally nothing big enough in these canals to cause much effort. Finally, after a few more minutes of the battle, the line snapped and we ended up with nothing.
We sat in the boat for a few minutes, casting around to see if anything would bite, but there was no recurrence. As we talked about the fish, I mentioned that the initial hit felt like a mudfish, a bottom dwelling fish of little use other than working out your arms. We both agreed the strength and movement of the fish didn’t match that of our experience with mudfish.
Ultimately, we decided to call it the Allimud, a mudfish with the strength of an alligator. We never encountered a similar incident in dozens of other trips to the ‘Glades, but it always provided us with a great fish story, which, for true fisherman, is often as good as the fish itself!