California Ocean Fishing All About Barracuda
Barracuda, one of the most common surface game fish in Southern California is a popular target for saltwater anglers. Though some turn up their noses at Barracuda as table fare, if properly prepared, they are one of the best eating fish of the area, light, and succulent. Catching Barracuda is also a lot of pure fun!
Pacific Barracuda (Sphyraena argentea), now the most common big predatory fish in Southern California, is a success story in conservation efforts. Aside from the banning of gill nets, the only efforts made to return the Barracuda to previous common numbers was the imposition of a 28" minimum size limit on these toothy game fish. This allowed almost all barracuda to breed. They get up to 4 feet long but are commonly less than 3 feet. A 4 footer will only weigh about 20 lbs since the fish is so long and thin. Most keepers are in the 6 to 10 lb class.
Barracuda occur throughout Southern California and range from the surface to deep water. Though their main haunt is the fringes of the kelp beds where they stalk unsuspecting bait fish and ambush them as they wander away from cover, they often sweep through inshore flats areas chasing schools of bait. The fertile flats areas where Sand Bass breed attract many small bait fish and of course, where there's prey, predators won't be hard to find.
Though the Atlantic (Great) Barracuda can sometimes be dangerous, the Pacific Barracuda is completely harmless in the water. They're not a threat because of their small size and habit of only striking what they can eat whole. However, some caution when handling a landed fish is in order, though. These fish are strong and have long rows of sharp teeth. Many an angler has needed some bandaging when carelessly grabbing a flopping fish on the deck. The best way to pick up a Barracuda is by grabbing just behind its head, slipping your fingers under the gill plates and holding its neck. They can be pretty slimy and hard to hold. Some fishermen use a short hand gaff made up of a barbless double trolling hook attached to a 12" piece of 1" diameter hardwood dowel. This is especially effective for those of us with "office hands."
Successful Barracuda fishermen Barracuda are primarily a fish of the summer, but of late, they have been nearly a year-round proposition. In the early spring, they move up from their deep water haunts into the near shore areas. The fishing is spotty in February, March and April. By May, becomes consistent and carries usually at least until September or October.
Barracuda are easily caught on bone jigs or bait. They will also hit flies and top water plugs but only when they are busting the surface in mid-summer near kelp beds or when you catch a school, out in the open, chasing a bait ball. The preferred jigs are blue and white, purple and white and an old favorite of mine green and black - especially for those overcast days. You can also catch them at night when they seem to prefer shiny chrome type jigs. If there are short fish about, later in the season, single hook jigs are preferred. Often, chomping on a treble hook will do real damage to the fish's mouth. It's a shame to throw a fish back after you've mutilated it's mouth and marked it for sure death. I personally use only single hooks on all my Barracuda jigs.
Streamer flies in blue and white to simulate anchovies or in green and white to simulate sardines will be the best bet for the fly fishermen. You'll probably go through lots of flies because when these fish hit, they hit HARD and are used to killing their prey instantly with their crushing jaws. Their fight is vigorous and strong, making hard turns, shaking their heads, and in general, giving the light tackle fisherman all he can handle. An eight weight rod is the minimum and a ten is preferred with a shooting head and sinking line.
Barracuda also will take bait. Live anchovies or sardines fly lined near the kelp or sent down with a Carolina rig with a sliding sinker, is the hot ticket. Beware, though, their teeth are sharp and will saw through a mono leader with ease. Some fishermen use short wire leaders. This will result in less strikes but far fewer losses.
Barracuda are almost always filleted by fishermen on party boats. There's more to eat on the fish though, so I usually get them gutted and gilled on the boat then take my time at home preparing them. I often scale them and slab at home then cut the long, skinny slabs into serving sized chunks with the skin on one side - perfect for barbecuing or smoking. The kama (collar) part is also an excellent piece of meat so I save these as well. If you get the chance to get Barracuda roe from females early in the season, go for it. It's excellent!
Barracuda are excellent table fare, too. They do have a strong fish taste like salmon or tuna so they may not be for everyone's palette, but if you like fish, you'll love barracuda. Because of their high oil content, they also are great eating smoked. Barracuda are best broiled, baked, poached, sauteed, or grilled. Deep frying is not recommended because of the oil. The roe are delicious when roasted and eaten with rice, or when simmered in soy sauce and sake (nitsuke.) The collars are best just salted and broiled.
Jeff Spira is a fishermen and writer of fishing and seamanship books. His web site Southern California Ocean Fishing offers further insights into this fun sport and has links to online sources for his books on the subject.