The California barracuda, along with bass and bonito, has been a cornerstone of the “Three B’s” for decades, a term symbolizing there importance to Southern California sportfishing. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, the barracuda resource has made a comeback based upon catch and distribution data which is good news for anglers. Barracuda are a favorite partyboat and private boat gamefish as they are found near the surface in large schools, can be chummed to the boat easily and will hit both lures and live bait with a vengeance. Since barracuda “come and go” on a daily basis even during the peak season and their overall abundance has been relatively low in the recent past, many anglers may have forgotten about this species. It may be time to gear-up for them again.
Captain Tim Linskey runs his six-pak charter “Aristokat” (619-224-3383 or 760-967-2038) out of Seaforth Landing in Mission Bay (near San Diego) and offers some special insight to this wandering species. Linskey prefers to fish blue water having taken a 256—pound bigeye tuna to take big-fish honors last year, but fishes nearshore coastal waters extensively as well. “Barracuda are like an early warning of spring,” says Linskey. “By the time March rolls around the fish we’ve been catching in northern Baja start moving up to San Diego waters. By May or June they are at a peak and you can find them around structure such as the outer perimeter of kelp lines, sand-rocky bottoms and sometimes in open water up to the 100-fathom curve”, advises Linskey.
In Oceanside, Captain Justin Hassell operates the 80-foot “”Electra” half-day party boat at Helgrins Sportfishing ,(760-722-2133), where barracuda add spice to the action: “Up here the peak season is June and July and coincides with the sand bass bite”, says Hassell. “We like to fish in depths from 15 to 25 fathoms and we concentrate on the clam beds about four miles north of the harbor all the way up to the power plant,(San Onofre)”, adds Hassell.
Once barracuda have arrived, most anglers, including private boaters, have little trouble finding them. “When barracuda school-up and feed they often jump like little silver wahoo”, says Linskey. Astute anglers may also see bird activity, bait “sprays” breaking the surface, puddles or circular ripples, (especially during flat calm mornings), that indicate feeding just below the surface or can be picked up on good sonar readings. Of course, approaching other boats that are landing barracuda represent the easiest way to find them. “It’s fun fishing when you do”, says Hassell. “Barracuda are a good light tackle fish with spinning or conventional gear both effective. They aren’t real big, averaging three to five pounds, but their aggressiveness creates excitement. We get the bigger females up to seven pounds in July”, adds Hassell. They do get bigger. Captain Linskey concurs with the three-to five-pound average, but in late spring of 1999 there was a run of barracuda at La Jolla Canyon that held seven-to ten-pound fish. According to the DFG, a 28-inch barracuda (minimum size limit) weighs about three pounds and is about four years old. The oldest fish “aged” was 11 years old measuring 41 inches and weighing nine pounds. The state record is a 15-pound 15-ounce fish, but a 17-pounder was caught off Capenteria in 1958 that stretched to 46.5 inches.
Barracuda have been the first fish caught “on the iron” by many anglers. During the '60’s I had a blast catching juvenile barries by casting Krocodile (Luhr Jensen) spoons in both Mission Bay and San Diego Bay near boat docks and bait receivers. On the ocean, Krocodile spoons still work well but traditional “candybar” surface jigs probably account for most of the hookups. “My top lure is the Tady 45 in blue/white, white and scrambled egg- the same as for yellowtail”, says Linskey. “Even though barracuda act like they’re tearing up the surface, they are really pretty lethargic, so I like to swim the lures slowly just fast enough to wiggle”, advises Linskey. Captain Hassell likes fishing the iron because you tend to get bigger fish that way. “My top jig is the Tady C (single hook) in blue/white and the Tady 45 in black/red or green/yellow. One lure that was highly effective and is back in production is the Spoofer (Acme Tackle Co.). It is a flat-metal lure with a slight “spoon” indentation on its rounded front end and tapers to a rectangular rear with a waffle-grill surface. Any lure that has good action at slower speeds will likely attract barracuda. Plastic-tail leadheads will also get strikes but be prepared to replace the tails frequently.
Live bait is probably the most common way of taking barracuda. Captain Hassel favors the mornings for the best action because the schools are easier to locate and are usually more concentrated. “The barries seem to cooperate more in the mornings for some reason,” says Hassel. “We’ll set the anchor in a feeding area and start chumming. Light chumming works best and we’ll start with a handful of anchovies tossed to the upcurrent side of the stern corner. Then we’ll gradually drop down to just one or two pieces every minute or so once the fish have found us. It only takes a few chummed pieces to hold’em as long as you keep it steady. We like to chum with anchovies and use the larger sardines for hook bait if they’re available. For one thing our customers can cast them better which helps to disperse the lines and reduce tangles,” adds Hassell.
Barracuda have sharp teeth but nobody seems to use wire leaders anymore. “Barries aren’t very bright and will eat a wired bait, even a dead anchovy on a #4 hook,” says Linskey, “but when you use wire you can forget about yellowtail which is one fish everyone wants a chance to catch.” One bait lesson that Captain Linskey emphasizes is to not set the hook by swinging the rod. “Barries shake their head and set the hook themselves. Jerking the rod usually means missing the fish or getting cut off because you’re forcing too much tension across their teeth if hooked deep. Just crank the reel steady until things tighten up,” advises Linskey.
Barracuda like warm water in the 62º to 70º range. During El Niño periods their migrations increase. Good catches have been reported as far north as Eureka, California near the Oregon border. May to September is prime barracuda time. As mentioned, barracuda roam widely in search of forage but there are reliable fishing areas to try. In Baja, the San Quintin - Isla San Martin region is a winter-over grounds for this species although the cold water upwellings common here may scatter them for a short time. Ensenada, Salsipuedes, Rosarito Beach, Coronado Islands and the Tijuana Bullring are frequented by barracuda. In California waters, Imperial Beach, Silver Strand Beach, Point Loma kelp, La Jolla kelp, La Jolla Canyon, Del Mar, Oceanside clam beds, San Onofre, Long Beach, Catalina Island, the Channel Islands, Santa Monica Bay, Ventura Flats and Santa Barbara are good places to try. Los Angeles County accounted for 58 percent of all barracuda landings taken aboard commercial passenger fishing vessels (mostly open partyboats), based on a DFG study in the late 1980’s. A Marine Recreational Fisheries Survey also indicated that 54 percent of the total catch is from commercial sportboats and 45 percent from private and rental boats. Only one percent are taken from shore and I suspect most of these are pier-caught fish. Due largely to the 28-inch minimum size limit adopted in 1971, about 60 percent of all sportboat barracuda are released.
Since a good percentage of barracuda may be “shorts”, it’s advisable to use lures with single hooks. Treble hooks tend to take longer to remove and can cause more damage to the fish. Also, keep the fish off the deck to avoid bruising or injuring the skin. For the anglers safety, keep your fingers away from a barracudas mouth because they have slashing, dangerous teeth. If a fish does land on the deck, don’t forget to hose the area down because their notorious body slime can be treacherous to walk on.
Barracuda do not have a favorable reputation as a table fish, but that is a misnomer. Perhaps they have inherited some bad publicity from their relative, the great barracuda, that has been known to carry ciguatera poisoning at times in some tropical reef environments. More likely, sport-caught fish may have laid in a gunny sack or hot fish box all day rendering the flesh inedible or far from its peak of flavor. Just like with your favorite, hard-earned tuna, bleed the fish quickly and place it in a container on ice. Cold is the key to retaining flavor and desirable texture. Barracuda produce long, narrow filets or can be steaked. These are often grilled, fried or barbequed with a variety of spices. The flesh is white, delicate and does not have a strong taste so heavy seasoning is not required. An excellent preparation technique is to cut the filets into small scallop-sized portions and sauté them in a white wine or cream sauce for a few minutes before serving on a bed of rice or pasta. Don’t tell your guests what it is until later because they probably won’t believe it.