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Fishing for Barracuda in Key West

Coral reefs are the one of earths most complex ecosystems, containing over 800 species of corals and one million animal and plant species. Here we see a shallow coral reef supporting shoals of Yellowtail Barracuda (Sphyraena flavicauda).  These young Barracuda remain in a shallow Lagoon schooling together to hunt fish and avoid predators.  This is a typical juvenile behaviour that helps to ensure the survival of the species.  Image taken whilst scuba diving at Ko Haa, Andaman Sea, Krabi province, Thailand.  Taken on Sony mirrorless camera with underwater housing and Inon Z330 strobe.

Several species of Barracuda are found in Key West waters and they are all popular gamefish because Barracudas bite readily on many types of bait and fight hard with many dramatic runs and jumps.

Barracuda (Sphyraena spp.)
(Florida Record 67lbs.) Barracuda are well-known among saltwater gamefish for their long, streamlined, torpedo-shaped bodies and aggressive-looking mouths full of sharp teeth. There are more than 26 different species of Barracuda found worldwide. Two of the most common in the Florida Keys are the Northern Barracuda (Sphyraena borealis) and the Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), the largest of all Barracuda species.

The largest specimens of Great Barracuda reach lengths of 6 feet and can weigh over 100 pounds, but most types of Barracuda grow to lengths of 12 to 36 inches or so. All Barracudas have similar elongated bodies with silvery-gray skin covered in tiny scales and various patterns of stripes and spots depending on the species and the age of the fish. They have pointed heads and long, powerful jaws equipped with rows of fang-like teeth. Barracudas have a forked tail fin that is wide in comparison to their bodies, and they can move at speeds over 25mph in short bursts.

Barracuda Habitat and Behavior
Barracudas are found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. They can hunt in very shallow water and also often found in deep water around reefs, wrecks, and other structures. Barracuda generally live in near-shore waters, but large Barracuda are sometimes seen in open ocean waters at depths up to 325 feet. In Key West, every wreck will hold large schools of Barracuda and they are also commonly found around the channels of the Backcountry Flats. Juvenile Barracuda like to hide near the edges of mangroves.

Barracudas are ambush predators that prefer to hide, dart out to hit their prey with a devastating strike, then turn to gulp down the pieces. They will eat almost anything but mainly prey on all types of bait fish and smaller reef fish as well as younger members of their own species. Large adult Barracuda are often solitary, but schools may be seen around deep-water wrecks. Juvenile Barracuda commonly move in large schools, and divers sometimes see thousands of fish swirling around in a dramatic whirlpool fashion.

Little is known about the Barracuda reproduction cycle. The females spawn during spring, with spawning believed to begin around April in Key West waters. A female may spawn several times in season, releasing about 5,000 to 300,000 eggs into the water where they are fertilized externally. The eggs float until they hatch, then the larval Barracuda take shelter in shallow water vegetation, only moving to deeper water when they reach maturity.

Fishing for Barracuda
Barracuda are often caught during wreck- or reef-fishing expeditions, and are sometimes a nuisance fish that steals bait meant for other species. On the Flats, Barracuda are a favorite target fish because they are easy to find and usually feed aggressively. They lurk near the mouths and along the edges of channels, under drop offs, along the edges of islands, and near any structure that holds baitfish and provides the Barracuda shelter for an ambush attack. Anything that imitates an injured baitfish will draw a Barracuda’s attention, and they hit hard on a variety of artificial baits including flies, plugs, and brightly-colored surgical tube baits.

In the shallow water of the Flats, the hunting Barracuda is often visible to the fisherman and when a top-water lure is used the dramatic strike is very exciting. The fight often begins with the drag screaming as line is stripped from the reel when this powerful fish runs. More runs, jumps, and sometimes even charges at the boat follow as the angler matches strength with one of hardest-fighting gamefish in Key West. The battle almost always ends with a live release because Barracuda are not considered to be good eating fish but are very valuable as a local sportfish resource.

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