The great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda, is a common fish in the blue waters offshore of Louisiana. Yet one never sees a fishing story about anyone fishing for them off of our coast.
It’s hard to mistake this slender, streamlined fish from any other in the Gulf. A wahoo would probably be closest, but it’s hard to ever get a wahoo to slow down long enough to actually get a good look at one in the water.
Barracudas, on the other hand, have huge swim bladders and efficient gills, allowing them to quietly “hover” in the water, waiting and watching for their next victim with their glimmering eyes.
Anyone who has worked on an offshore oil platform, where most of our barracuda seem to congregate, has seen them from above, slowly sculling or quietly suspended in the water, surrounded by schools of smaller fish, all of which barracuda eat.
“Stalking in plain sight” is probably the best way to describe their behavior. They seem absolutely uninterested in the schools of small fish surrounding them. Then, with no warning, an unbelievable burst of speed and a head slash, an unsuspecting fish ends up impaled on its fangs.
Few strikes are more than two or three fish lengths long, and some are less than the length of the fish. It seems as if the disinterested behavior the torpedo-shaped predator had been exhibiting had lulled the victims into feeling secure.
Great barracuda are a poorly researched and understood fish. Even the derivation of its scientific name is shrouded in mystery. One account states that the genus name Sphyraena comes from a Greek word for a fish. Another lists it as being derived from a root word for “hammer.”
The species name barracuda is its common name, as well as part of its scientific name, and comes from a Caribbean language.
Three species of barracuda occur in the Gulf of Mexico: the great barracuda, the sennet and the guaguanche. The latter two species resemble great barracudas without their black spots, but neither are common off of Louisiana.
The great barracuda, which we will just refer to from here on as “barracuda,” has decidedly tropical tastes, being found world-wide in a belt along either side of the equator.
The IGFA world-record fish is 87 pounds, 3 ounces, and was caught in 2012 near the tiny island country of Kiribati in the central Pacific. Reports of fish over 100 pounds are not uncommon, although 20- to 30-pound fish are more the norm.
Barracuda are extremely streamlined fish, with small fins and huge jaws. The fish that most resemble them are freshwater pickerels and pikes. Like them, they are voracious predators, literally eating anything smaller than themselves.
Examination of barracuda stomachs shows schooling fish to be their most-common prey, but everything from slow-swimming puffers to speedy little tunas have been found. Offshore, triggerfish are often consumed. Nearer to shore, mullets seem to be favored targets.
Besides its speed, what makes the barracuda such a fearsome predator are its teeth, of which it has two sets. The outer row consists of small, closely set, triangular teeth similar to a piranha’s. These razor-sharp teeth are used to shear the flesh of their prey.
The inner set of teeth are fewer in number, but what they lack in number, they make up for with size. These fangs are used to grip their victims. They are so long that each has a hole in the opposing jaw to allow the fish to close its mouth.
Barracuda males reach maturity in the second or third year of their lives. Females are a year behind them. In South Florida, spawning occurs from April to October. They release their eggs and sperm into open water to float with the currents. Young fish grow up in mangroves and sea grass beds, neither of which is common off of our coast.
It is unknown if they spawn off of Louisiana or if the population of barracudas here resemble goliath groupers (aka jewfish) that spawn in South Florida and migrate or spillover into the northern Gulf.
Barracuda have a bluish-gray back, shading to green on its sides and then silver on the belly. Eighteen to 23 darker vertical bars can be seen on their sides.
Their giveaway identifying feature is in irregular number of jet-black blotches on their lower sides that seem to be out of place in the coloration of the rest of the fish.
Over most of their range, barracuda are found on shallow, sandy flats, where they have become elusive targets for flats fishermen, or over offshore or near shore reefs.
In Louisiana, they are equally common skulking around offshore oil and gas platforms or patrolling the numerous offshore submerged mini-mountains that our anglers often call “lumps.”
Barracuda can be remarkably hook-shy. They live in gin-clear water and have large, well-developed eyes. The best lures (besides live bait) have an erratic action and are designed for fast retrieves.
If a lure is retrieved slowly, a barracuda might follow it but make no effort to take it. If the lure is stopped, the ’cuda will immediately lose interest in it. The best approach when a barracuda in sight shows interest in a lure seems to be to speed up the retrieve; it is impossible to reel it fast enough to get it away from the fish if it wants it.
Barracudas are famous for two things: their danger to swimmers and divers, and their reputation for having toxic flesh. Barracuda bites do occur, and in most instances consist of one very quick strike that can take off flesh.
Bites are rare though, and most occur when the fish tries to take fish from a spearfisherman or in a case of mistaken identity when the fish sees a glint of something shiny on the person.
Still, in 1947 a death off of Key West, Fla., and another of the North Carolina coast in 1957 were attributed to a barracudas.
Their reputation for toxicity comes from the common occurrence of ciguatoxins in their flesh in tropical waters. Produced by tiny one-celled dinoflagellates (which resemble algae that can swim), the toxins accumulate in the flesh of fish that feed on them.
The fish that prey on these fish accumulate more, and so on up the food chain. Each step up, the predator accumulates more toxins.
Barracudas sit at the top of the chain.
Ciguatoxin causes no injury to fish, but mammals (like humans) that eat the fish can experience severe and in some cases long-term discomfort that includes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, numbness, headaches and hallucinations.
Fortunately, ciguatera poisoning is very, very rare in the subtropical waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. In the tropics, wherever ciguatera occurs in barracuda, it occurs in snappers, groupers, and jacks, all of which Louisianans eat with abandon.
I have eaten barracuda flesh several times and found it to be extremely mild and very white — in other words, delicious.