'CUDA : Haunting the Sunken Wrecks Off Key West Is a Snaggle-Toothed Fighter That Florida's Light-Tackle Fishermen Consider a Prize

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, a small freighter called the Arbutus began to take on water during a storm about 30 miles west of Key West, Fla. The ship sank in 25 feet.

Although that development no doubt was a rotten break for the owners, crew and insurers of the Arbutus, it was another in a series of lucky breaks for Key West's light-tackle fishermen. For them, the latest wreck meant another place to fish.

When the Arbutus settled on the bottom, the long, snaggle-toothed barracudas that inhabit the shallow, blue-green waters of Florida's Keys had another home.

There are roughly 100 shipwrecks within reachable distance of Key West's 30 light-tackle fishing guides. "Fishin' for 'cudas at the wrecks," is as standard a Key West activity as eating key lime pie, hoisting a cold one at Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar, Capt. Tony's Saloon; checking out Hemingway's old house, chatting with treasure hunter Mel Fisher or flying over the Gulf 60 miles for a Sunday picnic at the Civil War-era prison, Ft. Jefferson.

It's one of America's great saltwater fishing experiences, fighting big barracudas in the Florida Keys until your arms beg for mercy.

"There're a lot of great game fish in the Key West area, and most of the people who come down here to fish want to catch either tarpon or big 'cudas," said Gary Maconi, a Key West guide for the last 10 years.

Maconi, 38, meets clients at Key West's Munro Marina, where, for $350 a day, he takes up to four fishermen to shipwrecks on barracuda hunts. The way Maconi and his fellow guides see it, Key West is closer to barracudas than Cuba. His boat, the Rum Runner, is a 25-foot Miami-made Sea Vee; a fast, center-console, twin-outboard powered sportfisher than can hit 40 m.p.h. around the mangrove islands and flats of Key West's fabled fishing waters.

Florida's Keys have a lot to offer the saltwater fisherman--barracudas, tarpon, bonefish, permit and amberjack--but fishing Key West's shipwrecks for barracudas is one of the main events.

Florida barracudas, speedy, log-shaped fish, are caught either in shallow-water flats by spin and fly fishermen using green lures made of surgical tubing or by live-bait fishermen in boats fishing over structures--such as shipwrecks. A barracuda will close distance on a lure or a frantically swimming live bait with great bursts of speed, strike with ferocity and sometimes rocket free of the water, with the bait in its mouth. Bring a camera.

Barracudas are found in most of the world's warm-water seas, and the species in Florida waters, the great barracuda, is the largest. Of the 18 world records for great barracuda listed by the International Game Fish Assn., six were caught by fishermen on Key West boats. The largest certified catch was an 83-pounder caught off Nigeria in 1952.

The Pacific barracuda, found off Southern California, is a smaller cousin.

Maconi takes clients fishing about 100 days a year. Barracuda fishing is best in the winter, and so on a couple of December-January days off, he takes his wife, Terry, to the wrecks. On a recent warm, windy day, Maconi had his boat anchored off the Arbutus and was rigging a spinning outfit for his wife.

"Every time he takes me fishing, I learn to appreciate all over how hard he works out here having all this fun," Terry said, laughing. "But really, when you're not used to being on a rocking boat all day, you're exhausted when you get home."

Maconi grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and became addicted to saltwater fishing as a kid. He was a premed student at the University of Miami, before he dropped out to join his family's construction business.

"I'm a slow learner," he said, grinning. "I built houses for 10 years. It took me that long to figure out taking people fishing is a much more enjoyable way to earn a living."

He studied the wreck in front of him.

"Of all the wrecks, this is the only one that actually sticks out of the water," he said, pointing to the Arbutus' rusted wheelhouse, half of which was out of the water. Gulls perched on the wreck's rigging mast and watched Maconi as he put a bag full of cut-up fish parts in the water, to attract bait fish.

"This wreck hasn't been here long enough to be prime habitat for big 'cudas, but it will be," he said. "It takes a surprisingly long time before you start catching big 'cudas at a wreck."

With bait-fish rods, Maconi and his wife quickly caught half a dozen pilchards, a palm-of-the-hand size bait fish.

"These are prime live-bait fish for barracuda," he said, hooking one through the back for his wife. "Another is blue runners. With either one of them, if there are 'cudas around, it means instant hookup, sometimes the instant the bait hits the water."

On the day's first cast, it wasn't instant hookup. Maconi tossed Terry's pilchard toward the wreck's stern and, oh, a good five seconds went by before a 'cuda put a hairpin bend into her seven-foot rod.

After it had taken a couple of short, powerful bursts toward the wreck, Terry had her fish. It was a comparatively small one, perhaps two feet long. Maconi dislodged the 4.0 hook from the fish's lower jaw, behind its impressive dentition, and released it.

"The small barracuda are edible, but there are better-tasting game fish," Maconi said. "With the larger, older fish, you run the risk of a disease called ciguatera. It comes from a coral polyp that bait fish eat and which seem to affect 'cudas larger than 10 pounds.

"Several years ago, a Russian freighter pulled into Miami with the entire crew sick. The cook had prepared a 20-pound barracuda for the crew. Most of the guides I know encourage their clients to let them go. There isn't much reason to kill them.

"Besides, the entire Keys area could use a lot more conservation. Ever since the Mariel boat lift, there's been a huge increase in commercial fishing pressure. The Key West area alone has something like 10,000 people involved in the commercial fishing business, and there're about seven or eight state conservation officers (game wardens) to patrol all the waters.

"The Cubans will go onto the flats, drag nets and kill everything, including juvenile bonefish, which isn't a commercial species at all."

After the Arbutus wreck had yielded half a dozen smallish 'cudas to Terry Maconi, her husband fired up his outboards and headed for another wreck, using his electronic navigational device to locate the precise spot of the sunken Bon Vant, a tug that went down in a hurricane in the 1940s. The top of the wheelhouse lay about 15 feet below the surface. Maconi looked over the edge, trying to see it but only a dark shadow was visible.

"On a clear-water day, you can see it," he said. "We had a small storm go through here a few days ago and it clouded up the water. Normally at these wrecks, you can see down 15 feet. It can be like fishing in an aquarium."

Terry caught a 20-inch 'cuda with her first pilchard, released it, then tossed another over the wreck of the tug. Bang! A big 'cuda swirled on the bait at the surface and struck, just a second or two after the bait had hit the water.

"OK, this one is much bigger than the other one," Maconi said, watching his wife let the fish run with the 15-pound test line. Shortly after he said that, Terry's line went slack. The big fish had dislodged the hook.

"Too bad, but we'll get some more," Maconi said. "That might turn out to be a midget compared to what we could get into. I've caught them over 50 pounds at this wreck."

He checked the chum bag, hanging over the Sea Vee's stern. The rocking action of the boat on the choppy water dislodged tiny fish parts from the net bag into the water. An increasing number of small bait fish were swarming around the bag. Big barracudas, so the theory goes, are supposed to assault the bait fish.

Terry threw out another pilchard. This one went hitless for a couple of minutes, and she reeled it in, to see if it had died of a heart attack. As she did, two yard-long 'cudas followed it in, like a pair of slow motion torpedoes, but didn't strike.

"I'm pretty sure that's got something to do with the cloudy water," Maconi said. "They'd never follow like that on a clear-water day. It's put them slightly off their feed."

On to the next wreck. On the way, Maconi pointed to a high buoy with electronic gear on top.

"That's one of Mel Fisher's marker buoys," he said, referring to the Key West treasure hunter who in 1985 found the wreck and treasure of the Atocha, a 17th Century Spanish ship that went down during a hurricane off present-day Key West. Its treasure has been recently valued at between $100 and $130 million.

"One of my best friends has been one of Mel's divers since 1968," Maconi said.

"This is a college-educated guy who's been sleeping on friends' couches since 1968, until they found the treasure. He told me that so far Mel has given him 100 pieces-of-eight, worth about $1,200 each, four silver bars and a huge emerald."

Turning to treasure of another kind, Maconi stopped over a submerged spike-like coral formation called Marquesas Rock.

"This is really a reliable spot, as good as a lot of the wrecks," Maconi said. "It's a tower of coral rising off a sand bottom, about 25 feet high. We're about 32 miles from Key West."

The first bait, a blue runner this time, didn't last long. There was a hard yank on Terry's line. She tried to set the hook but there was nothing there. She reeled in and discovered that a big 'cuda had bitten her blue runner neatly in half, as cleanly as if it had been sliced by a carving knife. "I've never figured out how they do that," Maconi said. "They've got crooked, snaggled teeth but they'll bite something in half and make it look like a carving knife did it."

Another pilchard went over the coral formation and another fish struck. And this time, it got all of it.

"Wow, this is a big one!" Terry shouted. The Sea Vee was pitching more now on the wind-chopped water, and water splashed upon the rain-suited Terry as she battled her big, strong fish.

The big barracuda swam hard horizontally and also straight down. Finally, after a 15-minute struggle, worn down, the fish appeared next to the boat, half on its side. It was as long as a man's leg. Maconi unhooked the fish and weighed it on a hand scale at exactly 16 pounds. It was 38 inches long. He released the fish, and it swam slowly below the surface, fading away into a cloudy shadow as it slipped down into green water.

Ten minutes later, with a fresh pilchard swimming for its life near the Sea Vee, Terry had another big strike.

"This one's even bigger," she said. "I'm not sure I'm ready for this one."

This fish headed for the bottom and stayed there, moving with powerful surges as it hugged the bottom. Eventually, though, it wore out and when the fish was finally near the surface, Maconi identified it.

"It's an amberjack," he said. "We catch them where we find the 'cudas, but not as frequently. They're better fighters, actually. A 50-pound amberjack can keep you occupied for a long time."

Mid-afternoon. Time to head back to Key West. On the way, Maconi made a brief, unproductive stop at one of Florida Keys' last links to the 19th Century--the Cosgrove Lighthouse, a relic made of turnbuckle and steel rod construction.

"This thing falls into the they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to category," Maconi said. "It looks like you'd knock the whole thing down if you ran into it. But it's survived every 20th Century hurricane.

"We (Key West's light-tackle guides) used to catch a lot of big 'cudas here, and we tried to keep it quiet. They'd come right out of the water after bait. Then the party boat skippers found out about it, about four years ago, and it's been very thin fishing ever since. It takes years for a population of big 'cudas to build up on a structure."

In Capt. Tony's Saloon, San Jose, Calif., fisherman Carl Christensen was seated at the bar, near the human skeleton with the red wig. He was nursing a cold beer and a brutal sunburn.

"I come here every Christmas to visit my folks north of Miami, and to come down here to fish for barracuda," he said.

"I grew up down here and fished throughout the Keys. Catching a big tarpon is the biggest excitement I've ever had in the Keys, but barracuda are a close second. It's so reliable--you can almost always catch barracuda over the wrecks, but tarpon can be a sometimes thing. Day in and day out--and even the locals will tell you this--catching these big barracuda on 6- or 8-pound test line . . . it's tough to beat that."

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