Captain Hook’s Gallery: Baja’s Pacific Barracuda
It was the last day of his vacation in Ensenada before heading back to the blistering July heat of Phoenix, Arizona, and Rob had made the decision the night before to spend it on a sportfishing boat.
Although it was only 7:45 a.m, the summer sun had already torn its way through a thin, gray layer of marine mist when the skipper encountered flocks of hungry seagulls and pelicans on the way to Islas Todos Santos, just offshore. The birds were intently circling, and diving frantically into a small section of ocean that had erupted into a chaotic froth of fleeing sardines, as well as predator species that were crashing through the deep blue surface while attempting to eat them.
As the boat carefully slid up to the feeding frenzy, anglers onboard quickly began tossing live baits and lures at the boils. Rob had already tied on his trusty Krocodile spoon, and was one of the first to get his jig in the water. Before he had a chance to crank the reel’s handle more that a few rotations, his pole was nearly yanked from his hands by a fish that attacked his bright, fluttering lure with the speed of lightning and the force of an angry bull.
“Fresh one!!” Rob called out enthusiastically, remembering something that he had heard once a few years before while aboard a commercial sportfisher in Southern California. The fish bent his medium weight spinning rod nearly in half, as line continued to peel off his reel. Eventually, the fish began to tire, and Rob was able to turn its head and regain control of the battle.
“What is it?” Another visiting angler asked while peering attentively over Rob’s shoulder. “Do you think it’s a BIG yellowtail?” At that very moment, the fish came to color below the boat. The flash of its long, silvery body made it immediately identifiable.
“Oh, no!” shouted the kibitzing fisherman for all to hear. “It’s a damn SLIMER! …The guy caught a BARRACUDA, not a yellowtail!!” His voice was dripping with sarcasm.
The big fish appeared to be almost three feet long as it was gaffed and brought over the rail, but Rob was no longer smiling. When the deckhand who was holding his catch asked for his bag number, he shook his head and declined with a simple “No quiero.” This was a big error, because Rob had just made the common mistake of allowing someone else’s perception of reality to ruin what had been, in fact, a wonderful event. No matter whether you call them slimers, snakes, or by their most considerate nickname, California wahoo, the barracuda remains one of the most maligned gamefish that swims in our waters.
Pacific barracuda (Sphyraena argentea) are a pelagic species that is usually found in Ensenada Bay during the summer months. Although they prefer live bait, they can also be taken on chrome spoons, top-water poppers and surface iron in a blue and chrome combination. This barracuda has a slim body design, and rarely exceeds a weight of 10 pounds. They can offer an excellent fight on light to medium tackle, and grow to a maximum length of about four feet. Not to be confused with the Great barracuda that lives in tropical waters, the Pacific barracuda can be distinguished from those found in the Sea of Cortez by its silvery sides and a lack of broad bars or spots.
Most Pacific barracuda are taken with live bait fished at or near the surface; however, they will take an assortment of trolled artificial lures. If you see a very large barracuda, in the 10 pound range, chances are it’s a female. Positive identification can be made because the female has a charcoal black edge on the pelvic and anal fins, whereas the male fins are edged in yellow or olive. Three pound barracuda are common, but generally they are large enough to put up a good fight. Caution should be taken when you land a barracuda to avoid their needle sharp teeth.
The good news, which is often overlooked, is that Pacific barracuda can be excellent table fare when properly prepared and cooked fresh. Although it is not usually feasible to execute while on a commercial sportfisher, it is very important to remove the gills, entrails, and to bleed out this fish as soon as possible after it has been caught, and then place it immediately under ice. Prior to cooking, thoroughly scale the whole barracuda and slice it crosswise into steaks. Place the steaks into a large bowl and marinate them in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours in your favorite oil and vinegar based Italian salad dressing. Then grill over smoldering mesquite, turn once until they’re fully cooked, and get ready for a surprisingly tasty meal.
Remember, if you can’t eat that barracuda on the day that it was caught, they are also extremely good when smoked and served with crackers and whipped cream cheese!
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