Barracouta – Thyrsites atun
Other names: manga, maka, couta, snoek, Cook Strait Sailfish.
If there is one species in New Zealand that sports anglers love to hate it is the barracouta. Their fangs can make short work of monofilament fishing line which can prove costly if you don’t come prepared for them with either light wire or heavy monofilament terminal rigs.
There is a saying in New Zealand that Cook Strait is the spiritual home of the barracouta. Indeed they can be found in the outer Marlborough Sounds and well out into Cook Strait in great numbers over the summer months. But they are also just as plentiful off the Kaikoura coast and are caught there very close to shore.
Barracouta – Thyrsites atun. Most adults are under 1m in length. Can reach over 1.5m and 7kg.
This species is astonishingly plentiful here no doubt attracted by the rich supply of prey which consists of virtually any small fish such as sprats, anchovies, silveries, yellow-eyed mullet and young barracouta. I have caught them stuffed full of whale feed or krill. This no doubt contributes a considerable amount to their diet when seasonally available, as it does with other pelagic species such as kahawai and mackerel.
Barracouta can be an awful nuisance to anglers by attacking fish as they are hauled up to the boat. They much prefer any type of food that is moving and so must be chased to be eaten. I have on many occasions seen barracouta jump clear of the water in pursuit of a single baitfish chasing it until either pursuer or pursued is exhausted.
Anglers have devised numerous cunning methods of defeating the barracouta. Some of these I have seen appear a bit extreme such as short lengths of light chain and very heavy wire leaders. I prefer fine wire leaders around 50cm in length, which makes it possible to still cast the lure or drop a jig without a tangle. You have to keep the join to the mono mainline to a minimum as the ‘coutas will often hit your swivels.
The best option when bottom fishing is to always use very heavy mono – 100kg at least – for your bottom rigs and carry plenty of spare rigs. It also pays to wind up as quickly as possible. The reason being the barracouta will often hit perch and blue cod that are being wound in. Frequently two or three barracoutas will be hooked at once leading the tyro to believe they have caught a “whopper” only to have their spirits deflated by a swirl of tackle destroying ‘Cook Strait Sailfish! ‘
On several occasions when fishing for albacore tuna off the Kaikoura Peninsula we have been frustrated to tears by the constant hits on our gear from these pests. However, I note that the further out we travelled from shore the fewer the barracouta. Ten kilometres from shore we managed to shake them off at least for a while.
These things can be a horrid pest as they cut through lines and attack hooked fish as they are retrieved to the boat. Unlike kahawai barracouta don’t appear the least bit frightened by propellers and engine noise. In fact, they may well be attracted to them.
Barracouta is also extremely plentiful off Otago and Fiordland. Southern anglers in these areas also report the same problems as experienced off Kaikoura. I remember once fishing off Dunedin for big sharks only to have out large baits stripped in seconds! On that particular occasion, the black sea was tinted red with acres of krill which had no doubt attracted the barracouta, hordes of screaming seabirds, and seals from the rocks below Taiaroa Head. Any baited hook or lure sent over the side would be taken by a barracouta almost immediately. The novelty of catching them soon wore off with again the only solution is to go somewhere else. Barracouta make up part of the diet of southern fur seals which makes seals very fast swimmers!
On occasion, barracouta is caught off the South Island’s east coast river mouths by anglers casting for salmon. Interestingly they will take a moving lure in this situation but not a baited hook – or at least only rarely.
Barracouta doesn’t have scales. Their bright silver skin is easily damaged. Fresh from the water their flanks have an iridescent bluish tinge. Stay away from the teeth, particularly the three long canines at the front, that can easily inflict a nasty wound. Barracouta is easily dispatched with a solid blow on the head.
The barracouta is a schooling fish which seems to move in and out of a particular locality probably determined by the availability of food. They school by size with fish 40cm long being about a year old. Whereas at Kaikoura during high summer you might catch barracouta all day that will each be about 850mm in length.
Few anglers will actually cook and eat a barracouta – or at least few will admit to doing so! There are several reasons for this. Firstly they are difficult to fillet without ending up with large numbers of small bones left in the fillet. Secondly, they are often found to have long white parasitic worms embedded in their flesh. Although the worms are not poisonous, at least not when cooked, they are enough to put anyone off eating them. Possibly a third reason anglers cast barracouta aside is their somewhat ugly appearance. Provided they are free of the parasites they are in fact very good eating. They are particularly good smoked. If you do intend to take a barracouta to eat try to chill it down quickly as the flesh becomes mushy very quickly on a hot day.
The old-time Maori, who called barracouta Manga, caught and dried them in huge numbers. They were caught from canoes with a wooden lure that was thrashed on the surface of the sea. Ashore they were dried on racks, and where possible in caves, to be stored for later use.
Early European fishermen also caught barracouta in New Zealand by the use of a heavy stick some four feet in length to which was tied a similar length of a strong fishing line. At the other end was tied a lure consisting of a five-inch-long redwood stick with a nail angled back toward the fisherman at the far end. These were used to thrash the surface of the water. To the barracouta, this sounded like their baitfish prey jumping in and out of the water trying to escape. According to David H. Graham, huge numbers of barracouta could be swung aboard by expert fisherman at the rate of some four per minute! As there was no barb on the hook the ‘couta simply dropped onto the deck. According to Graham, he had a reliable record of one man catching 96 dozen barracouta in one day by this method. When you consider that some of the barracoutas could weigh as much as eight pounds this must have been frightfully exhausting work.