Heading down I-75 to Singer Island out of the wretched hills of Estill County there is one thing all wretched Estill Countians keep an eye for----the law. Blue lights. State Boys. My father use to position me in that small suicidal space located over the back seat. I had to make my body into a curve as I pressed my face against the back window. My job was to spot for cops. Father took immense pride in going 1,000 miles non-stop. Mother would feed him a hot dog and pop his Miller High Life as he would once again set a new personal family history record in the amount of time we used to get there. The average MPH were nothing short of miraculous. Even Evil Kinevil and A.J. Foyt would have paled.
It was a natural evolution for me to keep a sharp eye when I took on snorkeling. Remain keen on what was dangerous. I was very small in those days. A hillbilly fledgling oddly better in the water than on land. My first mask in the 50's, you could barely see out of. Some kind of thick plastic lens and cheap rubber. And a goofy snorkel that had a plastic cage and a ping pong ball inside of it to keep water from coming back in.
I can't remember the very first time I saw a barracuda. I can't remember the first time I saw a hawk. I can remember being around nine or ten years old and snorkeling past the pumphouse out on the point on the north wall of the Palm Beach Inlet. Back then there weren't any laws. Back then there were schools and schools of all kinds of fish. Only a slight handful of people snorkled, let only dived. Diving was still in it's infancy. My father was my hero. My second hero was Mike Nelson playing Lloyd Bridges in SEA HUNT.
I shot every fish there was. French angels, queen angels, spade fish, parrot fish, doctor fish, sheep’s head, sand perch, chubs, jacks, pompano, catfish, croakers, grunts, snappers, flounders, whatever paused. It beat squirrel hunting all to hell. I had only one rule. You shoot it, you eat it. That wasn't a problem. My family loved fresh fish. It didn't matter what kind. It all fried up wondrous in mom's skillet. It was more than just fun. My father ran a fruit stand on the street. It saved us a little money. I took immense pride in coming back to the apartment with a stringer of exotic fish. Fish from the Gulf Stream had it bad on fish from The Kentucky River. No argument.
At some point I met a friend two years older, George Springer. He lived close to our hotel, The Sand Dunes. In George's home, the walls were covered with turtle shells and shark jaws. His older brother had a boat and deep sea fished all the time. George and I became blood brothers. He was incredibly skinny and dark with tan. Unique for my Kentucky world. I learned a lot from him and his brother. We had wonderful times sneaking into all the different hotel and private pools getting in a quick swim before disappearing.
George and his brother talked a good deal about an old cuda that lived out on the point. A black monster. The cuda would be there on given days. He was smart. If you dared tried to shoot him, he knew just the exact range your gun would shoot. He stayed just at that distance, carefully watching. A wild eyed wolf. He could hold perfectly still or move magically quick.
That cuda on the point was legendary. Every diver in Palm Beach spoke of him. The Gulf Stream Ghost. He'd hang about twenty yards off the point. Right where it got deeper. Where it was open sand. It was his patrol area. Where the currents were always whipping. He was the master of stealth. Could beam himself close to you while you were spearing other fish. He was always watching. If I moved a finger, he knew which one.
Now you may think it is impossible for fish to talk, but they do. This cuda was short on words. An old veteran. A spirit long before dinosaurs. A clean bite artist of death. He'd let me know that he knew that I was back out hunting, just like him. And in his territory. He'd say, you know, you can't get me. And you better keep an eye---I might get you. See my jaws. He'd even pop them to make sure I noticed.
We had something of a stand off as long as I had my arbelette. Mutual respect. The experts say that you can't tell a male cuda from a female just by looks. That you have to cut them open to see who is who.
The experts are wrong.
By the time 1977 rolled around Ann and Nancy Wilson had their hit song. And I had had many wonderful experiences with cudas, having the special fortune of diving every day for three months through the summers. In those times I learned that cudas did and could do about anything short of reciting the Gettysburg Address. I speared many from very small to world record class. They are a great fish for eating. Their meat has all the firmness and color of the snapper family. Many times I would shoot snappers and cudas and filet and fry them together only to sit back and listen to my guests brag on their meal never realizing that what they had eaten was cuda. They were told it was all snapper. I heard over and over again----most always from people that really didn't know much about fish-----that cuda was poisonous, especially the big ones.
If that was true, my family would have died off decades ago.
The truth is, about any fish from the ocean can be poisonous. It's very rare. Much depends on what that fish has been eating. Barracuda is delicious no matter what size. The big ones have wonderful thick fillets like that of snook.
I get hungry thinking about it.
I have learned this. That barracudas should be filleted and skinned and the meat put on ice as soon as possible. For some strange reason, a dead cuda will soon emit a particular slimish substance that is extremely fishy and slightly green in color.
This begins sometime soon after the fish dies. The longer that this fish is uncleaned the worse the taste of the meat. All fish are better when fresh. This is particularly true for cudas.
Barracuda comes from the Spanish word, "Barraco," meaning, overlapping tooth. Anyone that has ever seen one has noted that their lower jaw juts out beyond the upper. There are 26 species. Generally speaking, the larger ones live in the Mediterranean. The current world record caught on a rod and reel weighed 85 pounds. In Florida, 67 pounds.
I've seen and shot larger.
But don't look for my name in any records.
Once when I was snorkeling in the Keys I was just pulling the trigger on a snapper when suddenly a cuda hit my fish. I raised my head out of the water. There on the reef the cuda flopped and chomped at the same time. A few seconds later he flopped back into the water. Swam away with complete ease.
Another time, early one morning, just as fish were waking, alone, I made a brain shot on a snook. Not an ordinary snook. At the time, the world record was 53 pounds, caught on a rod and reel. This snook weighed 62 pounds. My spear shaft had hit the snook in the head. A mis-calculated distance shot. The shaft did not penetrate the fish. But it did paralyze the snook. The snook was in open water around 20 feet deep. It was in a spot that went to a depth of nearly 70 feet. I had made paralyzing shots before. You never do it on purpose. Many times the fish will remain motionless. But just for seconds. Then they "wake up" and dart away. You are left with nothing. If you are able to get up to one you generally have to make the right grasp on their gills to get them. If you don't, they're gone.
Due to the tide my snook was drifting deeper and deeper by the seconds. I had a bad tangle with my gun and had to make a quick decision. Going up to get another breath I went straight back down. The snook was nearly forty feet deep.
And he was no longer alone.
There in the clearest of swift water, the mother of all rivers, The Gulf Stream, floated my giant snook. Snooks are the regal Mackdaddy of all fish when it comes to chowing down. Fish tenderloin, only for the gods. If I was in the Big House eating my last meal before execution, it would be snook.
Somebody else thought the same way.
That somebody was floating about a yardstick away, holding dead parallel to my trophy. Well over six feet, a world record cuda, Argus eyeing. As I got closer to the snook, so did he. That cuda knew my gun was fouled. He popped his massive jaw. Look, he said, this snook is mine. You messed up. I trust you aren't so stupid as to try to grab this snook's mouth. Thanks for supper. Now, go away. Go back up to your world and I might not bite your hand off.
I had been deep sea fishing plenty enough to know what a cuda can do. Many times when fighting a Kingfish, Wahoo, or Bonita the line and pressure suddenly goes slack. When reeling in you find that large fish severed in half. Looks like someone hit it with a cleaver.
Going downward I continued swallowing and popping my ears adjusting to the pressure. I was near the bottom, nearly 70 feet. As deep as I had ever free dived. I knew if I surfaced without the snook that I would never get another chance. I brought my gun up and swam at the cuda. He didn't want to budge, but did, popping his jaw, cursing me. He turned and then came straight back. I could almost touch him. I bluffed for all I was worth once more. I knew that I was flirting with getting myself in real trouble. I took the snook's mouth and got a firm hold on his gill and headed towards the surface. The snook began to revive. Jerking madly. Ten feet away stayed cuda. I kept my shaft aimed in his direction. As soon as I broke the surface I got a breath and dropped my face back in the water.
He was still there.
In 1978, one of the world's worst all time movies was released. It's name, "Barracuda." My grandfather owned two theatres and a drive-in. I had no choice but to know movies. Especially since the apartment I grew up in was located over one. That's where mom made a living selling tickets. I saw every rotten flick you could imagine. It saved on babysitting. And when Barracuda came out I couldn't help but enjoy it's madness. It was about some chemicals that ran off into the ocean and made all the barracudas in the area go berserk. For the most part it was a spin off of Jaws.
Nine months of the year I suffered living in a complacent Appalachian village called, Irvine, Kentucky. I'd ride around with my Falls City comrades in their Plymouth Barracudas making the most incredible hook shots into stop signs as we roared off into the hills. The only water we saw was The Kentucky River. If the outlaws upstream in Beatyville didn't flush, we didn't even see that. My survival in this fetid rat hole was my atonement for all my sins.
And many they were.
But then, God would go senile and give me another chance and set me free for three months. And I'd be right back out in the Gulf Stream bluffing cudas. If it is one distinct characteristic that I enjoy about cudas it is their ability to put on a wonderful and most frightful bluff. They have a lot of "bad dog" in them. The trick is, knowing when they're bluffing and when they ain’t.
The folk that study cudas found that the males are bigger. Nobody but the shadow knows how long cudas live. Once they reach 4' they're at least 15 years old. They can swim over 30 MPH. The timing and location of their spawning still remains a mystery.
There was an August day when my wife, Chesteen, and I made one of the strangest Gulf Stream dives. We dove on a day following a week of storms. The moment we hit the water we experienced what can only be described as a dream. The whitecaps and churning had given way to a placid surface. But the water was full of thermo clines. One after the other. Different temperatures, different depths. A dream, I say. Ah, yes.
Who really knows what be a dream?
How much is hundred thousand? How much is more? Much more. That's how many barracudas we found ourselves in the midst of. All sizes.
And rays. Rays of every variety and size.
All intermingled. All seemed spellbound. All life was going with the current. All was vague and eerie.
For nearly an hour we floated in the current holding hands experiencing this surreal gathering. The thermo clines played tricks with the visibility. Sometimes it was as though oil was mixed in the water. This only added to heighten our senses. It was as though everyone was looking for a moment, for a leader. As though all was lost. Yet, moving on as if with some strange purpose. As if a silent siren was drawing all.
When Chesteen and I surfaced we were never the same. And decades later, we still speak of this dream. It is a wonderful thing to own.
Like being lost in the stars.
And then there was the day when Bo Bennett-----one of the finest dive buddies I ever had-------and I were diving in the Palm Beach Inlet. We rode the tide in and were just surfacing near some jetty rocks. Two fishermen were calling it a day and had thrown the remainder of their bait into the water. A school of small cudas were darting back and forth around the bait.
Bo swam through them. Then climbed out with his tank on his back. He sat on a rock, his lower half still underwater.
I was swimming to Bo through the cudas when I noted one headed straight at him. To my disbelief, it bit his knee. The bite was quick, the cuda retreated. I raised from the water. Bo was grabbing his knee and cursing. No meat was gone. But there was a perfect "V" shaped bite just above his knee, bleeding.
Cudas are the coldest hot fish in the ocean. Peer at you like a mother-in-law. Two vampire fangs. The charm of a mortician.
The French natural historian, Charles de Rocheport, reported in 1667 that the great barracuda of the Caribbean craved human flesh and were equipped with a poisonous bite. de Sylva , in his 1963 paper, lists 29 attacks of which 19 are documented.
On July 14th, 1960, a diver was attacked off Pompano Beach, Florida by a great barracuda. The barracuda rushed him four times and bit him twice. Until recently, following a June, 1997 attack on a woman cleaning the bottom of a boat in murky water, this was perhaps the only widely-documented case of an unprovoked attack on a diver or snorkler.
In 1966, a fisherman was "buzzed" by a cuda flying through the air and going over his boat. In 1959, a barracuda jumped in a fisherman's boat and bit his neck in the process. Nadine Chlor was also bitten by a "flying barracuda" in 1993. It is recorded in RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT. The cuda was reported to be 8' in length and inflicted a serious wound to her upper leg.
Diving Peck's Reef off Stuart, Florida, surrendered many cudas in the five and six feet range in the 70's and 80's. So did the reef off McArthur's nude beach. Being heroic there had sweet rewards. A good shot is a powerful one in the middle of the cuda directly behind the gill plate. It not only insures keeping him on and saving the filets, it also prepares one for a grandiose fight for at least a half of a minute. It's common for a big cuda to hard pull and walk n the water soon after being hit.
A pauper's marlin tango.
Several years ago in Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamian chain, I met two families from North Carolina. I was staying at The Twin Coves and noticed them snorkeling and having a good time. They loved the ocean. They kept trying to shoot a poor fish but didn't have a clue as to what they were doing. Their innocence was touching. The next day I took the whole gang snorkeling having promised I'd shoot them plenty fish, supper for their tribe.
In the Bahamas it is against the law to spear fish with anything but a Hawaiian sling. A simple tube-like device with a rubber that propels a shaft freely through the water. Such is adequate in the hands of an experienced spear fisherman. But it is far inferior to a good arbelette. And that's what I had smuggled into Eleuthera. Piece by piece spread out in all sorts of luggage. Having reassembled the gun, minus a particular lost screw that helped hold the front unit of the gun together, we spit in our mask and ventured out.
Snorkeling north with the current a little more than a hundred yards off shore we found ourselves in 30' deep water going over a dead reef with varying hiding places. I had shot a couple of small grouper and some grunts and snapper when one of the boys swam up to me to relay that a big cuda was coming around.
I told him not to worry.
We continued snorkeling and I got a big trigger fish and then found a lobster that was around ten pounds. Thought was unnecessary. The lobster was soon on the end of my gun coming to the surface. When I got back to the top three of the divers were huddled. The big cuda was getting braver and braver. I told them if he made another run, I'd take him. As I was cocking my gun I saw a big blacktip about twenty yards away. He was arched. When they do that, they're soon coming. We were at a place where the reef broke the surface and I tried to get the kids near me where I could watch over them. Mother hen as it were.
Then, almost unexpectedly, came the cuda. The six footer swam up close and glared. Joe Ohr, my old high school principal, use to look at me identically.
It was too much.
I plugged him.
A perfect shot. The Class of '69 was joyous!
Alas, Joe and that cuda---all in one! There was something wonderfully refreshing and vengeful in the shot. I felt complete. Almost heroic.
The cuda took off. For about five seconds with an audience in awe I had a strong hold on the beast. Then he made the most daunting of leaps and jerked the entire front unit off my gun and swam for freedom. Three times he leaped far above the water pulling my string, the unit and the rubbers. He disappeared some 100 yards away.
Meanwhile, the blacktip had gained a buddy.
I was left holding a metal piece of gun. There was a chance that I could have swam out farther into the ocean and possibly found the wounded cuda and the rest of my gun. But the odds were not good. Neither was the situation. When you wound a fish it never really gets away. Life in the ocean is more ancient than land. Death moves swift. All is more dream.
The cuda was probably already gone. What a shark had not eaten, something else had.
A friend that I've met through correspondence, Durgan, is also a diver in Eleuthera. Durgan related a story about a dive he made on the north end. A six footer came up to him and another diver. The cuda began popping its jaws, challenging them over a fish they had shot. This kept up for some time. Then the cuda came around and positioned itself directly at them holding his mouth open in a toothy display.
That's when Durgan's friend shot his Hawaiian sling. The spear went straight into the cuda's open mouth. It went through the length of the cuda and on out through it's body.
The cuda paused for a second. Then popped it's jaw and darted away, trailing blood, as if nothing had happened.
Durgan and his friend retrieved the spear shaft and continued diving.
Not far from Governor's Harbour airport in Eleuthera there is a marine biology school operated by a gent that found me in Mate and Jenny's one eve. At the bar, of course. After a drink, or was it three, perhaps seven, we had matched lies enough to go diving the next day. Inasmuch as we had one matter in common---our love for the ocean---------that was about where it ended. That, and an admiration for feminine pulchritude.
We left The Queen's Highway and went toward the ocean side of the island jeeping upward across a rocky region full of giant sinkholes and caves, some having banana trees arising from their depths as if some exotic weed working up through a crack. Actually, Eleuthera is nothing but a 125 mile coral head peeping up from the ocean. With no law of any consequence it is as close to heaven as any Estill countian could ever be allowed.
Once we topped our eventful rise a panorama of endless pale sky, moonscaped cliffs and perfectly clear ocean abounded in all direction. Having come from a mired Appalachian existence wherein all the trees had been butchered and the river made into a sewer, I felt inspired. I smiled at the marine biologist and we were soon in the ocean snorkeling with the north current. An hour later found us swimming up to a cliff with cave like grotto opened unto the ocean. We swam into it and climbed out.
Life leaves markers. Ah, truly, most queer it be. You never know when, where or what. Could be anything at anytime. Or a subtle accumulation of things over many years.
When I climbed out I felt a magic. The diamond way the light reflected from the sandy bottom back up into the grotto's roof. The break of yellow to blue shades. The slipperiness at the water's edge. The smell and ever-so-slight movements of creatures so foreign to a hillbilly. How long had current and storms taken to carve this temporal sanctuary. Ah yes, Quicksilver was about. The little boy in me knew it.
When I returned from the dive I petitioned my daughter, Nancy, to venture with me back to the grotto the next morn. She was apprehensive. Several times I had knocked sharks off of her. She wanted no more of such. I promised that I would not be spear fishing. But that I would take a small pole spear for protection. She readily agreed.
The next morning found us swimming to the grotto when two Bull sharks swam straight at us and then divided, each making a curious pass. Heavy, six footers. I said nothing. I did not want Nancy to quit or become excited. Swimming on, we kept a careful vigil. Out there you are totally on your own. There is nobody to shout to. No help to be had.
Coming to the grotto I was glad that I had brought an underwater camera. One of those cheap disposable ones good for about nothing. Once Nancy climbed out I began taking pictures. She appeared a pale blue image, something haunting, as I focused on her. The best times of our lives had been around the water. There was so much of my dead mother in her. Her skin, her build, the way she looked at the ocean. Ah yes, haunting.
Nancy had been a competitive swimmer all her life. Was the best on the High School swim team when she was in the fourth grade. Transylvania University's top swimmer on full scholarship when a freshman.
She knew water.
She couldn't have been my daughter and not.
When we got ready to return back into the ocean Nancy held still.
There, black, something large, appeared in the entrance of the grotto.
The object was alive. Moved ever so singular.
"Is that a shark?" asked Nancy.
Some eight feet high on a landing inside the cave we held contained, looking outward and down into the water. The object changed in every way. Once it would be eight foot. Then, six. It would disappear and reappear. An eight foot mirror working voodoo.
"Its not a shark," I said. "Sharks don't do that."
Then the black object reappeared. An instantaneous transition. Nancy's blue eyes were intent. "What is that?" she begged.
"Cuda," I said. "That's a barracuda. The biggest I've ever seen."
Twice the cuda raced back and forth from side to side of the entrance. Then it stopped dead still before doing the same performance again. Then he turned his body perfectly downward, his face pointing at the bottom. His tail gently broke the surface for thirty seconds. Then the giant dove straight down only to abruptly turn and leap out of the water toward the ocean. In seconds he returned. He owned the ability to selectively darken or lighten his lateral blotches, individual or all.
"What's he doing?" asked Nancy.
"I don't know," I answered. "I've never seen any fish do what he's doing. I think he's just playing. Go on. Jump in. I'm right behind you."
Nancy continued looking at the cuda. It was near the surface holding stationary, locked in black coloration and directly facing us. "You go, dad. I'm afraid."
"Honey, it's just a cuda. Cudas won't hurt you. They're big bluffs."
"I don't care. You go."
I stared at the cuda. There was something about him. It was not only his size and performance but also his aura. The mystery of the sea within him.
I put on my flippers and mask. Instead of jumping at the height that we were at I decided to climb down and go from a lower place. The moment my left foot touched the spot where I was going to jump the cuda made carefully controlled advance. My flipper was about a foot deep. I still had not put my other foot down. Upon doing so, I planned to dive in. I looked up at Nancy. "I believe that damn cuda is going to hit me," I said. Before taking the next step I turned toward the cuda, pulling the rubber back on my pole spear. It was one of those cheap three piece pole spears that you can get off of ebay. I no sooner had the rubber pulled back as far as it would go than did the cuda make it's attack.
It was so quick.
I was in a bent position with one foot in the water and the other just going in. I had just placed my spear in the cuda's direction just below the surface.
Some four feet away my spear went through the cuda's left eye and out behind his left gill.
It happened so quick. Instinct. A shot for life.
The adrenalin pumped. Bent over, I straightened my body, lifting the cuda from the water. He did not know he was shot. He continued working his body toward me. Determined. Trying to bite. His eyes were matched only by his fangs in death. Thick blood oozed down the shaft. The beast was bigger than me. I slammed his head against the cave's wall. Nancy screamed. I slammed again. And again. And again for all I was worth. At last, the strength of the fish waned. I drug the fish over the coral and looked at Nancy. "God, "I said, "can you believe this?"
With effort I managed to drag the fish up to Nancy. Only one photo was left on the camera. I did all I could to pull the fish up to me while she took the photo. I laid the great fish out in a shallow pool back inside the grotto.
When we got back to our place it was hard for either of us to tell Chesteen what had happened. It didn't matter. It was something just us two would ever own.
Nobody would ever believe it.
And that's OK.
That's what this thing is. I'd forgotten when I saw my first barracuda. But now I remember. I woke in the middle of the night last night. Mom was back alive. Such a kaleidoscope of memories.
I was five years old.
In the apartment that I grew up in there was an opening between our kitchen and a pine den. In it, there were four windows overlooking the Kentucky River and the mountains.
In the opening between the rooms my parents made a table at which my family ate all our meals. At the end of the table my mother kept a small aquarium full of guppies. The exception was one angel fish, her favorite. Above the table there were two fish mounted on the wall near the ceiling. One of the fish that was blue, green and gold with speckles had a small mouth. It was arched and had a long fannish dorsal fin---------a dolphin. The other fish was a little smaller and less arched. Silvery. Fierce eye and teeth.
That was the first time I saw a barracuda.
Dad had caught the dolphin, mom the cuda. Trying to keep pace with our wealthier relatives my parents had had the exotic fish mounted. Their presence helped negate an otherwise boring area of an Appalachian apartment. Many a roach inspected those strange objects. Even a rat or two had arched their neck to see if they were edible. Dad's beautiful fish was just that. But it was mom's fish that owned my attention. I spent many an hour trying to envision mother landing the thing.
Even the exotic becomes common in time. The cuda grew dusty. Was all but nothing for a long time.
Then mom and dad moved to their dream house out on Main Street. The cuda went with them. Got mounted in their new den. Parties came and went and the fish was seen by all manner of drunkards and outlaws alike.
A few years later Chesteen found mom dead on the couch close to the cuda. Mom had been dead for several days. Heart attack.
Nancy. That was her name.
A short time after dad got another woman. One that was anything but like mom. Mom had worshiped dad. She was at his side through thick and thin. This new one was only after dad's house. She hated anything to do with mom's memory. Anyone that knew my mother couldn't hate her. That's why this new woman did. Dad ran over the dogwood planted in moms honor by her friends. It was never replaced. And dad concreted over mom's name by the doorway of their dream home. Everything mom was trashed, yard-sold and thrown to the winds. Dad would yard sale mom's barracuda if he hasn't already.
When cudas lay eggs they never acknowledge their children.
You can destroy anything.