It was suspended motionless in the cleft of a coral reef, a slot where the citrine shallows deepened to a bruised blue. All barracuda give the onlooker pause, but this particular specimen – a great silver cylinder of muscle that looked to go 50, maybe 60 pounds, cusped with a frowning jaw held agape by a cram of X-Acto Blade teeth – made my neck hairs tingle.
Earlier, back at the dock in Duncan Town, Alvin Munroe, my ad hoc guide for the day, had cradled my shiny new “big game” fly rod and reel in his thick, spatulate hands, gently rocking it up and down to gauge its heft and sinew. He’d pursed his lips and shrugged – a barely disguised skepticism followed by a big “whatever” grin, one gold tooth glinting. “You de boss, mon … Don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no fly poles, mon. But I does know where dem fishes be.” No wonder. As a fifth generation lobster diver, Munroe had been plying the waters off Ragged Island – the farthest out of the “out-islands” in the Bahamian archipelago – since growing tall enough to reach the tiller on an outboard.
Now here we were facing off, prow to toothy schnoz with the quarry. Munroe feathered the engine, maneuvering the panga as I briskly stripped off line, soothed by the smooth zzusss zzusss of the drag, while the words “appropriately scaled tackle” – the fly shop guy’s mantra – whispered in my head. Though I hadn’t fallen for one of those posh reels that cost more than a Korean-made car, the model I settled for wasn’t exactly a blue-light special. Shucks, no, it was a downright imposing piece of machinery, which I brandished with some bravado, if not scarcely suppressed pride.
Unleashing a surprisingly competent cast, the fly – a nine-inch-long, lime-green needlefish imitation – plopped in front of the beast. The take occurred at a speed imperceptible to the human eye. I planted my feet and leaned sideways into the rod. At first everything went according to script, the reel singing a throaty protest as line sliced through the brine. Mere heartbeats later, the barracuda hit Mach 2 and I felt shuddering in my palms, accompanied by a grinding moan, followed by a metallic gargling and the culminating shriek and twang of spontaneous disassembly. Spewed parts spattered onto the boat planks and splut splut into the drink. One errant piece blew straight up and fragged me in the face, splitting my lip. Backing melted off the gutted reel faster than you could say anchovy, and … sproing … the entire fly line vanished into the blue void like a broken kite string.
I looked down at the ravaged husk of a reel in my trembling fingers, then up at Alvin Munroe standing transfixed, his mouth drawn tight and eyes narrowed to slits. I awaited rebuke, if not a rich roux of Bahamian invective. Instead, he burst into yelping, sobbing laughter, finally managing to sputter between gasps for air, “Summabitch cuda done splode dat reel … toldja mon … toldja.”
It couldn’t be helped; even as I gingerly staunched the blood from my lip, I was seized by the same howling torrent. Sometimes it really does hurt to laugh.