F&S Classic: Five Fathoms Down

Anglers don't expect to have near-deadly struggles with barracuda. But few partake of the perilous sport of underwater fishing.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The waters of the Haitian bay were fairly quiet as I stepped over the side of the small boat and descended the ladder. When my shoulders neared the water I stopped, and the heavy copper helmet was slipped over my head and fastened under my arms. As the pump began to work I could hear the slight hiss of air escaping through the valve over my head. I slid down a weighted rope to the floor of the bay, five fathoms beneath the surface.

I landed in a new world where nothing was what I had previously thought it would be. Ahead of me was a miniature fairy castle, etched in coral with moats and ports and bastioned towers. It was inhabited by little fishes with all the flashing colors of the spectrum.

A small shark perhaps 5 feet long swam past, then twisted about until it faced me quarteringly. For a long moment it stared at me, and its expressionless eyes suddenly seemed malevolently alert and appraising. I reached for the little three-tined spear which swung from the belt of my bathing suit, but the shark swam away into the dusky oblivion.

Presently I became aware of many groupers about me, feeding on minute shellfish and crabs. I reached into the pocket on the front of my bathing suit and hauled out a 6-foot piece of fishing line fitted with a heavy wire-snelled, inch-wide hook. Eagerly I hunted for a small crab or sea slug for bait and found them to be everywhere.

Standing perfectly still, I permitted the tide to carry the baited hook toward the feeding groupers. A 2-footer looked at it for a moment, nibbled it once, and then swallowed it.

The instant I saw the hook go into the grouper's mouth I struck. The fish struck back with a tug that almost pulled me off my feet.

The other groupers in the vicinity, instead of being alarmed by the plight of their compani, began surrounding him-and me-until I was in the midst of a veritable school of them. Fortunately they were interested only in the struggling grouper at the end of the line. As it grew weaker and I felt that it would be possible to pull it toward me, one of the fish made a sudden dash and bit a huge chunk from the captive's tail. Instantly a general attack was launched at the injured fish, and before I could haul it to me, there was little more than the head left on the hook.

I sat resting on a piece of brain coral till a school of skipjack slithered past, an occasional individual stopping to peer in at me through the glass panel. I got out my line again and started to catch them with ease. Then red snappers appeared. They were caught with little more difficulty than the skipjack, except that they fought a bit harder and longer, causing the line to cut into my wrist while I braced against the struggles.

I had no idea how long I had been submerged, but I decided to catch one more fish and then return to the surface. There was, however, a bend in the reef just faintly visible from my position, and I wanted to see what was there. When I rounded the bend a whole new vista opened and I gazed, spellbound, at what my limited vision permitted me to see.

Slowly I realized that a long shadow had appeared just beyond the coral. I closed my tired eyes, then peered again-and found myself staring at a 6-foot barracuda!

For a moment I was powerless to move. The eyes of the barracuda were not expressionless at all as they surveyed me. I don't recall ever having seen anything more genuinely alarming. The shark that passed was interesting, but it didn't really frighten me. The barracuda did.

Then I realized that I had failed to roll up the fishing line, which still sported a chunk of crab dangling from the hook, and the current was slowly lifting the bait toward the barracuda.

Foolishly, no doubt, I twitched the hook toward me, hoping to get the line rolled up and stowed before the big murderer had a chance to bite. As I jerked the line, the barracuda simply moved faster than the hook did and grabbed the bait. When I saw the hook disappear I was foolish again, for I tried to snatch the line to me-and thereby set the hook in the barracuda's jaw!

With a terrific surge the fish started away, and I was pulled to my knees. When I landed flat on the bottom, the sea promptly started gurgling into my helmet. The water was against my mouth and splashing around my nose before I could struggle to a kneeling position. All the while the terror at the end of my line was an almost indistinguishable blur because of the the frenzy of its efforts to escape. Fortunately I was able to keep my head erect, preventing more water from entering, but when I tried to slip the line from my wrist I was less lucky.

While I was frantically wondering what to do, I was suddenly knocked back on my haunches. The fish had struck at my helmet. Only the fact that it hit the copper rather than the glass-which would have shattered-saved me from drowning.

Tired and hurt, I hooked my arm about a piece of tube coral and blindly stabbed nd the current was slowly lifting the bait toward the barracuda.

Foolishly, no doubt, I twitched the hook toward me, hoping to get the line rolled up and stowed before the big murderer had a chance to bite. As I jerked the line, the barracuda simply moved faster than the hook did and grabbed the bait. When I saw the hook disappear I was foolish again, for I tried to snatch the line to me-and thereby set the hook in the barracuda's jaw!

With a terrific surge the fish started away, and I was pulled to my knees. When I landed flat on the bottom, the sea promptly started gurgling into my helmet. The water was against my mouth and splashing around my nose before I could struggle to a kneeling position. All the while the terror at the end of my line was an almost indistinguishable blur because of the the frenzy of its efforts to escape. Fortunately I was able to keep my head erect, preventing more water from entering, but when I tried to slip the line from my wrist I was less lucky.

While I was frantically wondering what to do, I was suddenly knocked back on my haunches. The fish had struck at my helmet. Only the fact that it hit the copper rather than the glass-which would have shattered-saved me from drowning.

Tired and hurt, I hooked my arm about a piece of tube coral and blindly stabbed