John Zeliff’s says he’s caught hundreds of barracuda, but a barracuda had never caught him with its razor-sharp teeth — until last week.
The rare encounter offshore of North Naples left the 24-year-old Naples native with a bloody arm injury and severed tendons that will require surgery and physical therapy — and one whopper of a fish tale.
Zeliff was fishing a wreck nine miles off Wiggins Pass last Thursday morning when his friend, John Orban, 25, hooked the 4-foot-long barracuda. It ran away from the boat, taking line out quickly, Zeliff said.
That’s when the fish stopped, turned and sped back toward the boat, jumping out of the water and over the boat, knocking Zeliff back and leaving a deep, long gash on the top of his left forearm.
“It came at me so fast I couldn’t even move,” Zeliff said. “It cut straight through me, it just cut and went.”
Zeliff said he didn’t realize the extent of his injury until he rolled up his sleeve and saw blood gushing from his arm.
Orban helped him apply a tourniquet, called 911 and raced back to shore, staying in contact with emergency responders on the way. The trip to the beach at the Ritz-Carlton, where an ambulance was waiting, took about 40 minutes, Zeliff said.
“I thought I might bleed out, or at least pass out,” he said.
While run-ins with barracuda are rare, the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida hears reports of them once or twice a year, director George Burgess said. Barracuda are renowned jumpers and being in the path of their fang-like teeth can easily inflict serious injury, he said.
“It’s more like a buzz saw,” Burgess said. “(Even if the fish isn’t moving), all you have to do is touch those teeth and you’re going to get cut.”
Zeliff, who graduated from Barron Collier High School in 2005 and from Florida State University this spring, said he hasn’t found anybody who’s heard of a Collier County barracuda story quite like his.
While the barracuda got away, Zeliff’s friends already are joking about mounting the next one he catches.
“The cuda won this battle, but I’m gonna win the war!” Zeliff posted on his Facebook page last Thursday.