December 30, 2020
By David A. Brown
Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Naples; spend any significant amount of time in South Florida and you’re certain to run into folks from beyond our borders. Always nice to meet new friends and experience different cultures; but some of the most memorable characters you’ll encounter in the state’s lower quarter won’t return a wave — they’ll just bend your rod.
We’re talking about exotic freshwater fish species; mostly from Central and South America, but also Asia. Keeping company with largemouth bass, bluegill, black crappie and various sunfish is a tapestry of beauties and beasts, all boasting tremendous sport-fishing value.
The cichlid family is well represented from the widely distributed Mayan cichlids with their bold black striping, to the brilliant red/orange Midas cichlids, to the fierce jaguar guapote and several types of tilapia — Mozambique, hornet, spotted, and African jewel. Think “panfish on steroids.”
South Florida waterways also host several notably unique species like the sailfin catfish, bullseye snakehead and the clown knifefish. The latter gets its name from a spotted, blade-like profile. (For a complete list of documented exotics in Florida waters go here ).
Dressed in beautiful colorations, most of these invasive species display a feisty disposition and a willingness to eat anything they can catch. Most come from some pretty tough neighborhoods where survival demands aggression; and therein lies the problem. Read on.
The existence of South Florida’s established exotic fishery is a tale of unauthorized introduction followed by an aggressive response. For decades, illegal dumping of aquarium fish has allowed species known for their prolific reproduction and territorial natures to flourish throughout the region’s network of flood control canals, along with along with hundreds of ponds and lakes.
Offering abundant habitat and bountiful forage, these interconnected waterways present the ideal scenario for nonnative fish to establish reproducing populations. Cold tolerances vary by species, but with most of South Florida’s nonnative fish coming from balmy climates, they’re rarely found north of Naples on the west coast and Deerfield Beach on the east side.
Now, fisheries with more biomass and greater diversity than the state’s indigenous residents may sound good on paper, but there’s a downside. Over the years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that the out-of-towners often disrupt native species populations in terms of feeding and spawning site competition.
Native largemouth bass eat as many of these exotics as they can, but the sheer numbers have presented a buffet too great for even the green gluttons to diminish. That’s why the 1980’s saw the FWC introduce South American butterfly peacock bass into South Florida waters as a secondary predator.
Genetically wired to target many of the invasives disrupting the state’s native fisheries, the ever-growing peacock population has also developed into a popular niche fishery. You won’t find anything matching the 20-pound studs patrolling Brazilian tributaries, but 5- to 7-pounders are common and sweet spots will produce the occasional double-digit fish.
Dropping this biological control agent into South Florida waters proved to be a seamless transition; plus, peacocks present little threat to native bass. The peaceful coexistence mostly comes from two different feeding styles. Largemouth favor the cooler morning and evening hours, while peacocks and other exotics are most active during the hottest part of the day.
How To Meet Them
You can find a mix of exotics just about anywhere throughout the South Florida canals, but they tend to prefer hard edges of natural limestone or concrete. Most exotics are sight feeders, so they’ll move throughout the water column as needed with sunlight and clarity.
Boaters can reach plenty of productive areas, but the adventure of hiking along canals and exploring South Florida’s urban jungles enhances the appeal. Just watch your step; alligators and water moccasins guard some of the best areas.
Exotics are most active in the warmer months, but you can catch them year-round. In the cooler months, you may need to employ slower presentations until increasing sunshine warms the water.
Peacock bass will eat topwaters, swimbaits, suspending or slow-sinking twitchbaits, lipless baits and small baitfish pattern flies; while the jaguar guapote like fast-moving presentations with small crankbaits. If it’s snakeheads your after, topwater frogs produce incredibly violent strikes, while light jigs with curly tails or tiny lipless baits will tempt the smaller cichlids.
Natural baits also produce, with peacocks and clown knifefish favoring live shiners, while cichlids pounce on nightcrawler worms. Traditional bobber rigs can work for deeper fish, but the float spooks shallow targets; so, fish Texas rigging the live worm, pinch a split shot close to the hook and fish it like a shaky head.
From a harvest standpoint, the FWC only protects the peacocks; Daily bag limit is two fish, only one of which may be over 17 inches in total length.
Otherwise, FWC endorses the consumptive use of exotics. That means there’s no bag, size or season limit for nonnatives, other than butterfly peacock bass. Peacocks, other cichlids and snakeheads are recognized as respectable table fare, so a productive day South Florida canal fishing will reward you with Instagram-worthy catch photos, along with a tasty dinner.