Photo by Michelle S. Davis
As we rounded the bend in the boat, I zipped up my parka as far it would go and pulled down on my cap to ward off the biting wind. My fishing companion, Olga Melin, was equally bundled. Little did we know we’d be fishing during an unseasonable South Florida cold snap.
We were winding through one of the many freshwater canals in the Miami-Dade area in search of butterfly peacock bass, an exotic species that has become well established in this small corner of the state. These fish are refugees from the Amazon Basin of South America, so we feared they would be suffering from the cold even more than we were. But our guide Alan Zaremba assured us the cold weather would not deter us from locating and hooking a few. Though I was not as confident, knowing that Zaremba has been fishing these waters since he was a young boy and guiding here for the last 15 years did offer hope. His guide business keeps him busy year ’round, and 95 percent of his time is spent showing his clientele how to catch a peacock.
We had not gone much farther when Zaremba had me toss out a minnow-shaped jerkbait attached to my 8-pound line. The guide advised that at this time of year, our best bet for catching a peacock bass in this canal was by trolling. He did, however, keep a rather brisk pace between 5 and 8 miles an hour. That may sound counterintuitive to South Florida anglers who cut their teeth on largemouth bass. After all, cold weather slows the fish down and calls for slow lure presentation.
Basically, peacock bass never slow down. In fact, it is common for a peacock to dart after a lure, only to break off the pursuit if its intended victim does not speed up to make a mad dash for safety. The bottom line is, under most circumstances and especially in warm weather, it is almost impossible to retrieve a lure too fast for peacock bass.
Just minutes later, I felt my line tug sharply. At first I thought I’d simply snagged the bottom until I realized, from Zaremba’s big grin, that I’d hooked the first peacock of the day and my first one ever.
Peacock bass are known to be fighters, and this proved true. After a few harrowing minutes, I was holding a 3 3/4-pound peacock. It sported brilliant colors, as the name “peacock” implies, with bright golden-green scales and some red coloration on its fins. It also had some dark spotting, which appeared to form three vertical bars along its sides, and a characteristic black dot encircled in gold at the base of its caudal fin.
As Olga took her turn at trying to fool another peacock, I took a moment to look around. The canal was nothing like I had expected. I had envisioned straight, narrow ditches laid out like city streets, crisscrossing one another at 90-degree angles. I also had expected barren shorelines. After all, the entire canal system in deep South Florida is nothing but drainage ditches.
Instead, what lay ahead of me was a winding stream that meandered under low bridges, opened into serene lakes and passed by lush vegetation both on the banks and overhead. The calm, picturesque canal, which had no visible current, stretched about 40 feet across to low, steep banks dotted occasionally with various waterfowl and other urban wildlife.
Though the canal’s boat ramp was located just behind a small shopping mall, after just a few turns the waterway led us into suburbia. Away from the busy highways and vehicle noise, we saw a very different side of Miami. Dogs barked as we coasted through neighborhoods and past tranquil parks. During the entire trip, we passed only one other boat and two fishermen along the banks. We pretty much had the entire fishery to ourselves.
We spent most of the morning trolling the waterway, with both of us catching one fish after another, along with a largemouth bass or two. Though not a lot of skill is required to hook a fish in this manner, it is the best way to cover a lot of territory quickly, and the most efficient way Zaremba has found to locate peacocks when the weather turns cold. From December through February, he mostly trolls the canals with his clients.
It is not until after lunch that it warmed enough to attempt some sight-casting. Zaremba had been watching the shoreline all day for a glimpse of a peacock, but the cold morning had kept them deep. The trick to sight-casting, obviously, is first spotting the fish.
“From about the middle of March through May, I have folks sight-casting almost 100 percent,” Zaremba explained. “But if you’re not seeing the fish to cast to, then you won’t be catching many fish at all.”
Finally, Zaremba spotted a peacock that was relatively close to the bank, just off a ledge, in moderately shallow water. Olga, an experienced fly-fisher, prepared to cast a Clouser Minnow as Zaremba maneuvered the boat into position. On his signal, she cast past the fish and stripped it as fast as she could right in front of the fish. Over and over, she repeated this procedure, but though the peacock chased it a couple of times, she was not able to snare it. Her problem may again have been the peacock bass’ preference for speed. With a fly rod, it is often tough to get a streamer moving fast enough to hold their attention.
Spring, summer and fall are seasons for consistent catches and larger peacock bass. The largest of the peacocks are more commonly caught from March to May, when they’re more concentrated along the shorelines.
“In the spring, you can find your bigger fish,” Zaremba said. “They’re in a more territorial frame of mind then.”