Discovering South Florida Peacocks

Discovering South Florida Peacocks

For first-time anglers, tackling the peacock bass in the Miami area calls for some adjustments in fishing tactics. Here's what this action is like.

Peacock bass are colorful refugees from the waters of the Amazon Basin in South America.

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.

PRIME TIME

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."

Where To Fish

For anglers with a boat, the easiest peacock bass destinations to reach are the Tamiami Canal (C4), located near the airport, and Snapper Canal (C2), a little further north. But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publishes brochur

es describing 15 separate canal fisheries in Boward and Dade countries, plus another brochure containing a map of the waters. These brochures are available on the FWCC Web site at

www.floridafisheries.com

For anglers fishing for peacocks off the banks, Zaremba recommended hitting some of the smaller branch canals off the main waterways.

"When walking along the bank, you're taking away the surprise," he cautioned. " They'll often know you're approaching and will be miles away from you in no time."

Probably the best place for bank-fishing is found on the New South River Canal (C-11), which is between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood in southern Broward County. Almost the entire length of the waterway is paralleled by Griffith Road (it is sometimes referred to as Griffith Road Canal) and Orange Avenue. The median between the roads forms a long, narrow park along the shores of the canal.

When spawning, the peacocks move into shallow waters. This movement can begin as early as April and continue into September. Both the male and female peacocks share duties of preparing the bed and protecting the eggs and young.

Fishing for these fish in the spring is about finding their territory and adequately agitating them. Of course, it helps when you're able to visually locate the fish. When Zaremba can't, he resorts to other measures.

"Knowing how fish are territorial, I'll use a Rat-L-Trap with a spinner as a fish locator. I'll yo-yo that, and the fish will come screaming," he said.

Zaremba cautioned that practicing catch-and-release is even more important in the springtime than at other times of the year.

"It's not the time to keep them," he said, because this is when they're producing more peacocks and enhancing the fishery.

As the seasons change, so do the best techniques for hooking peacocks. In mid-summer through September, Zaremba moves into open water, in addition to continuing some sight-fishing in shallow areas. Open water along the canals basically consists of manmade impoundments where peacocks congregate at this time of year.

By October, he spends the majority of his time with clients in these lakes until cold weather sets in. In most cases, Zaremba will look around structure to find the fish.

"In lakes, they're often hanging around rocks or weed piles," he pointed out.

Docks and bridges are other structures worth checking. He's quick to add, however, that there are many factors that dictate where to find the fish. Often there are subtle indicators that he, as a fishing guide, will recognize as a result of fishing the same waters day after day.

Though some anglers prefer fishing with live bait, such as the golden shiner -- which is locally known as the "peacock shiner" -- Zaremba prefers to stick with artificial lures.

"I like to feel them bite," he stated.

When not in open water in the fall, Zaremba uses a topwater plug as a locator and casts to the canal ledges. These ledges are common along the canals, which were cut vertically into limestone rock in the early 20th century to provide drainage. Often a bit of this rock juts from the side of the canal, forming a shelf. He has found peacocks at this time of year to be especially aggressive.

Zaremba utilizes a variety of lures throughout the year, but the common factor among them, whether crankbaits or topwater lures, is that they can be retrieved fast and they make a commotion.

Some fishermen fish for peacocks solely in the middle of the day, believing that is the only time they will bite, but Zaremba said that's not the case. Calling peacocks the "anytime fish," Zaremba has found that they bite from daybreak until dusk. Knowing their seasonal feeding habits can be more important than the time of day you fish for them. For instance, peacocks are especially active first thing in the morning when they are schooling in February and March.

As illustrated earlier, speed is the one tip Zaremba offered when angling for peacock bass. He has watched too many fishermen casually reel in a lure and have a peacock bass rush up to it but then turn tail and disappear. When that happens, the retrieve should increase to breakneck speed.

"You cannot go fast enough for a peacock," he emphasized.

NATURAL HISTORY

Butterfly peacock bass, also known as pavon, are native to Brazil, Guyana and Peru and were first introduced to South Florida's canals between 1984 and 1987. Today, the fishery covers 330 miles of canals in Broward and Dade counties. The stocking was unique because non-native fish species are generally considered detrimental to native fish populations when introduced into an ecosystem. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made an exception with peacock bass to reduce the number of spotted tilapia, another invasive species that was on the verge of overrunning the South Florida canals. Remarkably, balance was restored because peacock bass prey only on the exotic species, leaving control of native fish to the resident largemouth bass population. Between these two predator species, a healthy fishery was restored in these waters.

Peacock Information

The creel limit is two peacock bass per day, with only one greater than 17 inches in length allowed. Catch-and-release is strongly encouraged to protect this sportfishery. The FWCC advises anglers to handle the fish as little as possible and release it quickly to ensure its survival.

Tobock a day of guided peacock bass fishing in the canals of Dade County, contact Alan Zaremba Guide Service at (964) 966-0627.

The canals, which were constructed chiefly for drainage, are mostly interconnected, but as Paul Shafland, director of the FWCC Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory, explained, there are natural barriers that keep the peacock bass contained.

Theoretically, a fish could travel all the way up through Florida and into Georgia by swimming from stream to stream, he noted. Peacock bass, though, are incapable of making that trip because they cannot survive water temperatures that fall below the mid-60-degree level.

"The box-cut shape of the manmade canals prevents atmosphe

ric conditions from affecting water temperature as would naturally occur in large bodies of water. The ground water underneath the canals acts like a well and heats the canal during the winter and cools it in the summer," he said. "It's a natural range-limiting factor."

During years of mild winters, like the past several, peacock bass make their way as far north as southern Palm Beach County, but cold snaps of just a couple of days that bring the water temperature below 60 degrees occur every few years and kill off those northern migrants.

"South Florida's peacock fishery, as of this moment, is as good as it's ever been," Shafland concluded.

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