Picking Off Peacocks
September 30, 2010
The canals of extreme South Florida hold a menagerie of exotic fish species. But the one of most interest to anglers is peacock bass. Here's a look at the fishing action they provide. (April 2006)
Targeting peacock bass in Miami is not a wilderness experience. Photo by Jeff Christopher.
There's that one wonderful moment -- that titillating second of the unknown -- when you ponder exactly what is at the end of your line.
In these waters, it could be a largemouth bass or a hard-charging snook or even a tarpon. This time, it's a bass, all right -- a peacock bass that fights and struggles with a frenetic, primitive energy genetically born in the dark waters of South America's Amazon River basin.
It battles with an intensity and endurance any smallmouth bass would admire. It skirts the surface of the water -- a colorful blur -- before suddenly diving and ripping off line against the pull of the drag. It doesn't even give up fighting when lipped and lifted into the boat.
Such an encounter is worth remembering, the very experience that wealthy Americans have long traveled to exotic locales like Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia to pursue. But this is Miami, of all places, and we're tangling with the only population of peacock bass in the continental United States.
It is hardly the wilderness experience usually associated with the coveted game fish, however. Houses, condominiums and apartment buildings dominate the landscape. Trash floats on the water and lies scattered along the shoreline. The air is alive with the sounds of nature -- urban nature, that is: car horns, mufflers in need of repair, a lawnmower, and children playing in the distance.
This is the unlikely home of the peacock bass, commonly considered one of the top 10 game fish in the world!
The freshwater, water-control canals in Dade and southern Broward counties are home to the most unique urban fishing experience in the entire country.
In a bold experiment in 1984, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stocked 20,000 peacock fingerlings into a 1,200-mile canal system that intersects one of South Florida's most heavily populated areas. After nurturing this unusual fishery for five years, the FWCC made peacock bass a legal game fish in 1989. Both the multicolored species and the fishermen in this region have responded in grand fashion.
"The fishery continues to sustain itself, and they are increasing in the maximum size of the fish being caught and the number of larger fish," says Paul Shafland, a FWCC biologist and the father of the peacock project. "By larger fish, I am referring to fish 3 to 6 pounds. There are more and more of those fish being caught.
"It has certainly exceeded the economic impact that we anticipated. It provides somewhere in the ballpark of $8 million a year for the local economy. And that's a conservative estimate. These canals get far more pressure than even Lake Okeechobee. We're talking 100 to 300 hours per acre of fishing in the canals, compared to Okeechobee where the most it has ever had is two hours."
There are about 330 miles of canals in Broward and Dade counties that are most heavily populated with this coveted species, including some in the shadow of downtown Miami and its airport. Generally, the prime peacock waters are bordered by Snake Creek to the north on the Dade-Broward line and in the south by Mowry Creek in the city of Homestead.
Shafland, a recreational angler himself, lists Black Creek (C-1 Canal), Pompano Canal (C-14), Snapper Creek, Biscayne Canal, Snake Creek and the Tamiami Canal (and the airport lakes that it feeds) as the most productive waterways.
"I consider this urban fishing," he says. "Every place I fish is behind somebody's house, and stuff like that. I don't fish the airport canals much, because there are too many boats and personal watercraft down there. I stay away from them and fish areas where I don't have many people around. The best canals are in the Miami Lakes area, but they're difficult to fish because the ramp is really poor. But I like it that way, because I have less competition."
One drawback to this canal fishery is the lack of quality boat ramps. But this is the common man's adventure, where a johnboat with a small outboard is perfect for launching down a sloping bank and working these canals, which are often narrow enough to cast across.
Another beauty of this peacock fishing is its accessibility to the shore-bound angler. The vast majority of these prestigious game fish are caught by fishermen who don't even own a boat. Many simply walk out their back door or cross a street to experience a sport that others pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to enjoy.
There is a bag limit of two peacocks a day, with no minimum size, but only one can be greater than 17 inches in length. This regulation is designed to protect enough of the species to ensure a sizable trophy stock.
That a state already plagued by the illegal presence of non-native fishes would actually introduce an exotic species speaks volumes of Shafland's dedication and persistence. He conceived the idea, researched it exhaustively and then overcame an array of hurdles -- both biological and political -- to make it happen. Today, Shafland's folly might be the fisheries success story of the last half-century.
The goals behind establishing a peacock bass population in these canals were twofold -- controlling an overabundance of exotic tilapia, and rejuvenating a sagging urban fishery. Shafland looks like a genius when you consider the results. With a diet consisting of about 75 percent tilapia, peacock bass have reduced that troublesome species from a high of 200 per acre to a low of just 48 in some areas.
"The peacock bass is a great game fish that's a lot of fun to catch, and we've got good numbers of them," offers Alan Zaremba, a top peacock guide from Hollywood who grew up fishing for largemouth in these canals. "Before peacocks got here, the largemouth fishery had declined because they had been beaten to death. If anything, I think the peacocks have improved the largemouth fishing, because the largemouths aren't getting hit on as much now. There are a lot more 4- to 6-pound largemouths in these canals than there used to be."
Obviously, these peacock bass find Miami's tropical weather to their liking. The warm temperature in these canals is assured by their geographic proximity to the Biscayne Aquifer, an underground water source that adds a little warmth, and the countless houses and trees that form barriers against the wind.
Although largemouths and peacocks co-exist nicely, the South American species dominates the canal system today. But that was expected, because peacock bass are better suited for the canal habitat, and their fry have a superior survival rate. According to Shafland, both the male and female fish guard their nest until the fry reach a length of about 4 inches -- rare behavior among freshwater game fish.
Two species of peacock bass were introduced to the South Florida canals, but the butterfly peacock has been the star. This too was expected, since the butterfly begins to spawn at the age of 10 to 12 months and spawns more than once a year. On the other hand, the speckled peacock first spawns at age three. Shafland expected the butterfly to become the "bread-and-butter" fishery, hoping that the speckled peacock, which can grow to the 30-pound mark, could provide a trophy species.
But while the butterfly peacock has flourished, the speckled species has completely disappeared in the South Florida canal system.
"The speckled peacocks have to be at least 10 pounds before they reproduce," Shafland explains. "And these canals get so much pressure that to have a 10-pound fish in these canals is like leaving a $100 bill on the ground with a sign pointing at it that says, 'If you leave this until next year it will be worth $200.' So I'm convinced that 100 percent of those fish were caught out of there. We haven't seen a speckled since probably 1989."
Although its sheer abundance is most impressive, the butterfly has grown to a respectable trophy size as well. The International Game Fish Association record is 11 1/2 pounds for a Florida fish, while the state-certified record stands at 10 1/2 pounds.
The peacock bass' native strongholds include Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Guyana, as well as the Orinoco-Amazon River systems in Brazil. The species has been stocked in Hawaii, Panama and Puerto Rico, as well as South Florida.
Peacock bass are similar in body shape to largemouth bass. All species have a large, distinctive black spot on the tail, closely resembling the round markings found on the tail plume of the avian peacock -- thus the name of "peacock bass." The male peacock often sports a pronounced hump on its head, which breeding males use to engage in a head-butting ritual to protect their mate or territory.
The butterfly peacock, one of the most colorful and abundant members of its family, has three prominent black bars on its sides that fade away as it matures, and it often sports tones of gold to bright yellow, with orange, black, and white trim.
Zaremba was the first guide to target peacocks here in their new home and today has a thriving business. In fact, he's the only full-time guide targeting the species in the area. His 18-foot bass boat is a common sight in the backyard canals of residential housing developments and fenced-in commercial complexes. Spending most of his time in the Miami-Dade area, Zaremba has developed dependable ways to catch peacocks consistently throughout the year.
Like their wild cousins, the South Florida butterfly peacocks are more susceptible to fast-moving lures than to slower, bottom-hugging plastics. Bottom baits like worms, plastic crawfish or rubber-skirted jigs with a pork trailer aren't nearly as effective with peacocks as with the native largemouths. Other plastic lures like tube and grubs can be effective, though. The peacocks will often ambush them as they fall through the water.
"I like to throw fast-moving baits like spoons, Rat-L-Traps, Torpedoes, and Rapalas," Zaremba says. "They'll take a large range of lures. And during the times when they're schooling, they like the bait really moving."
"I'm a little bit surprised that they are more susceptible to fly-fishing than largemouths," adds Shafland, an avid angler as well as biologist. "It's been my experience that they can be caught four or five times better with a fly rod. It's an excellent fly-fishing species."
South Florida canal fishermen say the most productive fly offerings are surface-popping bugs, colorful epoxy minnows and small marabou streamers.
"Streamers work well, but poppers will work, too," Zaremba notes. "But you've got to be quick with them. You've got to be able to work a fly rod pretty well to catch them."
Native wild shiners produce more trophy largemouth bass in Florida than any other bait -- live or artificial. And South Florida fishermen have discovered that although peacock bass may be transplanted tourists, they have the same taste for native shiners. Shiners have become the most productive and popular method of catching these fabulous fighters. The same shiner-fishing techniques that catch largemouths will also catch peacocks.
Most local anglers impale the shiner through the lips with a large 4/0 weedless hook. The shiner is fished on heavy 20- to 30-pound-test line beneath either a foam bobber or a partially inflated balloon.
Unlike largemouths, peacocks can spawn almost any time of the year, according to Zaremba. However, they most often bed in late March through August. When guarding their beds, peacocks can be ferocious. But they are so adept at removing a tube or other soft-plastic from their nest without getting hooked that local experts resort to combining a tube with a 3/4- to 1-ounce weight to catch them.
"We use a considerably larger weight than most people would with a tube, so that the peacocks aren't able to blow it off of the bed as easily," Zaremba says. "They are really good at blowing a bait off of the bed. With spawning fish, you're sight-fishing for them in clear water, so you can watch how they react. They come up to the lure and exhale water at it that pushes it right off of the bed. So I use a big bullet weight to make the fish actually pick the lure up."
During a recent August, Zaremba's clients caught a 10 1/2-pound female and 6 1/2-pound male off of the same bed.
The winter months of December through March are the best time to experience this fishery at its peak, but the summer season is usually packed with fast-and-furious action. Alan Zaremba averages about 50 fish per outing during this period and considers 10 peacocks to be a bad day of fishing. You can reach him at (954) 961-7512.