Live Baiting For Peacocks

If it's birds you're after, a little grain spread on the lawn might work. But for peacock bass, here's how to attract these battlers with natural baits! (April 2008)

Capt. Butch Moser has perfected the art of enticing peacock bass with live baits. His biggest so far has been a 7-pounder.
Photo by Jan Maizler.

As Capt. Jon Cooper and I pulled into Lake Ida Park, the eastern sky was lighted up in a classic "Japanese" sunrise, sending a 360-degree panorama of lemon-colored sunbeams in every direction. Some of those rays lit up the flat-calm lake, revealing multiple schools of shad dimpling the surface.

Looking at each other, we acknowledged that auspicious sign.

In the distance, we saw Capt. Butch Moser throw his cast net into the placid water. By his strained silhouette, we could tell he was hauling aboard a heavy load of live bait.

That was yet another good sign!

Moser then motored over to the shoreline, where we loaded our fishing gear and were soon underway.

As we whizzed through canals, under bridges and past intersections with more canals, the coolness of the early morning made me don my rain jacket. Our direction was basically westward. Each surge of his skiff over the tannin-colored waters brought us closer and closer to our goal -- peacock bass action.

Our trip over these waters yielded sightings of multi-hued iguanas, turtles, alligators, egrets and ibis, as well as many species of ducks.

Since I was a flats fisherman dropped in an unfamiliar wonderland, I kept asking Capt. Moser the names of the species adorning these waters. Adding to the morning's excitement was our knowledge that western Palm Beach County is home to some of Florida's largest peacock bass.

Our appetites had been whetted weeks before, when our initial call to Capt. Moser revealed we'd be fishing the area where he'd caught and released his biggest peacock, a monster of more than 7 pounds.

The boat rounded another 90-degree bend and slowly began throttling down. Moser's Carolina Skiff relaxed into an idling mode, and the sound of whooshing water replaced the high-pitched whine of a full-out running engine we'd been hearing for a half hour. The captain eased his vessel towards a bridge not far from the mouth of another canal.

When he cut the engine and lowered, we were no more than twenty feet from the bridge and its enveloping shadows. Butch netted about six shad from the livewell and squeezed them with his hands.

"Let's try these hors d' oeuvres," he said, tossing each bait in an arc to the adjacent shoreline, all in the middle of the bridge's shadow.

In moments, we heard pops and swirls. The first one came from under the bridge as one of the chum baits disappeared in a foamy strike.

The second pop was right next to a rock protruding from the shoreline. We could see silvery flashes of the helpless struggling chum baits floating along the bank. Then there would be a bulge of water beneath one of the minnows, and its drift would stop short in a large splashing strike.

Moser smiled and offered us his aquarium-sized bait net. I quickly grabbed an ultralight spinning rod rigged with a straight No. 2 Aberdeen hook.

"Run the hook into its mouth and out the little plate in front of its nostril," Capt. Moser said.

That proved to be a fine-fingered task, not easily accomplished with excited hands more used to handling live pinfish, crabs, and mullet. But I finally managed to hook my bait in a reasonable facsimile of his instructions. After taking aim at one of the strike areas, I flipped open the bail of the spinning reel, cocked my rod and fired a cast that sent the bait near the bridge pilings.

It landed with a tiny splat. I watched the bait carefully and was about to open the bail and give it some additional slack, but a large swirl put an end to all that. I waited until my rod was pulled down and struck back smartly. That lasted but a second before my adversary pulled the rod down again, sharply. It a good initial connection, helped along by the thin-wired, sharp-pointed hook.

I struck the fish again for good measure. The drag shrieked as the fish surged into the bridge's shadows.

After a short battle, the fish came up and thrashed on the surface, revealing itself as a golden-hued warrior of about 3 to 4 pounds. I eased the peacock bass alongside the boat and turned to Moser for advice as how to land the fish with such light line.

Then I realized that both he and Jon were hooked up to fish as well. The captain just pointed to a net alongside his console. I quickly scooped up the battler, but left it in the water until Jon could release his fish and take some photos.

Such action would be repeated a number of times during the day, and I soon learned that such results are the norm when live-baiting for peacock bass.

THE MOSER METHOD
Capt. Butch Moser has been fishing the inland lakes and canals of western Palm Beach County since the early 1980s. Prior to that, he fished salt water off the same coast for 20 years.

The motive for his shift from salt to fresh was the decline in numbers and frequency of marine game fish. That was in stark contrast to the rapidly expanding peacock bass fishery, which began in 1984 when the state began stocking the species in South Florida's canal systems.

Moser got in on the ground floor of a now explosively popular fishery and has certainly established himself as one of Florida's top peacock guides.

The captain feels that there's simply no more effective system for catching peacock bass than the live- bait method. Though he frequently uses artificial lures, his live-bait trips are far more productive.

"It would be obvious if your dinner plate was topped off with a rubber steak instead of the real thing," he observed. "Peacocks -- and fish in general -- often sense the difference between real and fake food as well."

Moser also related the story of a tournament patch-covered angler confronting him with the comment that live-baiting peacocks was "cheating." Butch looked over into the angler's vessel at his tackle -- a stout baitcasting outfit that sported obviously heavy line and a multi-h

ooked plug. The captain then held up his standard 4-pound spinning outfit tipped with the No. 2 wire hook. The bassin' guy got the point of the comparison.

The basic tools for catching peacocks à la Moser is a stable 25-foot Carolina Skiff, 90-horsepower Yamaha engine, and a huge 35-gallon livewell with a commercial grade aerator. His second tier of tools consists of a cast net, depth recorder, temperature gauge and six ultralight spinning outfits.

The final daily necessities that must be caught and not bought are his live baitfish. Butch used to rely on golden hickory shad, more commonly referred to as shiners. They averaged 5 to 6 inches in size and were wonderful baits for trophy peacocks. But shiners have slowly become less numerous in the canals and connected lakes where he fishes.

Moser theorized that spraying for aquatic weeds, as well as pesticide and urban chemical runoff, may have caused that decline.

Today Capt. Moser relies on the more numerous and stable stocks of threadfin shad. These shiny baits --looking almost like "Mini Me" tarpon -- generally run from 2 to 4 inches in length. The larger ones are considered just the right bait for trophy peacocks.

Step One of every trip is to cast-net enough shad for the day -- a process that begins around daybreak. Moser first scans the water for dimpling on the surface that reveals the presence of a school of shad. If the water surface is chopped up by the wind, he relies on his depth recorder to spot the baitfish in water sometimes as deep as 16 feet.

Moser's preference for this chore is a heavy, wide-bagged net that sinks quickly so that the bait schools can't swim out from under it. Since his livewell holds about 800 shad effectively, the captain shoots for about four good "strikes" of up to 200 baitfish each. Any more at once, and a lot of the shad would get crushed under the dead weight of lifting the full net from water to livewell.

So obviously, one of the tricks of the trade is finding a school of baitfish that is thick, but not too thick!

TACKLING UP
After years of experience as a guide for peacock bass, Moser has come to rely on ultralight spinning gear as his tackle of choice. He feels that it's a great match for tiny live baits, allowing them to swim naturally. He also finds that his customers can achieve long casts with little effort all day long. While ultralight gear allows the peacocks to give their best fight, it also has enough backbone to eventually vanquish these game fish that rarely top 5 pounds.

Moser fishes his spinners three ways. The first is to let his baits roam "free" by tying the line straight to the hook. This method works well when the bass are alongside structure, when they are busting bait on the top and when they are guarding their nests in the spring and fall.

The second method is using a tiny float three feet above the bait and a split shot weight just above the hook to keep the bait from looping the line.

He likes this tactic for less experienced anglers. All they do is wait for the float to be pulled under.

He also uses the float-rigged spinner as a "self-managing" system. He puts the rod in a holder and lets the bait roam around the canal, while he handles another rod or instructs his clients.

The third method involves using two split shots above the hook to get the bait down during very hot or cold weather and in spots such as canal intersections that feature deep water.

Moser advised belly-hooking live baits used with this rig.

LIVE BAIT CHANGES THE GAME
I quickly learned that compared to artificial lures, live bait vastly increases the opportunities for peacocks. Through Moser's anchoring, live-bait chumming and casting methods, he creates 360-degree action around the boat all the way from the shoreline out to the middle of the canals. That can keep his customers literally hooked up in all directions.

However, the captain is responsive to those anglers who want to use lures or flies instead of live bait. That usually occurs after he gets the peacocks fired up and striking seemingly everywhere. He's found that this is a great time to take out a light fly rod rigged with a white Clouser-type fly. He instructs anglers to cast the fly directly into the swirl where a fish has taken a minnow and depending on the water depth, to begin stripping it immediately.

Another situation calling for slightly different tactics occurs when Moser takes out anglers in the spring and fall for spawning fish. Vanquishing a large male peacock sporting an aggressive-looking humped head is a special type of thrill. These kinds of charters feature Capt. Moser searching out likely areas for bedding peacocks -- which he generally finds around structure. Such areas are often around dock pilings, PVC pipes, submerged logs and shoreline rocks, near floodgates or at canal intersections.

Capt. Moser feels that live chumming to aggravate bedding peacocks can be less harassing than repeatedly casting lures and flies at the same fish. With live bait, there's generally a quick response, hookup and release. A

AN OBLIGING ADVERSARY
The peacock bass has several traits that make it a pleasure for Butch Moser to target. To begin with, unlike the largemouth bass that also inhabit these waters, peacocks often feed all day long. These fish are a hearty breed that are active and can be caught in calm, downright hot weather or when the wind is up and it's raining.

About the only thing that turns them off is cold weather -- which is not the norm this far south on the peninsula. That comes as no surprise, inasmuch as peacock bass are native to rain forests of South America. But if you're using live bait, it is possible to fish deep and catch some peacocks even during many cooler spells.

During the extreme heat of summertime, Butch is less concerned about peacocks going "deep" to survive. They're rather more likely to just look for some shade to hide in, but remain in the shallows. Then you should be fishing under bridges, docks or along tree-shaded shores.

Obviously, Moser's favorite times of year for peacocks are the spring and fall when moderate weather conditions and spawning fish make the action dependable.

And for that kind of fishing, April is a hard month to beat.

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