Targeting South Florida Peacocks

Targeting South Florida Peacocks

Exotic peacock bass provide some fast and furious freshwater action in the

southern reaches of the Florida peninsula. Here's how and where to catch them this year.

By Bob Huttemeyer

A fishing companion used to regale me with stories of catching the sporty peacock bass in the backwaters of South America's Orinoco River. My friend always concluded his nostalgic reminiscences the same way: "Someday you and I are going to fly down to Venezuela and fish out of our old camp in the back country."

He died too soon and I never got to fish for peacocks in their native waters. But, fortunately, the fish came to me. A few years later, fishing with Alan Zaremba, I did get to sample the fighting ability of butterfly peacock bass in a most unlikely setting - the Dade County canal system near Miami International Airport!

ARRIVAL OF THE PEACOCKS
Paul Shafland, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory in Boca Raton, is the man behind the stocking of peacock bass in South Florida canals. These fish, also known by their Spanish name of pavon, were the first exotics introduced on a planned basis in Florida.

The term "exotic" is used to differentiate imported wildlife from native species. Over the years many exotic fish were introduced to Miami and Broward County canals illegally. Tropical fish fanciers were prone to dump unwanted fish into these waters, where they thrived in the semi-tropical climate. Some species, such as the walking catfish and oscars, became pests.

Shafland and his staff conducted research to see if peacock bass could be introduced to prey on the unwanted species. The results presented three compelling reasons to experiment with pavon in South Florida.

Peacock bass are often found holding around the concrete pilings of bridges. Photo by Bob Huttemeyer

First, these fish could not withstand water temperatures below 65 degrees. Though cold fronts could lower water temperatures in northern Broward canals below this life-sustaining temperature, the Biscayne Aquifer, which feeds Dade County canals, never went below 68 degrees in the coldest weather. This ensured that the peacock bass could not expand their range and become a potential problem anywhere else.

Second, the peacock bass needed a dependable food supply, which would not put them in competition with the native largemouth bass. Shafland found that the pavon preferred the species that is traditionally preyed upon, such as oscars and, particularly, spotted tilapia. The tilapia had multiplied dramatically since their introduction to the canals. Native fish could not, or would not, consume anywhere near the number of tilapia needed to keep them from taking over the habitat.

The final factor encouraging the stocking of pavon was a socio-economic reason. The Dade canal system was made to order for the average bank fisherman, who did not own a boat. Sections of the canal system run through some of the least-affluent parts of Dade County, and the peacocks quickly became a source of recreation and food for many local residents.

THE GENESIS
Once the peacock was recognized as a desirable addition to the fishery in the county, a stocking program was begun. In October 1984, the first of 20,000 fingerlings from Venezuela were released, with plantings continuing until 1987. The released fish took to the Dade canals like raccoons to a moonlit cornfield.

The first legal fishing for pavon began in 1989. The fish grew well and reproduced to the point that no further stockings were required. One measure of how well the fish have done can be judged by the state record for the species. Jerry Gomez caught the official state record peacock March 11, 1993. The fish weighed 9.08 pounds, was 22.4 inches long and had a girth of 18 1/4 inches. This heavyweight was caught in Kendall Lakes on a black Rapala minnow plug.

Paul Shafland noted that two larger peacocks have been caught but did not meet the prerequisites for certification as state records. Louis Garcia weighed in a 12-pounder at a Miami tackle shop on Feb. 22, 2001.

The other fish had been taken by an angler who wanted the fish mounted. Unfortunately, it had already been skinned by the taxidermist, but it still exceeded 11 pounds. It reportedly had weighed 11.55 pounds on a certified scale before being skinned. It was 25.5 inches long and had a girth of 20.5 inches. The fish was caught on a live shiner on 8-pound-test line.

A few years following the opening of the fishery, serious anglers noticed a decline in the size of the average fish they caught. Paul Shafland said this was natural, since local anglers targeted the species so heavily.

"We weren't trying to make this a fishery that featured only trophies for the sportsman," he said. "We wanted local anglers to catch them, too. I'm sure, however, that some of these fish will migrate to sections of the canals where they aren't so easily targeted, and some large fish will be taken."

The creel limit for peacocks is two fish per day, only one of which can exceed 17 inches in length. Most serious aficionados, however, release their catches.

Back in the early 1990s, fishery biologists expected the eventual record weight for butterfly peacocks to top out at approximately 10 pounds. In spite of the exceptions already mentioned, that is still a valid expectation.

TARGETING PEACOCK BASS
That old truism of salesmen -"You've got to know the territory!" - applies doubly if you want to catch pavon around Miami. There is likely no one who knows this territory better than Alan Zaremba. He grew up in this area and has been guiding on the canals for more than a decade.

Although Zaremba also fishes in the early morning and at dusk, peacocks prefer to bite when the sun is warming the water. The fact that they do not bite at night and seem most active after 10 a.m. in cool weather has earned them the moniker "banker's-hours fish."

Prime fishing for pavon begins in March through May each year. June sees a dropoff, but action starts again in July, finally slowing about mid-September.

Zaremba said the South Florida Water Management District controls the gates that let water out of the canals. Those water levels control the spawning habits of the peacock bass. Lowered water levels cause the fish to bed.

The streams in South America, from which the pavon originates, tend to be rocky. Here in Florida the fish also like to hang out where rocks

abound. In the Miami area, the canals are cut into limestone, creating walls with ledges that are favorite nesting spots for these fish.

Unlike many other fish, if you hook a peacock that is on its nest, the fish will normally return to the bed when released. If a lure lands on the nest, the female usually brushes it away. If the lure is presented again and again, bedding fish usually get mad and attack it. So swift is the attack that nine out of 10 times you will not connect. The tongue-in-cheek rule is to count to three but strike on two.

After you catch a nesting fish, release it carefully. Then move on and look for another specimen.

When no fish are spawning, the best spots for finding peacock bass are concrete bridge pilings and the dark water under the bridges. If no hard surfaces are present, look for brushpiles or other structure. Other good spots are at junctions where small canals enter larger ones.

Retrieve artificial lures as quickly as you can. This turns the fish on and is similar to fishing for barracuda. And don't worry about pulling the lure away from a fish. There is no way you can make your lure outrun an attacking pavon!

A recent fishing trip with Alan Zaremba put to bed one of the myths associated with peacock bass. Alan had just caught the first big fish of the day, a 5-pounder. I mentioned that it was considered gospel that peacocks prefer to fight out in open water rather than heading for structure the way black bass or snook do.

"Not so," Alan said. "Didn't you notice how this fish headed for the space between the culvert and the rock ledge after being hooked? Small ones might head for open water, but larger fish are just as bad as snook when it comes to wrapping your line around a piling or other underwater obstacle."

TACKLE AND LURES
Another truism of peacock bass fishing that has fallen by the wayside is that the key word for lures is always "small." Zaremba, however, favors larger lures for active fish during late summer and fall.

During the cooler months of the year the fish like deep-diving crankbaits, Beetle Spins, bucktails, white-colored jig-and-grub combos, and small spinnerbaits.

When the weather and the waters warm up, Zaremba tosses small topwater prop baits, floating jerkbaits in silver or black, or popper-type surface lures.

Though most of these are traditional largemouth bass baits, some such lures don't work for pavon. Avoid casting plastic worms or buzzbaits. They usually are not productive.

About 25 percent of Zaremba's clients are now flyfishermen. Fly-casting can be difficult because of the low, overhanging trees that line many canals. If you decide to try the long rod for these fish, experienced fly-caster Bill Elliot recommends Wool Flies (they resemble a small menhaden), Clouser Minnows or other streamers. Chartreuse is the favorite color.

Elliot uses an intermediate sinking line and a short leader on a 9-foot 6-weight rod when fishing Miami/Dade waters. He also emphasized the need for fast retrieves.

The sink tip is useful because many of the narrow canals are actually as much as 30 feet deep.

As with lures, smaller live baits are ordinarily most effective. Use small commercially available domestic shiners rather than the big wild golden shiners used for lunker black bass. Many guides carry some shiners in their livewells as insurance for days when even peacocks won't hit artificials.

Although pavon are fierce fighters - a 3-pounder has the strength of any other 6-pound freshwater fish - most anglers prefer light spinning tackle. For tossing light plugs, try a 7-foot graphite rod with a "whippy" action and a spinning reel spooled with 6-pound-test line. Also carry a stiffer 6-foot rod for use with 3/8-ounce jigs. Rig it with 8-pound-test line.

WHERE TO FISH
Like any other fishing, certain spots can be hot one day and cold the next. Local tackle shops can be helpful in supplying current information regarding fishing conditions.

The most accessible public waters in which to find butterfly peacock bass are on Snapper Creek (C-2 Canal), Snake Creek (on the Dade/Broward border), the Pompano Canal (C- 14), Black Creek Canal (C- 1), and the Miami Airport lakes, which are part of the Tamiami Canal system (C-4). Of particular interest are the Belair Canal (C-100) and its feeders. Schools of young butterfly peacock bass are plentiful throughout this canal system.

Additionally, any condominium and golf course ponds that are connected to these systems are worth checking out, providing, of course, that you can obtain permission to fish them. The pavon slip into these small lakes and ponds through open floodgates or culverts. Often the residents around these waters are not even aware the peacock bass have moved in.

The FWCC publishes an excellent series of maps covering most of the canals and lakes that harbor peacock bass. They include Miami/Dade County waters and go north to Lake Osborne. Included on the maps are all the public boat ramps that provide access to the peacock bass fishery. Complete directions for driving to these ramps, mileage and descriptions of the ramps are also included. To obtain these free maps, contact Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory, 801 Northwest 40th St., Boca Raton, FL 33431 or call (561) 391-6409.

To book a day of guided peacock bass fishing in the Miami area, contact Alan Zaremba. His telephone number is (954) 961-0877 or you can reach him via e-mail at the following: sflpeacock@aol.com. He also offers fishing on trips for pavon to Venezuela and Brazil.



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