Quietly trolling in the heart of Miami, Steve McDonald waits for a bite. He targets a rare fish known for its bright colors, a fish that in the U.S. can only be found in this canal system.
"Everyone always comments on its vibrant yellows, reds, and greens," McDonald said. "That's why this fish is a novelty."
Suddenly the braided line dances and the mortgage-broker turned fish guide reels in a violently thrashing butterfly peacock bass, which are indigenous to South America. After flinging the powerful fish on the boat, the sunlight reflecting off it reveals bars that streak down its side, with yellow and black spots dotting the body and orange lining the belly.
Native to the Amazon River, the butterfly peacock bass were intentionally introduced into South Florida in 1984. The butterfly peacock fishery now extends through 330 miles of canals in Dade and Broward counties and is self-sustaining.
"South Florida had canals that were inundated with tropical fish that residents tossed out, and the water system grew disproportionately," said Larry Larsen, President and Executive Director of the Peacock Bass Association. "There weren't predators for the larger fish, so the state of Florida introduced butterfly peacock in a one-year experiment to establish a fishery."
Click image for photos of peacock bass fishing
For the past two decades, this one-year experiment has been a craze for fishermen and a profit for fishing guides, including McDonald, who runs Bassmaster Guide Services Inc.
"It's a big excitement watching them hit the bait," McDonald said. "There's no other fish that takes the bait - and I've seen tarpon, big snook - they've got nothing on the peacock."
According to McDonald, the fishery is year-round but March through August is the best time of year to catch butterfly peacocks, which are technically cichlids, not basses.
Launching from the C-4 canal, which stretches more than 27 miles across Miami-Dade County, we sped through the Blue Lagoon, Lake Mahar and other surrounding canals. Dogs barked as we trolled with live bait through their backyards, waking some owners who sauntered outside to the canal and asked how things were biting.
After an hour of searching, the only fish caught was a Mayan cichlid. McDonald voiced his hypothesis that peacock aren't the best in the early morning hours, and as the sun warmed the cool water, it became impossible to not catch one, especially while staggering two lines.
The C-4 canal was filled with an array of structures that peacocks hide in, from brush piles to a shopping cart.
"The fish typically will set up in the easiest place to target a meal, usually around rock structures, bridge pilings, anything," he said.
To get to certain peacock hotspots, McDonald navigated the canal with poise and precision, speeding through long straightaways and narrowly clearing many of the traffic bridges over the canal. He even steered his 21-foot Stratus through a large drainage pipe - with ease - to reach a quiet expanse that was rich in peacock.
"This is urban fishing at its finest," he said.
After several hours of using live bait, McDonald switched to artificial bait. An angler continuously casts, providing a nice change-up from the typical trolling and waiting scene.
"The live bait we use is a small live shiner no more than 4 inches in length," McDonald said. "Peacocks have a small mouth so we use a smaller offering. I usually free line it on a mini Carolina rig with a #4 Mustad hook and a BB sized splitshot weight clipped a few inches above the hook."
For artificial bait, McDonald uses a size 6 or 8 Rapala X-Rap, because "the small bucktail jigs work well for the peacocks."
Besides the sport of catching the hard-hitting species around Southern Florida, where the daily limit is two per person with only one over 17 inches, peacocks are good eating.
"The meat is white, flakey, and as good to eat as any saltwater fish," McDonald said. "I'd compare it to eating snapper."
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the largest butterfly peacock caught in South Florida is 9.08 pounds. The current International Game and Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle world record is 12.6 pounds, caught in Venezuela.
Many of the larger peacock species reside in the Amazon, where McDonald bi-annually travels with customers to catch peacock that can be up to 40 inches and 30 pounds.
"On my first trip to the Amazon," he said, "I got my heart broken by a big one. I just fell in love with the place, and every 7-day trip involves 6 days of nothing but fishing."
Big peacock in the Amazon require bigger baits, as McDonald uses Rebel Jumpin minnow T-20 in a bone color, and Luhr Jensen Woodchopper "Slim" for propeller baits.
Besides size, McDonald says that the other difference is the Florida aren't quite as aggressive.
"The peacocks in Florida are lazy compared to the Amazon, because they don't have to fight a current their entire lives," he said.
As we catch countless powerful peacock in the canals of Miami, McDonald says that he's landed 15 monster peacock in 5 days.
"If you want to experience peacock fishing, and you don't want to spend $5,000 traveling to the Amazon, you can do it here in South Florida," he said. "And eat American food while doing it."