August 02, 2022
By John Felsher
Many people rank an Amazon Basin fishing adventure high on their bucket lists, but few can afford to make such a trip. However, some anglers in southern Florida experience the thrill of catching colorful, exotic fish from their own backyards, or they leave their offices on their lunch breaks to cast for various strange species.
"Part of the appeal of fishing in South Florida is the opportunity to catch species that anglers can't catch in other parts of the country," says Barron Moody, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. "In urban South Florida, people can catch butterfly peacock bass and largemouth bass together, often right in their own neighborhoods."
Topping the list for most people who want to experience exotic angling, peacock bass offer exciting, tackle-busting action. Native to the Amazon, Orinoco and Rio Negro river basins of South America, peacock bass naturally range as far north as Panama. Florida stocked butterfly peacock bass in many lakes and canals near Miami from 1984 to 1987 to trim populations of other exotic fishes such as tilapia and cichlids that had already become established in those waters.
Since then, these colorful, highly aggressive predators have grown, reproduced and thrived in many southern Florida waters. Butterfly peacocks can grow to more than 12 pounds. Jerry Gomez holds the official state record with a 9.08-pound peacock he caught in Miami-Dade County. Plenty of anglers have reported catching larger peacocks in recent years, though none of them have ever officially entered them as potential records.
BASS? NOT EXACTLY
Neither a bass nor a sunfish, peacocks are members of the cichlid family and look similar to largemouths, though with a much brighter, golden coloration highlighted by vertical black bars. Much more aggressive than a largemouth, peacocks hit many of the same lures and fight much harder. Anglers frequently catch largemouth bass and peacocks in the same spots.
"There's not much difference in targeting peacock bass versus targeting largemouth," says Fort Lauderdale guide Brett Isackson (bassfishingfloridaeverglades.com). "It's common to catch a largemouth on one cast and a peacock on the next using the same bait. Sometimes, peacocks hang around thick cover or under trees, but they really love to stay out in the sun because they are tropical fish."
Being tropical fish, peacocks love warm waters. Anglers regularly spot peacocks sunning themselves near the surface. The best action occurs during the spawn and throughout the hottest parts of summer. Butterfly peacocks spawn twice a year, in April and September. While a largemouth might swallow anything it can stuff into its cavernous mouth 24 hours a day, peacocks typically prefer finfish, and normally only feed during daylight hours.
Both species—largemouths and peacocks—commonly prey upon the same forage, but peacocks especially love shad and river shiners. While largemouths ambush prey, peacocks prefer to run down fast-moving baits. Peacocks eagerly strike spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, crankbaits and topwaters, but rarely hit plastic worms, jigs or similar baits that largemouths love.
"In the morning, I like to throw a Super Spook Junior or a Tiny Torpedo," Isackson says. "I've caught some peacocks on frogs, but it's a little tough to get one to hit a frog on top because it's so bulky. They like long, slender, fish-looking baits worked really fast. When the sun comes up, I start throwing lipless crankbaits, [lipped] crankbaits or jerkbaits in firetiger, ghost white or perch colors. One of my favorite baits is a quarter-ounce Road Runner. Super Flukes also work well if you work them fast."
Lipless crankbaits work exceptionally well for peacocks since they resemble baitfish. Anglers can toss them long distances and cover considerable amounts of water, making these lures excellent search baits. It’s best to work them steadily, just below the surface.
"Peacock bass are super-aggressive fish," says Charlie Stone of Wicked Strike Lures. "It's amazing how ferocious they can get, particularly when they are on the beds. They often hit baits more out of anger than hunger. Largemouth bass frequently hit baits on the fall when [the angler] pauses the retrieve, but peacocks don’t need that pause. They like moving baits."
For exhilarating action, move slowly along a canal shoreline and sight-fish for peacocks with fly-fishing gear. Fly fishermen fling various minnow imitations and streamers in gold, firetiger, chartreuse, white or natural colors. "We often sight-fish for peacocks," Isackson says. "When we find them, I like to throw a Clouser or Deceiver—something that sinks a little slow. That aggravates them. We’ve caught peacocks exceeding 7 pounds that hit Clouser Minnow flies. They also like some frog-pattern topwater flies, as long you can strip them really fast."
Some of the best peacock fishing occurs in the Osborne-Ida Chain of Lakes and associated canals right off Interstate 95 near Boynton Beach. Lake Osborne covers 356 acres, and Lake Ida encompasses some 120 acres at the southern end of the chain.
The E-4 Canal flows through the chain, connecting the West Palm Beach Canal near Palm Beach International Airport with the Hillsboro Canal in Boca Raton. The E-4 Canal offers anglers another 17 miles of fishable waters.
"The Osborne-Ida fishery has a massive abundance of shad, wild shiners and cichlids," Isackson says. "These are good food sources for hungry peacock bass. Most people fish Lake Ida, but I prefer to fish Lake Osborne. It doesn't get as much pressure. The C-16 Canal system is another good place to fish when the water is running. I like to fish where canals come to a dead end in neighborhoods."
Besides the Osborne-Ida Chain, you can fish more than 330 miles of canals in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Some better waters include Cypress Creek Canal (also called Pompano Canal), the New South River Canal and the Griffin Road Canal, which runs about 16 miles through Broward County. Lakes and canals near Miami International Airport also provide outstanding fishing for exotics.
"People can consistently catch peacock bass as far north as Lake Ida," Moody says. "Some of the best fishing occurs in urban canals. The C-14 waterway has some good fish in it. Anglers fishing a topwater propbait always have a pretty good shot at catching something."
While fishing for peacocks, anglers might also tangle with other exotic fish species. One of the largest and oddest, the clown knifefish looks like a long, silvery, dotted scimitar. Native to Southeast Asia, clown knifefish inhabit Lake Osborne and associated canals. A clown knifefish can exceed 30 inches in length and weigh nearly 10 pounds. Feeding mainly on small fish, insects and other morsels, they hit any bass lures that resemble baitfish.
Looking similar to a bowfin but much more vicious, snakeheads appeared in South Florida about two decades ago. These highly aggressive predators savagely attack anything that might interest a largemouth. They feed mainly on fish but eat practically anything they can catch. They primarily exist south of the North New River Canal and in the Hillsboro Canal. Like a knifefish, a snakehead can exceed 30 inches in length and weigh more than 9 pounds.
Many people fish the canals around Miami and the Everglades for various cichlids, oscars and other panfish that somewhat resemble large bluegills, warmouths or crappies. These popular aquarium fish were likely introduced to Florida by people releasing their aquatic pets into local canals where they thrived.
Some of these fish approach 3 pounds and readily smash small bass lures, spinners and other baits. Many anglers fish for them with fly gear or toss small jerkbaits, safety-pin spinners and similar enticements with ultralight spinning tackle.
Anglers can launch their own boats at various places in the greater Miami-Lauderdale area. Some of the best fishing occurs in small canals and urban lakes accessible only by kayak or canoe. Anglers can also find many places to fish from the bank. Several professional guides work the area and specialize in catching peacocks and other exotics. While Miami might not compare to the Amazon Basin, South Florida can provide excellent fishing with a taste of South America, Asia and elsewhere for much less cost and without the risks and inconveniences of international travel. For some, an exotic adventure can begin at their back door.
Area Attractions: What to do when not fishing
Families can find unlimited recreational activities while in South Florida. Many visitors to the area frequent the beaches, shops and restaurants in South Beach—the playground of the rich and famous. For those who want more nature than nightlife, take an airboat tour through Everglades National Park (nps.gov/ever/index.htm). Depending upon the season, sports fans can enjoy a Miami Dolphins, Heat or Marlins game.
Famous for its Atlantic Ocean beaches and shopping, Fort Lauderdale offers many entertainment venues. With apologies to Judy Garland, follow the red brick road of the Riverwalk or tour the arts-and-entertainment district. For a visual delight, visit the NSU Art Museum (nsuartmuseum.org) in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Children will enjoy the Museum of Discovery & Science or the Secret Woods Nature Center. Anglers of any age will want to visit the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach (igfa.org).
A must-see for anyone interested in fishing, the museum and hall honors those who made their mark in angling history, such as Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey, Billy Pate and Ted Williams. You can see life-size mounts of world-record fish, collections of old tackle (including some of the oldest ever made) and many other exhibits showing different aspects of freshwater and saltwater fishing. Experience what it’s like to battle a marlin in the interactive videos of the Catch Gallery.