September 30, 2010
Astounding colors and a bad attitude make peacock bass prize catches in the southern end of the Florida peninsula. Here's how to target them in the spring. (April 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Captain Alan Zaremba eased his bass boat towards a huge tree that overhung almost half of the canal that we were to fish in. In the relative calm of the early morning, we could hear the subtle whir of his electric motor as we made our approach. Now and then, we'd hear the crowing of a rooster or the barking of a dog.
Picking up my rod to start casting under the overhanging branches, I heard two large splashes behind me and spun around to fire a cast towards the explosions,
"Don't bother," Zaremba laughed. "They're just iguanas."
I gazed carefully at the remnants of the watery disturbances and saw each of them give birth to green serpentine forms that wagged across the surface towards the shoreline.
Quickly assessing the best potential areas for spot-casting, I chose a group of partially submerged rocks under the canopy of the large tree. With a smart flick of my wrist, my 6-pound spinning outfit easily transported the gold Rapala swimming plug from my rod tip to my target.
As soon as the lure landed, I twitched it twice. Just as I was about to begin a fast retrieve, a huge bulge of deep green water humped up and engulfed my plug.
I waited for my line to come tight and then struck the fish with all the authority the light mono could muster. The rod quickly arced downward, indicating a potentially good hook-set. The drag began screaming as the watery hump made a run for the depths and the tangle of branches that would spell disaster for my light line.
But halfway to reaching that spot, the fish slowed. Taking advantage of the pause, I pulled harder on my rod.
Moments later, the fish crashed through the surface and went airborne with angry headshakes. It was a fine gold-hued peacock bass of perhaps 5 pounds.
The subsequent three minutes of battle reflected the caution and finesse needed to catch a fish that large with light tackle. It appeared I'd made the right moves as the rainbow-colored battler slid alongside Zaremba's boat for photos and release.
With such a mélange of images, it was easy to imagine that the captain and I were on a rural canal in tropical South America. The fascinating truth was that we were fishing in an urban setting barely a mile from the Miami International Airport!
According to Zaremba, peacocks complement the largemouth populations in Dade and Broward counties for a number of reasons.
First, these urban and suburban canals never had truly large numbers of largemouths in them. When the peacocks were introduced into the canals in the 1980s, they spread through the habitat and filled a very large gap in the game fish "totem pole." The freshwater fishery was revitalized with a species that was stronger, more colorful, and far more aggressive than the largemouth bass.
Secondly, peacocks and largemouths complement each other in the canal ecosystem because they have different feeding times, as well as different forage. Peacocks feed during daylight hours and mostly on exotic, illegally introduced species such as tilapia and various cichlids. In contrast, largemouth bass feed during the nighttime and low-light periods on small amphibians, reptiles, mammals, as well as homegrown baitfish species.
The butterfly peacock bass, which are more formally known as pavÃ³n, have proven very adaptable. That's one reason why they are now found throughout the canals of Dade and Broward counties. Another reason they flourish is that they start spawning by one year of age and continue to reproduce annually for five years or more.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) rolled out the welcome mat for the peacock bass because they feed on such a wide variety of fish. Their extremely democratic feeding proclivities were needed to control the almost 20 species of non-native fish already present in these canal systems.
Zaremba said that fishing for peacocks during March is a special treat because the angling involves sight-casting to larger fish "locked in" on their spawning beds. The spawning period lasts through the spring months until late May. In addition, there may be a smaller, secondary spawn in late summer.
At these times of year, the peacocks that can be targeted average 2 to 3 pounds, with opportunities for fish as large as 5 pounds. Alan also noted that in the spring, the canals of south Dade County warm up the quickest and may offer earlier shots at spawning peacocks. Accordingly, the canals of northern Broward and even into Palm Beach County may have a later spawning period.
Spawning peacocks are extremely territorial as they guard their beds. Alan's first strategy is first, to spot these fish by slowly cruising the waterways and then have the anglers make their presentations. In this way, the process resembles bonefishing on flats.
Despite the crystal-clear water in the canals, the captain stresses using the best glare-blocking Polarized sunglasses, as well as wearing a long-billed cap with a dark underside. Both make spotting the fish easier.
It's also important to look for the spawning beds. Pay particular attention to hard surfaces like logs, rocks and PVC pipes that have cleaned-off patches in contrast to the algae that carpets most other structure. The cleaned beds that indicate spawning appear as lighter areas.
After Zaremba locates the bed or the peacocks guarding it, he stops his skiff as far away from the fish as possible, while maintaining a castable distance. Obviously, that distance varies according to the skill of the caster and what type gear is being employed. For flyfishers, it is much shorter than for spin-casting. Plus, during the windy days of March and April, the casting angle for fly-fishing becomes quite important.
After 18 years of guiding for these multi-colored battlers, Zaremba has come up with a list of favorite lures that work well on spawning peacocks.
Spawners never stray far from the bed, since they must protect their eggs and then the newborn fish. This creates a unique situation where the proper lure choice, presentation and action are essential. The most effective lures are Bill Lewis tail-spinner Rat-L-Trap models, bucktail jig
s or plastic tubes. All these artificial lures are subsurface offerings that are effective during the spawn.
The first cast is the most important presentation. Casting accurately from the furthest possible distance to an unwary peacock always offers the best chance for success. If this cast is perfectly placed and retrieved, the spawning peacock is very likely to attempt to eat the lure.
If the first cast doesn't succeed, subsequent casts should attempt to anger the fish with repeated frontal passes of the lure. This often can elicit an aggressive strike. Sometimes it's necessary to make cast after cast before a big bedding peacock blows its cool and attacks the artificial lure.
While peacocks don't think like humans, they do have instincts that provoke responses similar to those caused by emotions. The first cast should look like an easy meal for a tired parent fish. After that, you want your lure to become an unwelcome nuisance. Eventually, the fish will decide enough is enough and attack the bait.
June to July is a transitional period for these exotic bass. Many of the larger ones are still preoccupied with the task of protecting their newborn young. This period can last for almost the entire two months. Basically, these mature fish are fending off predators trying to approach their fry. Sometimes they protect their young by taking them into their mouths, moving to a slightly deeper site, and spitting them out at this new location. But more often, the peacocks just attack any intruders, eating them if they are small enough.
It's this latter behavior that you can use to fool the peacocks to your advantage. If they're located in deeper water, these fish may respond to vertical jigging with Rat-L-Trap lures.
The trick is to move the lure up and down along the progressively deeper series of shelves. Capt. Zaremba said that a fish will give away its location by "flashing" behind the lure. If you see that, then keep targeting that site to aggravate the peacock into striking.
On the other hand, since this is a time-intensive and not particularly exciting type of fishing, Zaremba often abandons these post-spawn "guardian" peacocks and switches to different strategies that are more productive and exciting. This involves open-water casting for schooling and single peacocks that are feeding prior to the secondary spawning season of mid- to late summer.
Open-water fishing for peacocks in the summertime involves exploring and blind-casting to any likely-looking areas. Once you determine the right lure, action and depth, however, the action can become consistent and the battles exciting.
Zaremba and I were fishing the warming transition period early last summer. Our game plan was to keep moving, exploring and casting. This allowed us to cover more water and experience different habitat, which I looked forward to.
After picking me up in North Miami Beach, we drove south to the Airport Lakes and the boat ramp at Antonio Maceo Park to launch his bass boat in the early light of dawn. Despite it being Sunday, there was very little competition at the ramp.
As we idled along the lake, we could see the surface dimpling with baitfish. However, we bypassed this area. Zaremba said we'd return to the lake to fish. But a few miles away, he had some canals that he was sure would hold some nice schools of peacocks feeding early. We took off in the morning stillness, and the cool breeze created by the running skiff was welcome.
On the trip to the target area, we ran under many bridges, alongside residential streets and highways, and through some heavily wooded canals. The first place Zaremba eased toward was that huge overhanging tree where I caught my big peacock.
About ten minutes after the big peacock was released, Capt. Zaremba used his electric motor to move us beyond the downed tree. He picked up a baitcasting rod rigged with a surface-dancing plug and cast it toward a dock on the canal's other shoreline. He then began a twitch-and-hesitate pattern of retrieving the plug. Meanwhile I worked some more shoreline rocks with my gold Rapala.
In less time than it takes to tell this, we were both hooked up with peacocks. These were smaller fish of about 1 1/2 pounds each. Also, both of those hooked fish were being followed by other peacock bass!
Such behavior is common when the fish are schooled up. At this point, we simply had to cast back to where our first fish had been hooked in order to get another strike.
At this time, one technique of the fishing did become apparent. I noticed that when a peacock attacked Zaremba's topwater bait, he would wait for the line to come tight before striking. Since my plug was constantly moving under the surface, the peacocks that smacked it hooked themselves. On the other hand, when a peacock struck his stationary topwater lure, the pause was necessary to keep from snatching the bait from its mouth.
After this delightful action went on for a while, I asked Zaremba if he knew of an area that held largemouths and any other game fish, as well as peacocks. Within minutes we were again running through the canals heading into south Dade County.
After a run of 10 minutes, we came to the confluence with another canal, but where there was also a culvert and bridge. Zaremba eased back on the throttle and pointed out that the water was full of bait. The guide tied on a smaller, clear surface bait that featured a couple of propellers, commenting that it would "match the hatch" more, given the size of baitfish that were present.
I kept using my Rapala, but Capt. Zaremba suggested casting to ambush points around the structure. It didn't take me long to hook a small largemouth that attacked my plug as I twitched it at the mouth of the culvert.
We were both hooking fish quickly on almost every cast, as the fish keyed on the bait coming through that opening. Peacocks outnumbered the largemouths by a huge margin, which could be explained by their proclivity to feed in daylight.
After one strike, I found myself hooked to a fish that fought somewhat differently and made several hard, subsurface runs. As I eased the fish alongside the boat, it looked like I'd caught a world-record crappie.
Zaremba identified it instead as a large jaguar guapote. You truly never know what you may hook next in these canals!