South Florida's Peacock Paradise
September 30, 2010
Exotic species of animals, plants and fish have caused many problems as they have appeared in the Sunshine State. But the arrival of the peacock bass has brought no such legacy -- just a great fishery!
by Joy Hill
Invasive exotics! We've all had some experience with these pesky interlopers. People living in the Southeastern United States know all too well how kudzu - imported many years ago as an ornamental plant - is choking out native vegetation here. And who living in the South hasn't had an encounter with annoying imported fire ants? Not only do they have a nasty sting, but they can also cause damage to plants and affect bird and mammal populations. Then there are the majestic-looking Australian pines planted so freely as wind blocks in coastal areas of southern Florida. Too bad they seed freely and spread rapidly, shading out and displacing beneficial, deep-rooted natives that help hold the beach in place.
Just what is an exotic? An exotic is anything that is not native to an area. It comes from somewhere else but has been introduced into a new environment, intentionally or unintentionally. Having few natural predators, parasites or diseases, exotics may out-compete natives and significantly damage ecosystems. For this reason it is illegal to release exotic fish and wildlife in Florida - both in water and on land.
But not all exotics present such a bleak picture. Some are even beneficial to environments infested with other exotics. In fact, sometimes scientists introduce one exotic to try to control or reduce the number of other destructive ones that have already somehow found their way into the environment. That's exactly why the exotic butterfly peacock bass, a predatory fish from the Amazon River basin in South America, was legally introduced into South Florida canals in 1984.
Still, introducing an exotic is risky business, so what made butterfly peacocks and the situation in South Florida so special that the predecessor agency of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) would stock them?
"Well for starters, the canals of South Florida were being overrun with spotted tilapia, and urban anglers had few opportunities to catch a decent sportfish," said Paul Shafland, director of the FWCC Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory. "The predator-prey balance was way out of whack. Native predators could not control the illegally introduced exotic tilapia population; the natural ecosystem was lost without hope of recovery, and tilapia were of limited value to people."
Phil Chapman hoists a good South Florida butterfly peacock that fell for a fly-rod offering. Photo by Paul Shafland
The solution was to import a predator that would survive in the warm canal waters, eat tilapia and grow rapidly to harvestable size, so people could catch and consume them. Such introductions are normally more damaging than helpful because of the risk the exotic will displace native fishes.
"That's where butterfly peacock bass and South Florida canals become a perfect match," said Shafland. "Butterfly peacocks are tasty, hard-fighting fish, but they cannot survive water temperatures below 60 degrees."
Due to warm ground waters flowing into the box-cut canals of South Florida, there are normally refuges at or above 65 degrees. Yet surrounding waters annually dip below these temperatures, thus forming a natural barrier to the butterfly peacock. Even as far south as Boca Raton, butterfly peacock bass cannot survive winter temperatures.
In the early 1980s it was discovered that canals of coastal southeast Florida were warmer than other waters during the winter, and some rarely dropped below 65 degrees. The main reason is the Biscayne Aquifer, which lies just a few feet below the ground. During the winter the warmer water flowing from this aquifer into canals creates temperatures critical to the survival and success of many exotic fishes, and the butterfly peacock is no exception. In fact, of all exotic fishes currently established in Florida, the butterfly peacock is the least tolerant of low water temperatures.
Unlike some of their relatives, butterfly peacocks do not venture into salt water and are restricted to salinities similar to those tolerated by largemouth bass. This intolerance of salt water and low water temperatures prevents butterfly peacocks from becoming widespread outside the metropolitan southeast Florida area.
While fisheries scientists approach the introduction of non-native fish with extreme caution, there are sometimes better reasons than not to introduce them. That proved to be the case with the butterfly peacock, but only after exhaustive research that showed the fish would pose no serious threats to the environment into which they are being released.
In the early 1980s, the FWCC imported butterfly peacocks from Brazil, Guyana and Peru, then spawned them at its Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory in Boca Raton. Using three stocks increased genetic variability, and fish were stocked only after being tested by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Auburn University to ensure they were disease- and parasite-free.
"The butterfly peacock bass was introduced only after many years of research," said Shafland, who, along with FWCC's Murray S. Stanford, did the bulk of the initial work to import and introduce these fish. "It has proved to be effective in reducing the number of exotic forage fish in the canals in South Florida, and has become an extremely popular game fish, representing a multi-million-dollar sportfishery in Florida."
It is also the only legally introduced exotic fish to become established in Florida. Between 1984 and 1987 the FWCC stocked 20,000 fingerlings in 11 South Florida canals. None have been stocked since. Today the butterfly peacock fishery extends through 330 miles of canals in Dade and Broward counties and is self-sustaining. Since additional stockings are not needed, there is no ongoing cost for the program. Yet, according to Shafland, it generates about 286,000 hours of angling enjoyment each year and provides nearly $8 million of annual economic benefit.
After the fish were initially stocked, harvest was prohibited until their numbers were large enough to support it. Beginning in mid-1989, anglers were allowed to harvest up to two butterfly peacock bass per day, only one of which could be longer than 17 inches. This regulation remains in effect to this day.
"The 17-inch-length regulation helps protect the large fish, which is essential for maintaining a high quality sportfishery," said Shafland. "However, if the popularity of butterfly peacock fishing continues to grow as we expect it will, it may be necessary to consider even more restrictive regulations to protect the fishery, such as a one-fish bag limit."
The FWCC enc
ourages anglers to practice the catch-and-release principle when fishing for peacock bass.
"Overall, the species is a hardy fish, and nearly 100 percent survive being caught and released if they are handled properly," said Shafland.
He added, however, that they do not survive well in livewells or for as long out of water as largemouth bass, so it is important that anglers release them quickly so they have the best chance of survival.
IS IT REALLY A BASS? While a butterfly peacock's body shape is similar to that of a largemouth bass, the butterfly peacock is not a bass at all, but a cichlid, related to the exotic oscar and spotted tilapia. Its body color is generally golden with three black vertical bars and a black spot with a silver halo on the caudal fin. But they have highly variable color patterns. In older fish, the bars tend to fade and may be completely absent in fish larger than 3 pounds. Unlike the familiar largemouth bass, bigger butterfly peacocks most likely are males rather than females. Male peacocks can also be distinguished by a pronounced hump on the forehead during the breeding season.
Butterfly peacock grow rapidly to 12 to 14 inches, after which they become much heavier with each inch they add in length. A 17-inch fish weighs approximately 3 pounds, while a 19-inch fish weighs up to 5 pounds. The largest butterfly peacock caught in Florida weighed 12 pounds (not certified) and measured 25.5 inches. It is not known how long butterfly peacock bass typically live.
The current International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record is 12.6 pounds. That fish was caught in Venezuela. The current Florida record is 9.08 pounds (1993). In fact, butterfly peacocks are doing so well here that 12 out of 15 IGFA line-class world records have been caught in Florida waters!
SO HOW DO YOU CATCH 'EM? Butterfly peacocks were stocked in the freshwater sections of the major coastal canals in southeast Florida and support good fisheries. There are many lakes, small ponds, rock pits, and lateral canals in eastern Dade and Broward counties that also provide excellent opportunities for catching butterfly peacocks. The fish are frequently found in shady areas around bridges, culverts and other structures. They tend to concentrate at canal junctions, bends, dead ends and fallen trees.
Anglers should note that many butterfly peacocks died in Broward County canals last winter because of the severe cold snap. Shafland says it will be 12 to 15 months before the 3- to 5-pound-range fish are back.
Spawning occurs in Florida from April through September, with a peak in May and June. A female selects a flat, hard surface near the shore and spawns between 4,000 and 10,000 eggs. Both parents care for the eggs and guard the young for several months.
Fishing is typically good throughout the year, but most butterfly peacock bass heavier than 4 pounds are caught between February and May. This is a highly desirable sportfish for both boat and bank anglers and is well known for its aggressive strikes and strong fight. They rely on their exceptional speed to capture food. Butterfly peacocks are highly piscivorous, which means they eat other fishes, and they will fall for most minnow imitations. Small jigs and various topwater lures are other favorites. Experienced largemouth anglers should take note, however, that butterfly peacocks almost never hit plastic worms, and they feed only during daylight hours!
When using bait, live golden shiners about 3 inches long are the top choice. You can fish them below a float or free-lined while either casting or slow-trolling with an electric motor along canal edges. You may need a small split-shot weight to fish the shiner at the right depth.
Topwater lures (with or without propellers), minnow-imitating crankbaits, and a variety of jigs fished on casting or spinning tackle are good choices for artificial baits. These include floating and sinking Rapalas and Yo-zuri minnows, Rat-L-Traps, Shad Raps, Jerk'n Sams, Wobble Pops, Tiny Torpedoes and Pop-Rs. You can also buzz a plastic twin-tailed minnow-and-jig combination across the surface or toss it at a fish sighted in deeper water.
Small tube lures and jigs are also used frequently to sight-fish for butterfly peacocks, particularly when the fish are aggressively guarding spawning beds near the shoreline.
Although bigger baits (up to 5 inches) may entice more trophy-sized fish, baits less than 3 inches long produce more consistently than larger ones. In fact, even big butterfly peacocks take baits smaller than largemouth bass anglers typically use.
For flyfishers, Dahlberg Divers, Lefty's Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, epoxy minnows, Zonkers and popping bugs are all popular choices. Chartreuse or yellow flies with flashy strips made of a Mylar-type material are also popular.
Light lines and tippets produce more strikes than heavier ones because of the usually clear water in the canals. Heavier lines aren't necessary, because canal-caught peacock bass tend to be open-water fighters. Therefore, most peacock bass anglers use light spinning tackle with 6- to 8-pound-test line.
Once you've caught a butterfly peacock, handle it by its lower jaw, using the same thumb-and-finger grip used for largemouth bass. Note, however, that this will not immobilize them, and by the end of the day, depending upon how successful your fishing trip is, you will likely have many minor thumb scrapes caused by the sandpaper-like teeth.
If you want to avoid that, use tape, a leather thumb-guard or a fish-landing device such as the Bogagrip.
WHERE DO YOU CATCH 'EM? A set of angler guides to southeast Florida urban canals and a pamphlet listing boat ramps accessing the butterfly peacock sportfishery are available from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. These guides are packed full of information helpful to the butterfly peacock angler. In them you find a complete description of the canal or creek, including its length, where it's located, how to access it, directions to the boat ramp and general fishing information such as the best places to fish and what other species you might catch there.
To obtain the maps, write to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Non-Native Fish Research Laboratory, Attn: Canal Maps, 801 NW 40th St., Boca Raton, FL 33431. The maps can also be downloaded from the FWCC's Web site at www.floridafisheries.com/pdf.
Listed below are 11 canals or creeks that provide excellent butterfly peacock fishing from just north of Ft. Lauderdale to just south of Homestead. More information on these can be found in the free angler guides available from the FWCC.
The Pompano Canal lies at the northern edge of the range of peacocks and has historically provided an excellent fishery, but it took a good hit last winter from the cold weather. Other waterways are the C-13 Middle River, G-15 North New River C
anal, C-11 South New River Canal, C-9 Snake Creek Canal, and C-6 Miami Canal.
In the southern portion of the range, the C-4 Tamiami Canal, C-111 Aerojet and C-100 Cutler Drain canals have been the best for fishing and historically have been less affected by cold winter temperatures. Also, at the southern end of the range are the C-2 Snapper Creek Canal and C-1 Black Creek.
In addition to the guides mentioned earlier, prospective butterfly peacock anglers should contact local bait and tackle shops in the area, which can provide local angling tips as well as excellent information on where these fish can be found.
Butterfly peacock bass have over-wintered and reproduced successfully every year since they were introduced into South Florida canals 17 years ago. Although they occasionally suffer partial winterkills, coastal southeast Florida canals provide the right conditions to permanently support a high quality sportfishery for this important species.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION The speckled peacock bass, which grows much larger, was also introduced in South Florida at the same time as the butterfly peacock. None survived, and no speckled peacock bass exist in Florida today. The presence of butterfly peacock bass with gold "speckles" on their bodies continues to confuse anglers, who often believe they have landed a young speckled peacock.
Anglers should be aware that many exotics that were illegally released inhabit the canals of South Florida. These include the jaguar guapote, Mayan cichlid, oscar and spotted tilapia. These fish pose a threat to native species, but they are good to eat. You are encouraged to keep every one you catch.
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