Butterfly Effect

The Rise of South Florida's Premier Exotic Freshwater Predator

Steve Kanter September 22, 2014

Prior to the 1950s, few South Floridians had seen an exotic freshwater fish, let alone given much thought to their potential impact on local waters. Then, as if overnight, we were surrounded by color. There were new fish in our waterways that either refused to bite, or threatened our resources in more insidious ways by competing with freshwater natives for both forage and breeding space. In a state where freshwater fishing generates so much revenue, the exotic invasion was unacceptable.

butterfly-effect1

1 of 4

Photo: Pat Ford

Enter biologist Paul Shafland and his team at Florida’s Non-Native Fish Lab. With a focus on monitoring exotics, the team had to solve the problem. The exotics either had to go, or be severely curtailed without harming the natives. After assessing the situation, Paul drafted a game plan. He had to use caution so the cure didn’t trump the disease. Instead of poison or nets, he chose an approach that involved the proverbial “hair of the dog.” After raising three generations of disease-free stock from eggs he acquired from South America, Shafland released butterfly peacock bass fingerlings into two South Florida waterways—the C-1 Black Creek Canal and C-100 Cutler Drain Canal. These fish weren’t bass in the scientific sense, but members of the taxonic family Cichlidae that coincidentally feed on smaller cichlids, like those that infested our local waterways.

Thus began a Golden Age of freshwater fishing, when anglers in suburbia could enjoy similar action to what was once reserved for exotic jungle settings.

What made it even sweeter were built-in safeguards, like how butterfly peacocks can’t tolerate cold or salinity, thereby greatly limiting their ability to spread. This was a double-edged sword, as we later learned and as Shafland expected. But Paul’s plan, experts agreed, was a stroke of genius.

Shafland released the first fingerlings in 1984, and the stockings continued through 1987. By the time it was over, butterfly peacock bass spread all the way from the C-111 south of Homestead to Lake Ida in southern Palm Beach County. Because of unofficial stockings, the species eventually extended its range to Lake Osborne in West Palm Beach and Golden Gate Estates, west of the Everglades. Thus began a Golden Age of South Florida freshwater fishing, when anglers in suburbia could enjoy similar action to what was once reserved for exotic jungles settings. And these new arrivals had it all, from power to good looks and a hunger for lures.

Then in 2009, and again in 2010, disaster struck. A series of cold fronts with true arctic air masses wiped out untold numbers of various exotics, leaving canals littered with peacock carcasses. Even saltwater species—ones that outrun most cold snaps—were found floating in windrows throughout the shallows. But then a miracle happened that caught anglers off guard…the butterfly peacocks started to rebound. The first signs of the rebirth came from the Biscayne Aquifer, where Shafland had stocked his fingerlings more than 20 years earlier. Canals there had been blasted through limestone substrate, which moderated water temperatures by controlling seepage. Once the peacocks gained a foothold, they began spreading like wildfire.

According to peacock guide Alan Zaremba (floridapeacocks.com), “At one time we believed the C-11, the canal that runs along Griffin Road in southwestern Broward County, was the northernmost limit for peacock survival.”

Zaremba should know, having transformed the pursuit of peacocks into a daily devotion. He’s its prophet as well as its priest—a distinction he earned over nearly three decades fishing both here in South Florida and in South America where our local peacocks originated. Fortunately, he’s been able to revamp his forecast. In fact, he’s catching peacocks again in some former haunts closer to the coast. As far as spreading westward, he believes only time will tell.

However, some things are unlikely to change. Take Alan’s methods, which remain much the same wherever he fishes. For starters, he insists on a four-rod rule that covers the water from top to bottom. Peacocks, he explained, are visual feeders. “I want lures for topwater work, such as the Heddon Torpedo, as well as others that run just beneath the surface, like a floating Rapala. When you need to go deep, you can’t beat a jig, especially for bedding fish, or a deep-running wobbler like the Rat-L-Trap or Rapala Shad Rap. If the lure suspends, that’s even better.”

Although Alan catches spawners every month of the year, he cites March and April—and then again in August—as the peak spawning time. When targeting spawning fish the method is simple. First locate a bed, then cast beyond it with a jig or a fast-sinking wobbler. Let your lure hit bottom before winding it slowly through the bed. If you keep contact with your lure you’ll actually be able to feel it dip into the contour of the bed.

According to Kelly Gestring at the Non-Native Lab, no official stockings have taken place since the 1980s, yet the species keeps spreading. While Gestring and his cohort Murray Stanford are aware of the reason—anglers releasing fish caught elsewhere into their favorite home waters—he warns of the pitfalls of unauthorized stockings. They’re not only hazardous to the environment, but also illegal, and in the case of bullseye snakeheads, a felony. Still, the practice continues.

It’s difficult to determine a peacock’s place of origin. As a case in point, peacocks suddenly reappeared in Pat Ford’s backyard after disappearing years ago during the last major cold front. Pat lives on a deep lake, so were they simply hiding all along? Other, similar examples exist throughout South Florida, hinting at greater survival rates and the premise that not all new fish are the result of illegal stockings. Take how Marty Arostegui, who lives in Coral Gables, thinks that trophy peacocks are as common as ever. He has the catches to prove it, including several IGFA World Records. This, viewed in perspective, raises a question.

Where did these huge peacocks come from in such a short amount of time, when most early sightings were of a few scattered fingerlings? Perhaps more adults survived the onslaught than originally believed. Additional factors deserve a measure of credit. Take how Arostegui, who fishes primarily with fly gear, is a major proponent of catch-and-release—as are most local anglers in the wake of the devastating cold snaps. Release a huge peacock that’s sexually mature and it’s bound to make more.

I remember 2011 in the wake of the chill. Zaremba was making ends meet by guiding for largemouths, which survived the onslaught with barely a sniffle. It was only afterwards, when the cold finally lifted, that we all got a chance to view the carnage. Corpses that had initially sunk were starting to float. It smelled as if suburban South Florida was slowly rotting.

The lean years exist now primarily in memory, while a renewed fishery continues to flourish. The cold, in the meantime, delivered a wake up call. As far as a repeat performance, it could always happen. But so could a rebirth like the one we just witnessed of this unique, albeit underutilized fishery that adventurous anglers can enjoy right here at home—all thanks to a team of dedicated biologists.

Join the Discussion