For those lucky enough to live in South Florida, the diverse angling opportunities mean there’s always something to catch. Whether you live and breathe freshwater fishing or simply use it as a quick remedy to get your fix after work or when poor conditions prevail offshore, Florida’s numerous lakes, ponds and canals are home to some impressive opponents that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Providing numerous venues and easy access, the inland watershed of South Florida’s concrete jungle offers one of the more unusual and enjoyable angling exploits you will ever undertake. Here, exotic inhabitants in the form of colorful cichlids and more flourish. And with well-established breeding populations, it looks like they are here to stay.
Many overlook hard fighting cichlids for more glorious largemouth bass, but when targeted with the appropriate ultralight fly outfits the fights are nothing short of legendary, not to mention perfect practice for the big event. While prolonged cold snaps of past winters have hurt these tropical fish, the last few winters have provided more reasonable weather than the cold kill of the 2009/2010 winter season. As a direct result, Florida’s freshwater exotics have shown a big resurgence. These fish provide a diverse array of vibrant targets, and you’ll think you’ve escaped on an exotic angling adventure to a remote jungle river somewhere near the equator.
Native to Central and South America, Mayan cichlid are now prevalent throughout most of South Florida’s freshwater arenas. First observed in Florida Bay in 1983, it is believed Mayan cichlid were introduced by aquarium release. Mayan cichlid are some of the more colorful and prevalent exotics found in South Florida and can grow to more than two pounds.
Midas cichlid are also prominent and are easily distinguishable by their bright orange coloration. Midas cichlid were first observed in Florida waters in 1980. Native to lakes of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Midas cichlid must have found their way into Florida waters through aquarium release or aquaculture escape.
Jaguar guatpote are yet another exotic panfish that can be found along shorelines of South Florida ponds, lakes and canals. And you’ve certainly heard plenty about the baddest cichlid of them all— the butterfly peacock bass. Spotted tilapia, blue tilapia and oscar are additional non-native species you might tempt on light tackle fly-fishing outfits. What most of these species have in common is their adaptability and tolerance for a range of salinity levels. This is one of the main reasons they have been able to establish breeding populations and expand their regional coverage. Breeding cichlid can also be extremely territorial and will often aggressively attack anything that enters their comfort zone.
These omnivorous exotic species feed on small fish, insects and algae, and to keep the fights sporty with fish up to three pounds you’ll want to fish a 3- to 5-weight fly rod with floating line. Tippets of 4, 6, or 8 lb. test keep the fights fair. Just know you’ll be in for a battle if a hungry largemouth or bullish peacock tries to thwart your plans. When targeting a variety of smaller cichlids you’ll want to select small flies to accommodate their tiny mouths. Fly hooks range in size from #2 to #10, with foam and rubber bug bodies imitating floating ants, grasshoppers, caterpillars, tadpoles, beetles, bees, spiders and more. Tied with lifelike rubber appendages and antennae, these flies do a great job of mimicking their behavioral patterns and natural tendencies to rest on the surface.
When presenting a fly to these fish you’ll want to avoid unnecessary false casts. You could possibly spook the fish with your shadow, but you won’t be casting very far so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Once hooked, these fish make impressive runs for their small stature, but hooking them can be a challenge. On some days they will be so ravenous they will attack a lipped plug or beetle spin, while on others even the most delicate fly presentations will be ignored. On days like this you’ll have to put the fly right in front of their nose and even so you’ll likely experience numerous refusals. Think of it as practice for your upcoming Bahamas bonefish trip.
While you can catch a variety of cichlids and exotics by bass boat or kayak while scouting shorelines of Miami-Dade and Broward County, you can also find great success by fishing on foot. You’ll have to creep along the shoreline because the fish will spook at your shadow and waving of fly rod. Many times when fish are close to the bank they are bedding and a strike won’t be in hunger, rather aggravation and aggression. At times they will simply pick up your fly to move it away from their dwelling and you need to be fast on the strike. Instead of trout striking by lifting the rod tip, strip strike to set the hook. If you slowly lift the rod tip to come tight they will likely spit out your fly before you can effectively set the hook.
Anglers are fortunate these fish don’t have anywhere to go, but you’ll find the largest concentrations in the vicinity of shorelines when water levels are at their lowest. Many of these exotics are structure oriented and you’ll want to focus your search around contoured shorelines, emergent vegetation or any other form of habitat that provides ambush points, including concrete drainage pipes and culverts. Have fun and don’t forget your species identification chart!