Tropical birds flushed from the impenetrable overgrowth as we eased along the heavily vegetated lowlands. Looking like something from a prehistoric age, large orange and brown iguanas were perched in the overhanging brush. Ahead, something swirled in a patch of aquatic vegetation extending out from the shoreline where the super thick jungle growth merged with the tannin-tinted water. Surely, one of the exotic creatures we were after made its lair in this honey hole.
We tossed our lures toward the submerged vegetation. The lipless crankbaits didn’t move far before a beautiful butterfly peacock shot from its lair, snatched one of the lures and headed for cover. The powerful fish ripped drag as it fought against modern technology. Defeated but never conquered, the fish fought relentlessly and continued its resistance as the angler unhooked it and released it back to the ebony waters.
In Florida, it’s a completely different fishery where peacocks mostly feed upon minnows and other small baits, so anglers need to downsize their presentations.
“Big peacock bass are super aggressive,” remarked Charlie Stone, owner of Wicked Strike Lures in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s amazing how ferocious these fish can get, particularly when protecting their beds. They often smash lures more out of anger than hunger and are extremely fun to catch.”
Native to the Amazon, Orinoco and Rio Negro basins of South America, peacock bass range as far north as Panama. However, Florida anglers don’t need to visit another continent to catch these exotic fish. In fact, many people who live or work in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale area don’t need to travel much at all to catch trophy peacocks. Actually, fortunate fishermen can catch them on their lunch breaks by walking out of their offices and tossing a lure into a nearby canal.
The state first stocked peacock bass in Florida waters in 1984 to trim populations of exotic tilapia and cichlid, and stocking efforts continued through 1987. In the past three decades these aggressive predators reproduced and now provide incredible sport on light tackle in many lakes and canals across the lower half of the state.
“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,” remarked Barron Moody, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. “People can consistently catch peacock bass as far north as Lake Ida. Peacocks are very temperature sensitive and start to die when the water reaches about 60 degrees.”
Not a bass, but a member of the cichlid family, peacock bass look very similar to largemouth bass, but with much brighter golden coloration highlighted by vertical black bars. Anglers often catch largemouth and peacock in the same spot and on the very same lure. This comes as no surprise as both species frequently prey upon the same forage—shad and shiners.
“There’s not much difference in targeting peacock bass versus targeting largemouth bass,” advised Brett Isackson of Fort Lauderdale, who guides throughout South Florida. “It’s common to catch a largemouth on one cast and a peacock on the next cast. Sometimes peacocks hang around thick cover or under overhanging tree branches, but they really prefer to stay out in the sun. They’re tropical fish, so the hotter it gets the more active they are.”
While a largemouth will swallow anything it can suck into its cavernous mouth, peacocks typically prefer finfish and normally only feed during daylight hours. Peacocks also fight harder and eagerly attack fast moving spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, crankbaits and topwater lures.
“In the mornings I like to throw a Super Spook Jr. or a Tiny Torpedo,” Isackson recommended. “They like long, slender fish imitations worked really fast. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, I start throwing lipless crankbaits or jerkbaits in firetiger, ghost white or perch colors. One of my favorite baits is a ¼ oz. Road Runner, but Super Flukes also work well.”
In the Amazon anglers routinely throw big topwater propbaits, but they usually target a different species of peacock that can grow to 25 pounds. In South America butterfly peacock bass, one of 15 peacock species, can top 12 pounds. Jerry Gomez holds the official state record with a 9.08-pounder caught in Miami-Dade County.
“Most people who go peacock bass fishing in Florida compare it to fishing in South America,” explained Todd Kersey, president of the Florida Fishing Network. “In South America people use gigantic topwater baits. In Florida, it’s a completely different fishery where peacocks mostly feed upon minnows and other small baits, so anglers need to downsize their presentations.”
Lipless crankbaits work exceptionally well for attracting Florida peacocks and make great search baits. With a lipless crankbait anglers can cover a lot of water quickly with a lure that resembles the fish’s primary forage.
Wicked Strike Lures sells a lipless crankbait that adds another dimension to its fish-attracting abilities. Besides putting off great vibrations, Wicked Strike Lures emit scent. Anglers can fill a chamber in the hard plastic lure with attractant. A wick, much like in a lantern, absorbs the attractant and dispenses it as the angler retrieves the lure, leaving an inviting scent trail in the water.
For exhilarating action, move slowly along any canal and sight fish for peacocks with fly tackle. This is where anglers turn to various minnow imitations and streamers in gold, firetiger, chartreuse, white or natural colors.
“We often sight fish for peacocks,” Isackson said. “When we find them, I throw a clouser or deceiver, something that sinks slowly and aggravates them. The largest peacock put on my boat weighed just over 7 pounds. The trophy inhaled a clouser.”
Both Isackson and Stone like to fish the Osborne-Ida chain of lakes in Palm Beach County. They toss lures or flies around bulkheads and seawalls in canals crisscrossing the system. Peacocks often hold tight to any vertical structure, but canal ends also offer excellent fishing.
Lake Osborne covers 356 acres and Lake Ida spreads across 120 acres at the southern end of the chain. The E-4 Canal flows through the chain, connecting the West Palm Beach Canal (C-51) near Palm Beach International Airport with the Hillsboro Canal (G-08) in Boca Raton. The E-4 Canal offers anglers another 17 miles of fishable water. Boynton Canal (C-16) also runs through the area. “The fishery has a massive abundance of shad, wild shiners and cichlids,” Isackson explained. “These are good food sources for peacock bass.”
Besides the Osborne-Ida chain, anglers can fish more than 330 miles of canals in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Cypress Creek Canal, also called the Pompano Canal or C-14, runs about eight miles through Broward County near northern Fort Lauderdale. The New South River Canal, also dubbed C-11 or the Griffin Road Canal, runs about 16 miles through Broward County.
“In urban South Florida anglers can catch butterfly peacock bass and largemouth bass together, often right in their own backyards,” Moody said. “Some of the best fishing occurs in urban canals.”
If anglers don’t mind the deafening sound of roaring jet engines, exciting peacock action can also be found in the Airport Lakes adjacent to Miami International Airport. The Coral Gables Canal connects to McDonald Lake and Snapper Creek. The system also connects to the Tamiami Canal, providing anglers more than 43 miles of fishable water.
“Another great fishery is the Aerojet Canal system on U.S. 1 heading toward the Keys. It’s the southernmost freshwater fishery in Florida. That system has some really big peacock bass in it and doesn’t see as much pressure as the Airport Lakes.”
While it’s obvious any angler would love to visit South America to battle big fish, not everyone can afford the time or money, but all over South Florida anglers can find many small lakes, retention ponds and canal systems that hold trophy peacocks. Some private waters also offer excellent fishing if you can obtain permission to fish them. One thing is for sure…if you put in your time you will score big!