Urban Warfare

Conquering South Florida’s Exotic Explosion

FSF Staff October 13, 2010

It’s an undeniable fact that South Florida is an incredibly diverse community that’s rich with culture and heritage. While the streets are full of local flavor, the numerous backwater ponds, hidden lakes, golf course lakes and urban canal systems offer even greater diversity. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), 32 exotic fish species have been found reproducing in Florida’s freshwater. Together, they make up one of the most abundant and well-studied exotic fish populations in the entire world. While all reside in the warm waters of South Florida, only a few are tolerant to the colder conditions found at more northerly latitudes. While the introduction of invasive exotics is detrimental to the natural aquatic ecosystem, not to mention illegal, the ultra-light angling opportunities that are afforded are simply amazing. When exotic and native species fight over territory and forage, competition is inevitable. However, native fish species have a biological makeup that ensures their well being in regards to seasonal climate variations, which gives them the upper hand over aggressive exotics. Florida is known around the world for its incredible largemouth bass fishery, but for freshwater anglers in the know, South Florida’s intricate watershed is a diamond in the rough. While urban fishing may not sound glamorous, the results can be downright spectacular.

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The unique watershed of South Florida offers educated anglers a host of incredible opportunities. Photo: SATELLITE IMAGERY, Copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe

In 1984, the FWC was forced to deal with a serious problem. As populations flocked to sunny South Florida, the trade of exotic fish became a booming business. Unfortunately, when exotic pets became too big for their residences, many were released into nearby lakes and waterways. The man-made canals, lakes and ponds of South Florida provided ideal habitat for many non-native species. Without any natural predators, these aggressive feeders quickly took over. Native game fish like largemouth bass and bream couldn’t compete with overly aggressive mayan cichlid and spotted tilapia.

The peacock bass provides Florida freshwater anglers a new trophy fish that was previously only available in South America.

After careful research, review and recommendations from experts around the country, the FWC decided that the best measure was to introduce butterfly peacock bass into our freshwater canal system. They were imported from Brazil, Guyana and Peru and spawned at the FWC’s Non-Native Fish Research Lab. Peacock bass are the ultimate hunters and the perfect predator to keep unwanted exotics in check. They’re beautifully colored with orange, green, yellow, black, white and red variations, but they’re not really bass at all, rather members of the cichlid family. These awesome hunters flourish in the warm, slow moving waters of South Florida and can be found aggressively feeding near adjacent shorelines with overhanging vegetation. Cold winter water prevents them from spreading north beyond coastal Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Shady ambush points near fallen trees, culverts, bridges and canal docks provide the ultimate freshwater habitat. Here, peacock bass spawn from April through September, with peak season during the warmest summer months. When fishing area shorelines you’ll notice male and female pairs taking residence and preparing a worthy spawning site. Both parents tend to thousands of eggs, and it’s no surprise that during this time peacock bass are most aggressive. Males develop a hump on their forehead during mating season and will readily defend their territory. If you catch a peacock during spawning season be sure to release it unharmed so the fish can get back to protecting its offspring.

When targeting peacock bass, ultra-light outfits keep the fight fun and sporty. There’s no need to exceed 6lb. monofilament. The easiest way to catch a peacock is with live bait and a shiner is pretty much a guarantee. You can either suspend one beneath a float, free-line, cast, or slow troll for success. A small split shot can also be used to reach the appropriate depth. The beauty of this fishery is that peacock bass are available to both boat and bank anglers. While they viciously strike topwaters and crankbaits, they will seldom take a plastic worm. If you’re more inclined to toss a fly, streamers, poppers and minnow imitations will do the trick. The peacock bass provides Florida freshwater anglers a new trophy fish that was previously only available in South America.

While on your excursion for peacock bass you will likely encounter oscar, midas, Mayan cichlid, largemouth bass, clown knifefish, armored catfish, snakehead, and depending on your location, freshwater snook and tarpon. Sometimes snook and tarpon become trapped in coastal lagoons and golf course ponds and there are secret locations in South Florida where it’s possible to catch largemouth, peacock, tilapia and double digit snook and tarpon in the very same hole! Do some research and see what information you can dig up. You just never know what you may hook into.

Stocked throughout the state for vegetation control purposes, the grass carp is the only other legally introduced exotic species to Florida’s waters. Averaging 15 to 20-pounds, there have been carp caught in Florida up to 75-pounds! While they must be immediately released unharmed, a dedicated group of catch-and-release anglers have taken to their liking. Imitating a bonefish in the shallows, grass carp are often seen swimming along grassy shorelines or underneath fruiting ficus trees. With their tails breaking the surface of the water, this is the perfect opportunity to hone your stalking skills and casting accuracy. While they can be caught on traditional outfits with grass clippings, bread balls or ficus berries, innovative fly anglers with custom tied flies often yield the greatest results. When fly-fishing, a 6-weight outfit is ideal with a simple 6-foot, 12lb. leader enough to seal the deal. Regardless of your preferred method, attentive hook-sets are essential. While you can expect numerous refusals, when you finally hook up the singing drag will remind you of a tough battle will a bull redfish.

While illegally introduced, a variety of cichlids will also keep rods bent. The Mayan cichlid has a similar appearance of a sunfish, but its coloration makes it easily distinguishable. Oscars are also popular due to their fighting abilities and willingness to bite. Midas are yet another member of the cichlid family and are easily identified by their bright orange coloration. While the source of their introduction is unknown, the midas cichlid is native to Nicaragua.

The most important aspect of being a successful freshwater angler in urban South Florida is recon and research. There are numerous tools at your fingertips with Google Earth one of the best. You can easily investigate new spots and potential access points—the biggest obstacle for urban anglers. Unfortunately, many of the most productive bodies of water are boarded by or located on private property. There are, however, numerous lakes and ponds that are within close proximity to public parking. You’d be surprised at the exciting action you may encounter behind your local strip mall.

What keeps this unique fishery exciting is that you simply don’t know what you’re going to hook next. These waters also fluctuate in depth throughout the year so you’re always forced to adapt to changing conditions. While legal introductions have been used as ways to control overly aggressive forage species and excessive aquatic growth, they’ve simultaneously opened new doors for freshwater anglers. Some of the species readily found in Florida’s freshwater canals and lakes would otherwise require a trip to South America or Asia. When the winds are up and the ocean is uninviting, fill your fix with Florida’s exotic freshwater species. Once you feel the power of these hard fighting lightweights you’ll soon be back for more.

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