The Curious Case of South Florida’s Exotic Clown Knifefish

 In the past few decades, South Florida’s freshwater canals and lakes have been inundated with a variety of exotic game fish. Most famously, the butterfly peacock was imported from Brazil and Peru by FWC and introduced to our waterways in 1984 to control the populations of other smaller invasive species. The introduction of these fish was a huge success, both for its main purpose and for the many anglers who have come to enjoy this fishery immensely. Since then, several other non-native fish have appeared in South Florida’s fresh waters, and anglers have been quick to catch on. Among them, the clown knifefish is certainly one of the most intriguing.

Florida clown knifefish
Photography by Denes Szakacs

Native to Indochina, the clown knifefish (Chitala ornata), also known as the clown featherback, is a rather odd-looking game fish that has graced us in South Florida with its presence. Though these fish have been found in Florida since the 1990s, encounters were limited to Palm Beach County until recently, as their range and population have expanded tremendously in the last few years. While the heaviest concentrations of Floridian clowns remain in the canals and lakes of Palm Beach County, they are now viable targets for freshwater anglers further south in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Unlike the butterfly peacock, which is native to the Amazon and was introduced by wildlife officials purposely in 1984, the clown knifefish went the route of the many other invasive freshwater fish that now call South Florida home. This “accidental introduction,” if you will, likely occurred as a result of aquarium owners releasing their pet clown knifefish in nearby freshwater canals and lakes, where they were able to survive and eventually thrive.

How to catch clown knifefish
Photography by Denes Szakacs

While these fish are a long way from home, their ability to thrive in our waters is not remotely as absurd as some people think it is. In fact, these new habitats offer the right climate, plenty of forage and a lack of natural predators. With any invasive game fish, there is a concern that its presence will be detrimental to native fish populations. The idea is that their insertion into the ecosystem will throw off existing populations of native aquatic flora and fauna. This is still certainly a legitimate concern, but the impact of these fish in their new waters from an ecological perspective is not yet understood.

Here’s what we do know – these peculiar fish are skilled predators with serious appetites. This may not bode well for other native and non-native species and their fry that cohabitate these areas, but it presents an interesting scenario. South Florida has become the unofficial land of exotics in the past few decades, becoming a new home for Burmese pythons in the Everglades, invasive lionfish in our coastal waters, iguanas in our neighborhoods and a number of wide-ranging freshwater fish species that have found ideal living conditions in canals and man-made water bodies that otherwise seem largely unfavorable for native fish. For many reasons, these exotic fish species have done very well in these waters, with the clown knifefish representing one of the most intriguing nonnative success stories.

Clown Knifefish
Photography by Denes Szakacs

Science aside, we also know that clown knifefish make for excellent game fish. What started as a very specialized fishery mastered only by a select few anglers in Palm Beach County has now become a steady attraction for an increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts. In fact, there seems to be a meteoric rise in popularity for these fish taking place before our very eyes, somewhat akin to the story of the butterfly peacock. Just a few years ago, these fish were considered surprising by-catch by recreational anglers. Today, the local freshwater fishing community is certainly indulging in this fun fishery, but many of the area’s sweetwater guides are now being hired by anglers visiting from out of state and out of country to catch these fish. The fishing opportunities in South Florida are diverse, to say the least, but freshwater fishing is not something traditionally associated with the region. However, it’s much easier and more inexpensive to fly into Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach for most anglers than it is to venture to exotic locales like the Amazon or the remote southeast reaches of Asia.

Clown knifefish fishing
Photography by Denes Szakacs

Though they’ve only existed in our waters for a relatively short period of time, many of the region’s skilled freshwater anglers have cracked the code on catching these fish. Many have caught these fish while targeting largemouth bass or butterfly peacock, and that’s because they generally inhabit the same areas and favor the same conditions. Like several other predatory game fish that roam these waters, clown knifefish stick to structure, particularly near the shoreline in shallow water. These fish usually spawn in the spring and, while juvenile clowns usually occur in schools roaming submerged aquatic plants and roots, the adults tend to be solitary and stick to more prominent structure near shorelines like overhanging vegetation, docks, bridges and other man-made structures within South Florida’s canal system.

Based on their comfort in these new waters, it’s clear these fish are skilled at adapting to new territory. However, their ability to survive strange conditions is partly a result of their biological makeup. Clown knifefish are often caught in very stagnant, poorly oxygenated waters that are common throughout the region’s lakes and canal system. This is because these fish are able to use air to survive in these areas. Their strange physical composition is also an asset to them, allowing them to swim backwards.

where to catch clown knifefish in Florida
Photography by Denes Szakacs
Targeting Clown knifefish
Though odd-looking, these fish possess everything an angler wants in a catch-and-release game fish. | PHOTOGRAPHY: CAPT. MATT ARNHOLT

As freshwater sport fish in Florida, these fish are tough to beat. Clown knifefish are skilled predators that feed primarily on small baitfish but will also take down any small insects and grass shrimp. These fish can measure more than 30 inches and eclipse weights of 10 pounds, making them incredibly fun targets on light tackle. However, their finicky nature makes them tough to catch on a consistent basis. Additionally, they have incredibly bony mouths and jaws that can make it frustrating for anglers as these fish are becoming known as bait thieves. However, they are quickly becoming some of the most sought-after freshwater game fish in the area given their unique appearance and great sporting quality.

When targeting these fish, you really don’t need much in the way of terminal tackle. However, you better be sure that your rigging is spot on and you’re using the right gear. Live bait fishing is the most popular tactic when targeting these fish, with small shad and golden shiner being the best baits for the job. Shiner are the go-to live baits for freshwater fishing throughout much of the state, though shad seem to be the preferred offering for clown knifefish. To fish these baits, simply use a tiny J hook or circle hook.

Clown knifefish live bait
Photography by Denes Szakacs
Clown knifefish live bait
When it comes to live bait, small American shad and golden shiner are local favorites. | Photography by Denes Szakacs

Those unfamiliar with the fishery might think the hooks used in this pursuit are way too small, but I assure you they are not. The largest size you should fish is a 1/0, but many hook manufacturers producers even smaller hooks in size 1 or 2, referred to by many anglers as “mosquito” hooks. These fish are wary, so light leader is the way to go. Clowns don’t have the teeth to slice through leader, but 20 lb. fluorocarbon is a good choice around heavy structure. However, some anglers drop to 15 lb. test to get more bites. While these fish will feed throughout the day, they are more likely to be active at dawn and dusk.

They may seem odd, but clown knifefish have proven to be some of the most enjoyable targets to pursue in South Flori – da’s freshwater canals and lakes. That’s a good thing, too, because they appear to be thriving in their new nonnative range and it seems like they’re here to stay. As we continue to learn more about these invasive fish native to tropical Asia, we might as well embrace the fun that is fishing for clown knifefish.