The Urban Slam: Searching Out Exotic Creatures in South Florida’s Urban Jungle

SNAP! CRACK!! BOOM!!! My car shook as another wave of thunder rolled by, the final breath of a storm that had kept me up all night wondering. The lightning and deep rumble were less than a second apart, telling me, yes, that was close. It was early and the sun was just starting to break through the storm clouds, lighting up the bit of rain that lingered. A rainbow made a brief appearance. Whether it was from the lightning or just my excitement, I wasn’t sure, but the air felt electrified. And the “why” was no mystery — today we were going on an urban adventure like no other.

Adventure and hot fishingcan be found day or night around Florida’s urban waterways.

The crew of two for this quest was me and longtime angling cohort (and globally recognized Miami DJ) Ralph Falcon. We were parked in a suburban Miami strip mall, sipping our Starbucks and awaiting the sign of a boat from amongst the pipes and bridges of this urban jungle. Our objective today? Bragging rights to the infamous “Urban Slam,” an almost mythical title referring to an angler landing a tarpon, a peacock bass and a snook, all in a single day.

Within a few minutes, a well-appointed center con appeared out of the darkness. With morning traffic raging above us, we made our way down a wet grassy bank and onto the boat. I was immediately struck by this thoroughly dialed whip; it was clean and well-kept, a trolling motor upfront and rod holders along the side stacked with high-end rigs set up and ready for action. After a quick run, we had lines out and our first bites — the urban assault had begun.

One thing that makes Florida such a special place to fish is the heat. While it can be uncomfortable to some, ultimately, it is this tropical warmth that gives the Sunshine State its incredible variety of fishing opportunities. The fish we were after — tarpon, snook and peacocks — are all tropical species. While found at times in other places, Florida is the only place in the USA where all three species can be targeted year-round AND in the same general environment.

John Shanley of Jurassic Park Charters with clown knifefish
John Shanley of Jurassic Park Charters holds a clown knife fish caught in the urban canals of Lake Ida.

With traffic speeding by and jumbo jets roaring overhead, labeling this kind of fishing as an “urban assault” is no understatement. On this morning, we started off fishing one of the inland lakes found throughout coastal Florida. Generally, these brackish ponds average around 100 acres and are lined with all kinds of cover, lily pads, pilings, overhanging trees, etc. Because most of these fish are considered ambush predators, the various forms of structure found here make perfect hiding spots for our target species.

Our first hour of the morning was spent searching out tarpon near the bridges and pilings that support the roads and freeways that crisscross these lakes. Deploying shiners behind the boat, we very slowly trolled the live baits under these bridges with varying degrees of success. While the tarpon were indeed present, it was, at times, difficult to get through the peacocks due to their aggressive nature. 

Florida urban fishing
The best odds of getting an “Urban Slam” are found in the heart of the jungle.

As we fished that morning well in view of the interstate, we got the occasional honk and call out from the cars going by. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these traffic-bound hecklers were fellow fishermen, either wishing they were in our shoes or just plain shocked, as we were, that this innocent-looking pond might actually be loaded with fish. Who knew?

But, as we moved along slowly just outside the weed line 20 feet from the gridlocked roadway, we managed a steady pick on the peas with the average size being 1-3 lbs. Not bad, but not yet the monsters we were hoping to see.

Peacock bass fishing in Florida
Ralph Falcon displays a nice peacock caught (and released) just feet from the interstate.

The Florida state record for peacocks is a little over 9 lbs., definitely a big fish by Florida standards. But worldwide, peacocks over 25 lbs. have been caught. Records, however, are sketchy due to many of the largest specimens being released after capture. 

With 19 different species reported worldwide along with numerous hybrids, peacock bass are not actually bass; they are, in fact, the largest members of the cichlid family. Originating from the Amazon River and, despite being legally introduced, these fish are indeed considered an invasive species in Florida.

Originally stocked by the Florida state fisheries department in 1984, they were brought in to cull some of the other exotics, such as tilapia and oscars, that were decimating long-established populations of bass, bluegill and other native fish. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with introduced species, they took over in a big way. In the 40 years since their initial stocking, they have gone on to virtually eliminate largemouth bass from the Florida waterways in which the “peacocks” thrive.

That said, even with their invasive nature, these fish have become an extremely popular target for anglers. This is most likely because of their beautiful coloration and epic fighting abilities. The fact they make amazing table fare is often overlooked here with much of Florida’s canal system being heavily polluted; however, as far as their home country of Brazil is concerned, they are considered a delicacy. So much so that they are sometimes farmed and sold commercially throughout South America. 

Targeting tarpon
Most urban tarpon are juveniles and can be targeted in a variety of ways.

As morning moved into afternoon, we continued to utilize the region’s extensive maze of canals to push deeper inland in pursuit of our slam. It is amazing how being on a boat can really alter your perspective of an area. When driving around by car what we see is not often the entire picture, especially when houses are sandwiched together blocking the view of what’s behind. But hop in a boat and a wild new world opens where you can access places you never even knew existed.

Cruising along these waterways, the amount of life present makes the experience feel like something totally different than traveling through the same area by automobile. But the roads are never far away, and you must be cautious ripping down the canals at 20 knots because the roadway bridges don’t rise high above the water. Not paying attention can be dangerous, as I almost found out the hard way. Luckily, our guide shouted for me to duck, and I missed having my head taken off by mere inches. My advice: Don’t be an idiot like me unless getting your scalp stitched back on sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Snook fishing in Florida
Sean Sullivan with a nice snook caught in Florida’s urban jungle

To say that these canals are “alive” doesn’t even begin to describe the biodiversity to be found here. And this is one of the things that makes this experience so special and so unique to Florida. Along our travels, we spotted dozens of bird species, the ever-present iguanas, the occasional gator and a rogues’ gallery of fish species, including the notorious three from our to-do list for the Urban Slam. In addition to the targets we were pursuing, we saw Mayan cichlids, oscars, plecos, snakeheads, clown knife fish, a variety of panfish and some crazy exotics we didn’t even have names for. 

There is sublime beauty to be found amongst the homes and canals of Florida’s urban jungle.

As our bait supply dwindled and the sun took its toll, we soon found ourselves at a dead-end waterway deep in the urban jungle. With dogs barking and iguanas closing in, we made a group decision to call it a day and head back to civilization. But, before the skipper could start the motor, Ralph flipped one last bait into a shady corner and instantly hooked into something of size. Despite the fish trying to run him under an abandoned dock, Mr. Falcon managed to seize control of the fight and within a few minutes brought the beast to heel — and a beast it was! By far our biggest pea of the day, tapping out at close to 6 lbs.

The still backwaters of Florida’s urban jungle can be magical in the evenings.

We snapped a few quick pics and set the girl free to fight another day. It was high five all around as we headed back toward the big lake where our day began.

One of the beautiful things about the Urban Slam is that it doesn’t take a fish finder or a fancy, high-dollar center con to make it happen. In fact, it’s very possible to nail all these species from shore. By investing a bit of time on Google Maps, one can figure out where to find the fish. But if you want to truly explore the inland waterways and get a real taste of Florida’s urban jungle, there are a few guides out there who know their stuff. 


Urban Legends Fishing Charters

Instagram @urbanlegendsfishing

Or call (305) 998-3375

Jurassic Park Fishing Charters

Instagram @jurassic_park_fishing_ charters

Or call (561) 302-9948