Fly Fishing Peacock Bass in Paradise
June 12, 2013
The pristine flats of Miami's Biscayne Bay have long been a prime destination for anglers fly fishing for bonefish, permit, and tarpon, but the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale areas are also known as meccas for peacock bass. While peacock bass are found only in fresh water, a more important consideration for anglers traveling to southeast Florida is that peacock bass can be targeted from land, do-it-yourself style, while a boat and a guide with local knowledge is needed to pursue most of the area's saltwater species.
In 1984 Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) stocked several southeast Florida canals with peacock bass, and freshwater fishing in Florida has not been the same since. Ferocious fighters with the tenacity of brown trout and the aerobic ability of tarpon, peacock bass have revitalized freshwater fishing in southeast Florida.
Florida's peacock-bass boom was born in the late 1970s when the FWC began to study ways to control the spread of a few of the 86 nonnative fish species released in Florida over the past 100 years by storms washing away fish-farm breeding ponds and former aquarium owners who no longer wanted to care for their pets and released them in nearby canals. Many of these nonnative species were undesirable because of their negative impact on the state's largemouth bass and bluegill populations. Two species—the oscar and spotted tilapia—were particularly offensive to FWC biologists because oscars reproduce like rabbits and were the leading predators of juvenile bass and bluegill.
FWC biologist Paul Shafland, director of the state's Nonnative Fish Research Laboratory and the chief proponent of releasing peacock bass into Florida's canals, says, "while the peacock is native to tropical South America, a carefully planned introduction of butterfly peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris) and speckled peacock bass (Cichla temensis) in southeast Florida accomplished the goals of the FWC in helping to control the oscars, talapia, and a few other exotics." Shafland says, "Peacock bass were especially compatible with south Florida's ecosystem because they were an aggressive predator of the oscar and spotted tilapia, did not compete with any native fish, and from an angler's standpoint are a tasty, hard fighting fish."
Peacock bass cannot survive in water cooler than 60 degrees (F.), thus the south Florida counties of Broward and Dade, from Pompano Beach to south Miami where canal temperatures seldom fall lower than 70 degrees, were chosen as prime peacock habitat. These two counties have 330 miles of man-made canals teeming with nonnative species in need of control. Over the past 20 years, Florida anglers have learned that Shafland's research and foresight were right on target.
In addition to peacock bass, there is a myriad of other species available in these canals, including snook, tarpon, largemouth bass, bluegill (and several panfish derivatives), and large grass carp. Mosquitoes and deer flies can be a problem in southeast Florida, especially in the canals in southern Dade County (south Miami), so you should plan accordingly for them.
Anglers should be careful when fishing any freshwater location in southeast Florida. An abundance of dangerous wildlife live in or around salt water. These critters range from rattlesnakes and water moccasins to alligators and large iguanas. You might also see harmless basilisk lizards that have earned the nickname "Jesus Christ lizards" because they walk on water.
Rods. The Florida peacock fishery does not require the special equipment that you might need for bonefish, redfish, or tarpon. Rods in the 5- to 7-weight range are ideal.
Reels. Unlike bonefish or tuna, peacock bass do not make long screaming runs. They are territorial, and once hooked will stay in the area where they were hooked. Thus reels with strong drags are not necessary for peacock bass.
Lines. Florida peacocks are seldom found in deep water, nor are they particularly attracted to top-water disturbances. An intermediate or floating line with a 10- to 15-foot clear intermediate tip (2 to 3 ips) is the best line choice. Slightly faster sinking tips, full intermediates, or sinking lines in the 3 to 5 ips range can also be used.
Backing and leaders. Since peacocks do not make long runs, 100 feet of backing is sufficient. Nylon monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders can vary from 7 to 9 feet with a minimum 10-pound tippet. I use either 15- or 20-pound tippet as peacocks are strong fighters with semi-abrasive mouths.
All Day Advantage
Peacock and largemouth bass co-exist in southeast Florida, and you never know which species you are going to catch. A general rule of thumb is that largemouths hit best at dawn and dusk while peacocks bite better two hours after sunrise until two hours before sunset.
Wherever you go in south Florida be mindful that car break-ins are so common that some guides leave their windows open and their cars unlocked to prevent damage.
Most of Florida's largemouth-bass fishing takes place from boats because most of Florida's lakes are shallow and difficult to walk up to. The opposite is true of peacock bass. One of the great advantages of fishing for peacock bass in Florida is that you can reach 90 percent of the water on foot and the rest in a canoe or kayak.
Water temperature is one key to locating peacock bass in the winter. They seek out areas in canals and lakes where warm water from underground pipes flows into the canals and lakes. Although not as spooky as trout or bonefish, peacock bass become wary if they see you.
Most of the canals and lakes in southeast Florida are clear, and you can sight-fish most of the time while walking along a canal or lake berm. Like many other fish, peacocks cruise and hang around drop-offs and structure, so when you are looking for them, be stealthy near these areas.
While there are good numbers of peacock bass in southeast Florida as far north as the Palm Beach area, most are found from Boca Raton to Florida City. That said, most of the guides who target peacocks do so in the Miami and south Miami areas because consistently warmer water temperatures there produce larger concentrations of peacocks than in Ft. Lauderdale and other areas north of Miami.
If you fly into Miami and look out the window as you land, you will see several lakes. These lakes were dug in the late 1950s to obtain fill for the airport runways and are more than 20 feet deep. This is one of the few places where you can use a 400- to 500-grain sinking line. All of these lakes are prime peacock habitat and can be fished by canoe, kayak, or small boat. There is a boat ramp located at Antonio Maceo Park on NW 7th Street and NW 51th Avenue that will put you into Blue Lagoon Lake. All of the other lakes are accessible from one another.
If you have a small boat, the western lake that is accessed through a canal running parallel to the Pan American Hospital is an excellent place for peacocks. Try the northwest corner of this lake. The southern lake (called Blue Lagoon) is the best of all these lakes. This lake gets almost no fishing pressure because it is only fishable from a kayak or canoe. The canal exiting the west end of this lake leads you to 20 or so miles of prime peacock-bass canals.
If your spouse is with you and you need a good excuse to go fishing, the canal behind the Falls Shopping Center on South U.S. 1 (Dixie Highway) at 136th Street is a great peacock canal. Start directly behind Bloomingdale's department store (you can drop your spouse off for some shopping while you fish).
/>To reach the canal, drive north out of the shopping center parking lot, around the shopping center, and across the bridge that crosses the canal. You will see an access road running down the other side of the canal. Drive down this access road. As you approach the dam behind Bloomingdale's, you will see two small boat ramps. This is the C-100C Canal. Fishing is good behind the shopping center as well as on the north side of the bridge for a half mile or so to the west where it goes under 136th Street and SW 95th Avenue. Drive or walk along the south side of this canal and sight-fish. Look closely around any structure, obstructions, debris, and drain pipes. This canal has a lot of room for backcasts.
This same C-100C Canal can be found near the intersection of SW 100th Avenue and SW 104th Street next to the clubhouse of the Killiam Golf Course. This area is also a good place to walk along the canal looking for peacocks. O. J. Simpson lives nearby.
You can launch a kayak or canoe in most of the canals in southeast Florida, and many have launch access for small boats on trailers.
Jim Anson, one of Miami's top guides who has fished the canals in southeast Florida for peacock bass since 1988, says, "The beauty of fishing these canals is that it is run-and-gun fishing—you are up on the berm of a canal or bridge and the water is so clear you can see the fish, and you can drive from spot to spot until you find fish." Anson guides by driving slowly along the edges of the canals until he spots fish.
The convergence of two Snapper Creek canals in the C-2 canal system at SW 99th Avenue and Snapper Creek Drive is worth a look.
The Baptist Hospital at SW 91st Street and Kendall Drive has two lakes that are fishable from land and hold largemouth bass to 10 pounds and peacocks up to 6. The area adjacent to the helicopter pad on the east lake is off-limits for safety reasons.
At SW 80th Street and SW 102nd Place there is an offshoot of the Snapper Creek Canal with a bridge going into the Kendalltown Condominiums. In addition to spotting peacocks from this bridge and the adjacent canal berm, there are some large (10- to 20-pound) grass carp around this bridge.
The intersection of the canal along U.S. 41 (a.k.a. SW 8th Street or the Tamiami Trail) and the canal at SW 94th Avenue has two bridges, and both canals hold numerous species including peacocks, snook, and tarpon.
Ft. Lauderdale Area Peacocks
Griffin Road west of the Florida Turnpike is easily fishable from the bank all the way west to I-75. This is the C-11 Canal, also known as New River. Numerous side canals intersect New River, and these side canals generally get less fishing pressure and hold more fish than the C-11/New River. Be sure to fish all of the bridges along the C-11/New River canal as well as other structure.
The G-15 or North New River Canal, which runs along Highway 84 and I-595, is another easily accessible canal, although it receives heavy fishing pressure.
The C-14, also known as Cypress Creek Canal, in north Ft. Lauderdale is not particularly productive, but many of the C-14's side canals between Atlantic Boulevard and Copans Road hold peacocks.
An unnamed canal runs along Sunrise Boulevard and NW 9th Court. This canal starts just west of Highway 7/441, runs several miles west, and has good peacock fishing from Highway 441 west to Pine Island Road. You can fish this canal from the bank for the first mile or so, but it is best fished from a kayak or canoe west of NW 63rd Avenue.
The C-13 Canal crosses under Oakland Park Boulevard a mile or so west of the Florida Turnpike and continues west. You can walk the bank of this canal for several miles starting behind the shopping center at Oakland Park. Stop and fish around any structure.
The C-11 Canal runs east-west along the north side of Griffin Road for approximately 12 miles and has several side canals that are good for walking and looking for peacocks. However, the C-11 gets a lot of pressure due to its ease of access, and the intersecting canals are generally better than the C-11 itself.
License, Identification, and Bag Limits
Nonresidents and most Florida residents must have a freshwater fishing license to fish for peacock bass. You can get one in a Florida tackle store, by phone at (888) 347-4356, or on the web at www.wildlifelicense.com or www.basspro.com.
Two species of peacock bass live in Florida: speckled peacock and butterfly peacock. Speckled peacocks have three distinctive bars on their sides and black markings on the upper part of their cheeks/gill plates. Very few speckled peacock bass live in south Florida, and for this reason they are protected and must be released alive.
Butterfly peacocks have no black markings on their cheeks/gill plates. The daily bag limit for butterfly peacock bass is two per day, only one of which may exceed 17 inches.
Florida's Nonnative Fish Research Laboratory has produced a series of 16 one-page brochures on how and where to fish southeast Florida's canal system, including one on the area's boat ramps if you have a canoe, kayak, or small boat. You can download these brochures at http://floridafisheries.com/pdf/index.html/ or write to Paul Shafland, Nonnative Fish Research Laboratory, 801 NW 40th Street, Boca Raton, Florida 33431 (no phone calls or emails).
Walt Jennings is a Fly Fisherman editor-at-large.