Article by Jason Macko
Fishing in South Florida has a lot of advantages. The weather is beautiful allowing you to fish year round and with all the lakes, rivers and canals there’s always water within reach. You can fish fresh, salt or the brackish water that marries them. If you know where to go you can catch bass, tarpon, snook or gar on any given cast. But the best part about fishing South Florida isn’t the weather or water; it’s the South Florida Bass!
South Florida Bass or more commonly known as Peacock Bass are one of the hidden gems of Florida nestled away in the south east corner of the state. Although similar to the largemouth bass they do not belong to the same family. Imported from South America in 1984 to help control the population of smaller fish, the Butterfly Peacock actually belongs to the Cichla Genus. They are very similar to the Ciclids that are common in home aquariums. Once introduced peacock bass quickly became one of South Florida’s most prized game fish.
Confined to the waters of South Florida peacock bass can be found throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties with a few creeping up into Palm Beach. They love slow moving canals, lakes and ponds with overhanging structure and thick vegetation cover. I recommend the canals because they have an ample supply of food, thick cover and they’re less fished. The problem is these Amazonian lunkers require the warm water vastly limiting their habitat in the United States. If the water temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit they will die. In fact, during the winter of 2010 South Florida experienced several back to back cold fronts killing many Peacock Bass and threatening their survival. Luckily they quickly bounced back and as we head into 2015 they are now plentiful.
Peacock bass are like largemouths in shape and mouth size but the similarities stop there. The easiest way to identify peacock bass is by their distinctive and pronounced black eye on their caudal fin. This along with their bright olive green body and red belly make them easy to identify. Juveniles display three vertical black stripes but as they mature their stripes diminish and their color can lighten to yellowish green color. Also, adult males can develop a distinguished hump on their foreheads during mating season to attract females. Peacock bass have two distinct growing phases. Their juvenile growth of 12-16″ occurs in the first two years of its life then growth becomes much more concentrated on girth. Basically, a 17″ fish will weigh about 3 pounds, a 19″ bass weighs around 5 pounds and so on.
You can handle them the same way as largemouth bass but beware of what I’ve come to call peacock thumb. Handling largemouths is simple- the thumb grip lower jar immobilizer. Problem is that while it is an effective grip to remove the hook it does not subdue the fish. Smaller boys are easy to handle but if you land a lunker be ready for a duel with a sandpaper vice. Either tape your thumb or proudly display the abrasions on your peacock thumb!
Introduced into South Florida to control the population of smaller invasive fish destroying canal vegetation, these predators will eat any fish they can fit into their mouths. That being said the best bait is anything that will mimic bait fish. I mostly use a swim jig with swim bait trailer but will occasionally use a spin bait with a swim bait or simply a swim bait alone. You are going to want some kind of weed guard whether it’s part of the jig or a Texas rigged swim bait. Leave your plastic worms at home because Peacock Bass will not hit them. This is a very common mistake because while the largemouth bass love plastic worms peacock bass will not touch them. Tackle depends more on the water and cover than the fish itself but I recommend going as light as possible. I’m currently running a Daiwa Ballistic spinning reel with 10# monofilament on an Offshore Angler Inshore rod which is perfect for the canals I fish but depending on cover you may need to up your tackle.
One final piece of advice: bring your net. First of all, if you’re bank fishing you will need it to bring it up the bank. If you try to pull it up your line will snap and your fish will happily swim away. It happened to me once and now my net is always within reach. Second, I’m lucky enough not to have any snakeheads in my canal but there are gar and I’m not messing around with them either!
If you’re lucky enough to make it down to South Florida I highly recommend a fishing trip to the canals. There’s plenty of bank fishing, boat rentals and charter fishing opportunities to help you land that giant South Florida Bass! If you have any further peacock bass or South Florida fishing questions I can be found on Twitter @laughinpescador.