Local Exotics

Fishing for peacock bass in Florida.

They attack quickly retrieved flies or lures with a savagery unseen in freshwater fish native to the United States. From out of nowhere they will charge and explode, leaving a froth on the water as they try to free themselves from the hook with strong pulls and acrobatic jumps. Once landed, they awe the angler with their stunning yellow grean color accented by black lines and orange accents along their mouth, gil plates, and caudal and anal fins. Throw in the yellow ringed dot and blue accents on the tail fin, and markings on the butterfly peacock bass rival any freshwater fish to be caught. And the best place to catch them, outside of their native habitat in South America, is in the canal system of South Florida. Why? Pest control. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission introduced peacock bass into the Dade and Broward canal systems in 1984 to combat the rise of exotic aquarium fish that had been illegally released. In a three year period, the state dumped over 20,000 butterfly peacocks into the local waters, and the fish have flourished, creating an incredible and easily accessible fishery. But only in those two counties. Peacocks can't tolerate when the water temperature dips below 65 degrees, so they are pretty well contained to South Florida.

The fish aren't bass at all, but members of the cichlid family, misnamed by adventure anglers who likened their shape and habits to those of largemouth bass. The butterfly peacocks of Miami average about 2-4 pounds, with six pounders being trophies and 10 pounds constituting a once-in-a-lifetime fish. That's small compared to the 20-25 pound black barred giant peacocks that inhabit the Amazon, at least in our imaginations and the footage of adventure fishing shows. But the discrepency in poundage is easily overcome by the cheaper plane ticket and shorter flight required to go fishing in Florida instead of Brazil. How do you catch them? "The key to targeting these fish is speed," said Mark Hall, a peacock bass guide in Miami. Butterfly peacock bass are ambush feeders. They respond agressively to fast, erratic retrieves. They hit crankbaits, topwater lures, and jigs. They will also eat live shiners. One thing they wont eat, which differs them from largemouth and smallmouth bass, is soft plastics. But a typical rod rigged for bass fishing will suffice. Fly rod anglers should use five to seven-weight rods and cast colorful streamer patterns, clousers, or topwater poppers.

To get started, try going with a professional guide like Mark Hall (786/3174777,www.flyfishpeacocks.com)