Vic Dunaway Remembered: Where Have You Gone, Nile Perch?

The June 2012 issue of Florida Sportsman Magazine, has a feature article by writer Tom Levine on Florida’s “vegetarian” fish, such as mullet, grass carp, and the infamous tilapia.  For a little more background on these unusual fish, check out the article by Vic Dunaway published in the April 1997 edition.

Dunaway, the magazine’s Founding Editor, passed away May 17, 2012 (click here for the news item). In honor of his many contributions to the magazine, and for the benefit of new readers, we’ll be reprinting some of his articles on the Florida Sportsman Web sites.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more Florida Sportsman Classics: Vic Dunaway Remembered.  –Jeff Weakley, Editor

 

April 1997 edition

Any of Florida’s lakes, streams and canals are up to their lovely lilies in  uninvited  “orna­mental” fish of many kinds, all of which ei­ther escaped, or were liberated, from pri­vate aquariums and fish farms. One exotic fish, the peacock bass, is with us because we wanted it. As reported in a previous article, we weren’t able to get that one planted until af­ter a quarter-century of on-again, off-again effort.

Unless you want to count the blue tilapia or the grass carp, the peacock bass is the only non-native gamefish ever successfully installed anywhere in Florida waters.

But you really don’t want to count that African tilapia or the Asian carp that fol­lowed it here. For one thing, they are not gamefish, not by anyone’s loosest stan­dards, despite the fertile imaginings of publicists for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Depart­ment of Natural Resources, who, in an effort to gain public support for their re­spective plans, ballyhooed each of those species in turn as both a gourmet’s delight and a sportsman’s dream.

Unidentified Florida angler with early arrival of tilapia, then erroneously referred to as "Nile perch."

Disguised as the “Nile perch,” the blue tilapia came to us in 1961 when the Game Commission planted three thousand of them in phosphate pits at the Pleasant Grove Research Station in Hillsborough County. The Commission was experi­menting with the species as a possible weed-control agent.

It bears noting that the fish called Nile perch in its East African home waters is not a tilapia at all, but belongs to a dif­ferent family entirely. A relative of our snook, the true Nile perch grows to mon­strous size—200 pounds at least. How­ever, drum beaters for the Game Com­mission stretched their terminology a little by choosing to label their experimental fish, which was really a Nile tilapia, as the Nile perch, thus mushrooming its sup­posed virtues as a gamefish.

You might not believe it, but Florida’s corps of outdoor writers gobbled up that bait with all the caution of hungry cat­fish, and they began churning out copy which, to the Commission’s great delight, predicted a shining new freshwater game-fish on the Florida horizon.

As a result of all the publicity, many a good Cracker fisherman be­gan anticipating the thrill of fishing for this fabulous import—ap­parently never pausing to ask themselves how the selfsame species of fish might be able to serve double duty as both devourer of un­wanted weeds and predatory pet of Flori­da anglers. Anyway, public anticipation  finally swelled to impatience, leading other­wise upright citizens into burglarizing the experimental ponds and transplant­ing “Nile perch” to waters more acces­sible to fishing.

In defense of the Game Commission, it must be said that they never intended those fish to spill over from the confines of the experimental ponds into the pub­lic domain. Unfortunately, however, their security did not measure up to their good intentions.

The climactic chapter to this little tale (but, unhappily, not the final chapter) came when the freshwater angling fraternity fi­nally learned that the fish in question was not the fabled Nile perch after all. Worse yet, the Commission also learned too late that it wasn’t even the Nile tilapia. Their supplier had made an error, shipping the blue tilapia, Tilapia aurea, instead of the Nile tilapia Tilapia nilotica.

Upon discovering that the blue tilapia (a.k.a. Nile tilapia; a.k.a Nile perch) will not even nibble on an earthworm, much less blast a Zara Spook, the fickle sport-fishing public turned a cold shoulder to its formerly beloved debutante.

But you mustn’t feel sorry for the aban­doned blue tilapia. Before long, a new and even more enthusiastic set of suitors was clamoring at its doorstep—commer­cial fishermen.

Given the green light by the Game Com­mission in the futile hope that they might help stem the exploding tilapia popula­tion, cast netters started hauling out the fat, blue fish by the literal ton. Far from slowing down the spread of the tilapia, however, the netters began expanding it by gleefully transplanting the suddenly valuable fish to more and more Central Florida lakes; banking a little something for the future, you might say.

As the 1970s rolled around, the Game Commission’s brass still wore some red around the ears, left over from the “Nile perch” fiasco, so when the Department of Natural Resources (since renamed the Department of Environmental Protection) announced plans to bring in the grass carp, the Commission quickly jumped at the op­portunity to tackle the role of St. George for a change, instead of the dragon.

The DNR did not dream up the grass carp on its own but merely got swept along with a tide that was flooding much of the country back then. All over the South, in particular, the dopey-looking bottom-grubber was being hailed as a weed-control mir­acle.

The many homeowners along weed-glutted Florida lakeshoreskept hearing great things about the grass carp or,  rather, about the white Amur, a more eu­phonic name derived from the Siberian river whence it originally came. These homeowners, along with Chamber of Commerce spokesmen  representing most of Florida’s hundreds of water-oriented commu­nities, pestered the DNR constantly to go and get them some white Amurs, im­mediately if not sooner. Director Hodges, like any other good bureau chief in state government, always took a keen interest in citizens’ wishes— especially the wishes of citizens who owned expensive lakefront property, and most especially of the ones who wore such three-letter first names as Sen., Rep., and Hon. Since there were plenty of those, the grass carp project soon sprang to life.

Like the “Nile perch” before it, the white Amur was represented to the press as not only an aquatic lawnmower, but also a fantastic new sporting quarry—one which, in Hodges’ own immortal words, could claim a position in the gamefish hierarchy “comparable to the battling salt­water tarpon.”

Not even an outdoor writer was going to fall for that one, so the grass carp exercise was greeted with mixed reviews in the press. The reviews might have been all bad, except for the fact that many editorialists owned lakefront homes them­selves. Among prominent environmental and government groups that stepped forth to wave flags of caution were the Audubon Society and—who else?—the Game Commission, which stormed into the fray like a reformed smoker.

At that time there was a glitch in the freshwater management setup (which has since been resolved to some extent) that placed the Game Commission in charge of aquatic animal life, but the DNR incharge of water management, including weed control. This conundrum found the exotic, weed-eating fish swimming a thin line between jurisdictions.

The Game Commission sniped at the DNR and its grass carp from the beginning. With visions of Nile perch no doubt still dancing in his head, Commission fisheries chief John Woods calmly understated, “We see some problems that someone else not familiar with the fisheries might not see.”

A three-year study of the grass carp was launched in January of 1973. Among many answers needed was just how many carp per acre would it take to maintain a balanced environment. Too few and there would be little or no benefit; too many and the lake could be wiped completely free of weeds and consequently become devoid of most other life.

Along with Florida Sportsman publisher Karl Wickstrom, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand that the latter scenario was a distinct possibility. We visited a pond on the Florida Turnpike that had been stocked with grass carp some months earlier. By the time we viewed the scene, not only had the carp devouredevery shred of plant life in the pond, but had left a brown ring of mud, several inch­es wide, all around the edge, where they had actually stuck their heads as far out of the water as survival would allow to chomp desperately on St. Augustine grass.

It was a most vivid demonstration, and one which, I might add, was staged for our benefit by a biologist of the Game Commission. Those boys never let up.

Finally, however, it took a blow from another quarter to put the grass carp ex­periment on the skids: biologists in the Midwest unexpectedly ran into evidence that grass carp were reproducing them­selves, at least in some places where they had been stocked.

All along, out-of-state biologists and fish importers had been assuring every­one that the grass carp they were trying to sell was a hybrid, and therefore inca­pable of reproduction in the wild. That assurance alleviated the main fear which dogs any experiment with exotic fish-namely, that it will spread beyond any­one’s desires or control, just as the blue tilapia already had done.

So with reproduction suddenly a grim possibility, the grass carp project went into a coma. It awakened, however, a few years later, thanks to a genetically re-engineered grass carp—a triploid version of the original. A triploid is sort of a hy­brid once removed—and thus doubly pro­tected against the possibility of repro­ducing on its own.

During the period when the grass carp project lay fallow, freshwater management was smoothed out by the legislature, and by the time triploids arrived on the scene, the Game Commission had assumed sole jurisdiction.

Now that triploid stock is allegedly safe­guarding us against another tilapia fias­co, the Commission is continuing to ex­periment with grass carp in various waters around the state—as yet with uncertain success, for the old riddle still remains: Just how many grass carp does it take to control hydrilla and other unwanted plant pests without eventually killing the lake in the process?

But nobody these days is claiming that the grass carp is a game fish comparable to the battling saltwater tarpon. As a mat­ter of fact, Florida Sportsman regional editor Dick Bowles tested their game qual­ities in 1993 and determined that “they have all the fighting instincts of a dis­carded tennis shoe.” But that’s only one man’s opinion. In fairness it should be added that another veteran member of the Florida Sportsman staff has acclaimed the grass carp as “inch for inch and pound for pound, the lamest fish that swims.”

Anyway, Bowles sampled the grass carp angling in a private lake that was in the process of being eaten up by them, much to the distress of the residents there­abouts. After having attempted without success to entice the grass carp to sam­ple an assortment of artificial lures, Bowles was able to complete his test only after local experts finally got him hooked up to a few carp by using doughballs for bait. But what the heck? Blue tilapia won’t even bite doughballs.

Our man’s sad experiences with hard lures notwithstanding, it is already an es­tablished fact that grass carp can be tak­en on an artificial fly, although not just any old fly, such as a Mickey Finn or a Wool­ly Bugger. What you need is a grass carp fly, probably tied on the spot to “match the hatch” in the various Florida waters where grass carp can now be found.

Most commonly, a grass carp fly re­sembles a floating pellet of fish food, ac­curately cast upon the water and allowed to rest patiently among a plethora of sim­ilar pellets strewn over the surface to feed bream or catfish.

However, a different fly—a variant, as a flyfisherman might say—is in vogue in cer­tain canals of Broward County. This one is tied to mimic a ripe berry, and the angler tosses it under an overhanging limb that is shedding natural berries, which the grass carp favor for dessert—after dining on the main course, of course, which is hydrilla.

All of this only leaves us where we start­ed—with the fact that a fish you don’t want and don’t need is easy to get almost overnight, whereas a beneficial species— in terms of sport, weed control or what have you—may take many years to es­tablish properly, if that little task can be managed at all.

Of course, the grass carp could never be considered an “introduction” anyway, since it cannot reproduce. The sunshine bass, a gamefish favorite which the Game Commission hatches and stocks widely throughout Florida, is also a non-repro­ducing hybrid and, consequently, not an introduction.

To date, only the peacock bass can be pointed to as an introduction that was both deliberate and successful.

Meanwhile, “volunteer” exotics run rampant.   FS