South Florida anglers adjust to a changed fishery.

Through the winter of 2010, fans of peacock bass in South Florida watched weather reports and braced for a day of reckoning. The temperature just kept on dropping, as a succession of cold fronts swept across peninsular Florida. From January through April, water temps dipped well into the 40s in many shallow-water venues.

Stunning colors in a suburban setting.

As expected, there was a serious die-off of the popular peacock bass in some waterways.

Peacocks, which are native to tropical fresh waters of South America, have a genetic intolerance to cold. Their populations will not tolerate sustained water temps below 66 degrees Fahrenheit. On one hand, it’s that very quality which persuaded fisheries authorities to stock them here in the first place: A fail-safe, if you will, limiting the odds of range expansion in North American waters. Peacocks were originally introduced to control other, invasive cichlids, and it only made sense to ensure their presence would not bring further risk of imbalance.

But the level of mortality, especially in Palm Beach and Broward counties, was staggering nonetheless.

I recently spoke with Kelly Gestring, the newly appointed director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Non-Native Fishes Laboratory in Boca Raton, who said, “We’ve done plenty of sampling since the freeze. Everything we’ve seen indicates that the peacocks took a major hit. Something similar happened during the winter of 2000, when peacocks in the [Water] Conservation Areas effectively disappeared. It happened simultaneously in northern Broward.”

I remembered it all too well. Then Gestring continued:

“We haven’t heard about any survivors in northern Broward County, which leads us to believe that they’re gone from Lake Ida, or anywhere north of C-14 (in Pompano Beach). In fact, southern or middle Broward may be their northernmost extent, but since these waterways are all connected, the peacocks will be back.”

I then asked the obvious question, to which he responded as if he’d been lying in wait:

Passionate about peacocks is Marty Arostegui.

“We don’t have any plans to re-stock at present.”

As a little-known subtext, peacocks were discovered prior to the freeze in several Collier County canals. According to Gestring, recent sampling efforts indicate that at least some managed to survive.

Alan Zaremba (sflpeacock@aol.com) has become increasingly visible during his guiding career. The majority of his customers are interested in peacocks, so he pursues them on a regular basis. I commented to Zaremba that, according to published reports in the newspaper, he continues to catch impressive numbers, in spite of last winter’s cold. Here’s what he had to say about it:

“It’s true. I am catching quite a few. But I’m fishing areas that I haven’t before, and I’ve learned to adjust my technique.”

At one time, Zaremba felt that the “for sure line” for any surviving peacocks would be south of the Miami-Dade/Broward County line. He also admitted back in February that he hadn’t caught any exotics (including the ubiquitous Mayan cichlid) in all of Broward County. That, he acknowledges, will probably change, but he currently heads south with his customers. Here he describes his strategy:

“The fishing gets better the further south you go, although I’m not at all convinced that the peacocks aren’t rebounding in several more-northerly systems. I intend to leave those fish alone, and give them a chance to recover.”

Another thing he did was purchase a Gheenoe, which helps him gain access to smaller waters–many that don’t have boat ramps. The fish he’s been catching have never seen a lure, which as every angler knows, gives him a distinct advantage. I couldn’t help asking where he got the idea to look for fish that had previously been ignored:

“I started looking on Google Earth. Just yesterday we caught them in an obscure portion of Black Creek (C-1).”

I asked him then about his technique, but the way he sees it, it’s all about aggression. Meaning that the “virgin” fish he’s been catching lately are much more willing to chase a lure–topwater plugs, especially.

Griffin Road specialist Fred Ade reported good tarpon action, and some peacocks.

One of his favorites is the Heddon Baby Torpedo; another is the floating Rapala. Plus, his customers release their share on sub-surface baits – like the Pro-Trap by Rat-L-Trap, and Road Runner jigs. His fly fishing customers rely on variations of the Clouser Minnow, just like they did in the past.

Another point that Zaremba makes is that he’s still catching bullseye snakeheads. Apparently, these fish have made it into the L-35 canal, which borders Markham Park to the west.

The Non-Native Lab guys encourage any angler who catches a snakehead to kill and eat it (supposedly, they’re tasty, if you can get past their looks), or bring it to the lab for identification. I’m saying this in a magazine that supports conservation, but that recognizes the potential risk to the environment. The latter is so great that releasing one other than where you caught it constitutes a felony under Florida law.

Not every angler enjoys the same success: In Broward County, where I live, fishing is hit-and-miss, while most Miami-Dade hotspots remain shells of their former selves. However, Zaremba claims that there’s no lack of fishermen, many who come with guides. A number of these guides fished the salt at one time.

Retired attorney and photographer par excellence, Pat Ford lives on a private lake. Up until recently, that lake could have qualified as a poster child for sustainable fisheries. It lies within the Biscayne Aquifer, meaning that water temperatures seldom fluctuate. Plus, ample forage in the form of juvenile cichlids kept the reproducing population of peacocks in peak condition. Ford liked to brag that he lived in paradise.

But now he’s singing a different tune, as he searches the shoreline for flashes of color. So far, he hasn’t seen one:

“I’ve never experienced anything like it. We were overrun by peacocks just a year ago. But now there aren’t any – not a single one.”

I passed this along to the Non-Native Lab, where Gestring asked if I had anything to add. I did, and here it is:

Following a tip from another fly fisherman, peacock buff Dr. Carl Gill and I visited the Griffin Road canal – specifically, the stretch just west of Bonaventure Blvd. The canal’s listed on the map as C-11, and it’s one of the places where I used to guide. While highway improvements have made access difficult, we did find some bedding peacocks.

Larry Larson poses a monster speckled peacock on an Amazon tributary.

They were sitting exactly where we hoped they’d be, although it was late in the season for the fish to be spawning. Hopefully, they’ll bed again in August or September, if the water remains at its present level. But for anyone who wonders if “hope springs eternal,” we now had visual evidence. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” or so the physicists say.

On another positive note, anglers fishing the South Florida canals were pleased to see that the region’s inland tarpon survived the cold.

Fred Ade is a Cooper City fly fisherman who gets a chance to practice his craft at least several times a week–mostly along the green space that borders Griffin Road. He’s always been forthcoming with flies and advice, which underscores his reliable reports. In the months since the warm-up, he’s been hooking tarpon–most of them small, but at least one that wasn’t. Here’s what he said in detail.

“Some days are better than others, but every so often, the fish turn on. I recently landed two out of six. They weren’t all that large (up to 20 pounds), but I lost one that might have weighed close to 60 pounds.”

Fred relies on marabou streamers, or ones that he ties from rabbit strips. He figures that white is a good all-around color, and he’s hopelessly addicted to natural materials. When I asked how the rest of the fishery fared, he offered the following report:

“I’m still catching grass carp, but not like before. But I did catch a few peacocks, starting in early March. Two weighed better than 5 pounds apiece, but the numbers have decreased dramatically. I caught several of these fish in laterals.”

But the tarpon were in C-11.

Paul Shafland, the former director of the Non-Native Lab, retired effective December 31, 2009, after 35 years of service to the state. To many, he’s considered “The Father of the Butterfly Peacock in North America.” I attended his retirement party at the Non-Native Lab, where no one was talking about the impending storm. And by storm, I don’t mean cold front.

I joked with Paul during subsequent conversations that he’d “dodged the bullet” by outlasting “his” fishery. It was actually quite a bit later – I believe sometime in March – that Paul underscored a growing concern. He had always been an optimist, after stocking his original wunderkindern back in 1984. But the way he sees it now:

“In their core canals in southeast Florida, the butterfly peacock has survived cold weather before, and I’m confident they will do so now. If there’s anything that threatens their reputation and possibly even their existence, it’s mounting pressure from the puristic preservationists and certain bureaucrats who believe all exotics are inherently bad–even if this one supports a multi-million dollar sportfishing industry to which no one’s attributed any detrimental side effects.”

It’s unnerving to think that anyone wants the peacocks gone–especially since their Florida habitat was practically a graveyard. But I can’t help agreeing with Paul, after choking on the same dose of governmental reasoning that leads to beach re-nourishment and oil spills. Meanwhile, the good news here, and there’s plenty to go around, is that the peacock fishery will recover in time, and that one of South Florida’s most underrated resources will start getting the attention it deserves.

Paul’s successors at the Non-Native Lab will help to make that happen. In the meantime, take comfort in the glaring reality that the largemouth fishing has been nothing short of terrific. FS

By Steve Kantner

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