Fishing Fake Figs for Tilapia

Dry fly fishing for the vegetarian tilapia.

Author’s foam-body rendition of a ficus berry, a South Florida delicacy for tilapia and some other species.

In southern peninsular Florida, mature ficus trees become heavily laden with pea-sized berries during the summer. The berries ripen over the course of many weeks, during which time every gust of wind results in a shower of falling fruits. When ficus trees are planted near ponds or canals many of the berries land in the water, and the falling bonanza attracts vegetation-eating tilapia. Dozens of these non-native, tasty fish may congregate under the branches of particularly productive ficus trees and these fish, which are seldom targeted by anglers and which do most of their feeding unseen along the bottom, can become chummed to the surface where they wait for the bounty from above.

Catching ficus-chummed tilapia is great fun, but the fish are more wary than you might imagine. To be successful you’ll need a stealthy approach and a fly which closely mimics the falling ficus berries. The fruits range in color from yellow to very dark purple, with the ripest berries sporting the darkest hues. When the berries drop from the tree they plunk into the water and bob to the surface where they float with most of the berry submerged, like miniature icebergs. The size, shape and color of the berries is easily matched by carving chunks of soft foam into berry-sized spheres, but flies carved from even the densest foams tend to float too high and will usually be refused by discerning fish, so weight must be added.
Here’s the recipe:

Body: Dense, closed-cell packing foam or similar
Hook: TMC 101 light wire, size 10 or smaller
Weight: .025 dia lead wire
Rod: Five-weight or lighter
Leader: Tapered to 4-pound test, no bite tippet

1. Mount hook in vise, then apply about a dozen wraps of lead wire around the shank. Secure in place with a drop of super glue or head cement.

2.While the glue sets, use a razor blade to cut a chunk of foam slightly larger than the size of the finished fly.

3. Using curved blade scissors, snip and trim the foam into a sphere.

4. Use an upholstery needle to poke a hole through the foam sphere. Don’t center the hole, offset substantially towards one side.

5. Push the foam sphere over the eye of the hook and twist it over the wraps of lead wire. (If you twist in the right direction the sphere will screw itself into place.)

6. Apply a bit of cement to each side.

Watch tilapia feed on ficus berries and you’ll notice that when a berry plops directly into their midst that sometimes there is a rush of several competing fish to aggressively slurp the fruit. Other times when a fruit falls it will float for a time before a single fish will rise slowly, pause just beneath the surface to examine the offering, then delicately sip the berry with scarcely a ripple.

Curved scissors and razor blade are used to carve the berry shape.

You’ll have the best results by dropping your ficus berry fly directly on top of the waiting fish. A noisy plop will attract the most attention, so rather than trying for a delicate presentation you’ll be better served by snubbing your fly line short as the leader unfurls, causing the fly to flop noisily onto the water.

Expect that you’ll get more refusals than takes from the suspicious tilapia, but when this occurs resist the urge to strip or to move the fly in any way to attract attention. These fish are keyed on non-moving prey and you’ll have better results if you dead-drift your fly. Pay close attention to the fly because some of the takes will be so subtle they’re easily missed.

Use bluegill-class tackle and you’ll have a ball. Three-, 4- or 5-weight rods will toss the foam flies just fine, and fat tilapia in the 2- to 4-pound range will be a handful. As a bonus: In some waterways grass carp to 30 pounds are chummed to falling ficus berries, too, and can be caught in the same manner as the tilapia. You’ll want to release the carp, but the tilapia are delicious and there is no limit on them. FS

First published Florida Sportsman July 2014