Everything you need to know about Florida’s non-native fishes, new and old.

Butterfly peacock bass came along in the mid ‘80s with solid credentials. Photo credit: Kwanza Henderson

Exotic fish? That kind of fascination with the unknown is built into the DNA of Florida angling.

If you were among the wave of transplants arriving here when Florida Sportsman was first published in 1969, odds are you found exotic fish on every trip: snook, sailfish, colorful snappers, sharks of many descriptions, freshwater sunfish in shades not seen north of the state line.

But a curious thing, as Florida’s population swelled from 6 million to today’s 21 million: The list of available sport fish was itself increasing in length. Numerous non-native—and therefore truly “exotic”—fish were finding their way into canals, ponds and coastal waters, often the result of hasty aquarium liberations.

Tilapia (introduced in the 1960s) have little reputation as gamefish, but don’t tell that to Trey Wheeler and other enterprising fly fishermen.

The oscar was among the first to become established, a tropical species which, anglers soon learned, doesn’t give up its tasty fillets without a worthy fight. Other options, like bottom-feeding tilapia and ditch-dwelling black acara, would soon have most anglers turning up their noses at the prospects.

A lot has changed over the years. We now have people traveling to Florida just for the chance to lay claim to our exotics. For those of us lucky enough to live here year-round, a drive to our local spillway, backyard canal or residential pond can make short work of a fresh fish dinner.

As an editorial team member at Florida Sportsman, I’ve been equal parts intrigued and concerned at the number of non-native species being reported to us in recent years. On the hunt for answers, I reached out to long-time FWC personnel, non-native fish and wildlife biologist Kelly Gestring and regional freshwater fisheries administrator Barron Moody. Fellow FS staffer Trey Wheeler and Capt. Brett Isackson of bassonline.com provided some additional insight. To my surprise, the findings were not exactly what I anticipated.

OSCAR

Native range: Tropical South America
Avg. size: 1-3 lbs.
Edibility: Mild, flaky, good

Documented as one of the first reported exotic fishes in Florida, the oscar made its debut in the late 1950s and has since made a home of warm, marshy waters south of Lake Okeechobee. What this sportfish lacks in looks, it makes up for in feisty temperament. “Pound for pound, in my opinion, they are the toughest-fighting Florida exotic,” Wheeler comments. “A two-pound oscar would kick the butt of a six-pound peacock, no contest.”

This opportunistic cichlid has been known to bite even a bare hook that finds itself remotely close to them, the size of their mouth being their only limitation. Small jigs with cut bait or flies are a good start. Captain Isackson points out another good reason to target them: “If you find one, 50 or 60 more of his hungry friends are likely to be lurking in nearby vegetation.”

MAYAN CICHLID

Native range: Atlantic slope of Central and South America
Avg. size: Less than 1 lb.
Edibility: Mild, flaky, good

This colorful and aggressive Central American cichlid found itself in Florida’s fresh and brackish waters in the early 1980s. Many fish, including the mayan, sport adaptative coloration called countershading. From below, its light belly imitates the sun shining into the tannin-stained waters. From above, their shadowy colors act as an effective camouflage. To combat this, invest in a quality pair of sunglasses. For freshwater rose, dark amber or copper lenses with green mirror are best.

“People are coming from out of state to catch Mayans and oscars,” noted Moody of FWC. “If it’s something you’re targeting, you’ll be able to catch a lot of them.” Moody said Beetle Spins and small jerkbaits are good choices, “but if it’s numbers you want, use live crickets. You’ll see great results.”

Best time of year, advises Isackson of bassonline: “Especially between February and May, during cichlid mating season.”

BUTTERFLY PEACOCK BASS

Native range: Amazon, Orinoco, Guianas river basins
Avg. size: 1-5 lbs.
Edibility: Good, but catch-and-release encouraged

FWC first introduced peacock bass to Florida in 1984 as a form of population control for undesirable exotic fishes. Although they showed great promise, the South American native had a tough time adapting to its new environment. As the most temperature sensitive species on the Florida exotics list, waves of cold weather decimated this cichlid’s population for years. Today, the butterfly subspecies of peacock bass is well-established in the southern peninsula. Although anglers are encouraged to release them, the bag limit is two butterfly peacock bass per person, only one of which can be greater than 17 inches total.

If you’re targeting peacocks, you will have a lot of luck in Lake Ida, where their numbers are very strong. “Look for sloping bank lines with good rock, structure in open water or in the protection of trees,” Isackson points out. “They aren’t picky. Throw crankbaits or spinnerbaits, poppers, topwater lures, jerkbaits or Clouser flies. Live shiners are their favorite.”

BLUE TILAPIA

Native range: North Africa and Middle East
Avg. size: 2-4 lbs.
Edibility: Excellent

The blue tilapia was introduced to Florida from Africa in 1961 by FWC as an experimental food fish. They quickly became widespread after illegal releases in unauthorized waters, an act that today can warrant a steep $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. More temperature and salt tolerant than other cichlids, blue tilapia thrive in Florida’s fresh waters and even venture into brackish territories all over Florida. Often bycatch, tilapia are rarely targeted, but can offer a unique challenge as they are an unusually shy cichlid.

Here’s a hint, from Wheeler of FS: “They seem to suffer from OCD and work hard to maintain a clean bed. Dragging a strategically placed tiny jig through their bed is key. As they work to remove the jig, you can set the hook.”

As Wheeler explains and cautions, “They do require accurate, long casts that land softly, so work with micro spin tackle to not alert them to your presence.”

NON-NATIVE CATFISH

Several varieties, including walking catfish (Southeast Asia), sailfin (South America)

In recent years and many aquarium releases later, more temperature-tolerant exotic cats can be found scattered throughout Florida. Catfish species such as various shovelnose and the redtail have been reported in recent years, although their numbers are so small, they don’t even make FWC’s list of Florida exotics. On the occasion you come across a rarer species like this, it’s certainly a catch for the books. In 2016, Melissa Farlow, of Naples, won her fight with a massive redtail while trolling a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow in Golden Gates Estates canals. Her husband Dustin notes that the belly was “full of fingerling snook and bass.” Gestring explains this South American native insists upon reproducing in massive, flowing rivers, making it virtually impossible for reproduction to occur in Florida.

More abundant are the invasive sailfins and walking catfish, neither of which are very willing to take your bait, making them essentially worthless as gamefish. While catfish sport fine fillets, they are notoriously difficult to clean. Should you decide to target them, they often take residence in moving water near spillways, pump stations and flowing river mouths.

CLOWN KNIFEFISH

Native range: Tropical Asia, Indochina and Thailand
Avg. size: Less than 10 lbs in FL, but potentially much larger
Edibility: Very bony; rarely eaten

This unique Asian fish almost exclusively conducts its business at the top of the water column. They have a distinct rolling pattern, where they expose their backs on the surface, in flashes of silver. They can be found in Lake Ida, Lake Osbourne, backwater with overhanging vegetation, and around bridge pilings. “They like to hang out under docks,” Captain Isackson adds.

While not widespread or abundant, it is unanimously agreed Lake Ida is their current hotspot. They are more difficult to fish for, so make them an offer they can’t resist. A live shiner or shad is a near surefire way to get a bite. Be prepared for some exciting jumps during the fight. Although the fish is edible, its rarely eaten any other way than minced, balled and curried.

PACU

Native range: Tropical and subtropical South America
Avg. size: Up to 80 lbs.
Edibility: Comparable to tilapia; mild

A large South American native, pacu have earned the nickname “tank-busters,” for good reason. Exclusively from aquarium releases, these fish are a rare find in Florida. Like the redtail catfish, pacu cannot reproduce here, as the conditions are unsuitable.

Although a relative of the piranha, their habits couldn’t be more different. The fruit- and leaf-hungry pacu represent the herbivorous side of the spectrum. The highly aggressive and carnivorous piranha earns its place on the other end. The biggest distinguishing factor is their teeth. While piranha have sharp, piercing teeth to cut through flesh, the pacu has molariform teeth, that look uncomfortably human.

Reports indicate they can be found in lakes in Pembroke Pines and Miami. “I’ve heard of them in Blue Lagoon in Miami,” Isackson disclosed. Shy by nature and not too eager to bite a hook, patience and the right bait is essential. They will usually come around to nibble on cornflakes. Their interest can be further piqued with berries, doughballs or even pieces of hotdogs, despite its vegetarian tendencies.

BULLSEYE SNAKEHEAD

Native range: Pakistan, Malaysia, southern China
Avg. size: 3-6 lbs.
Edibility: Excellent

With an ability to breathe air, bullseye snakehead can survive in poorly oxygenated waters. In combination with its more temperature tolerant predispositions and voracious appetite, this species can essentially spread over most of Florida. Snakehead management has been one of FWC’s top priorities, earning its way onto the list of restricted species, making it illegal to possess alive.

Snakehead are often confused with our native bowfin, a.k.a. mudfish. “We’ve had reports all over the place from people ‘Oh, I caught a snakehead.’ But it’s a beautiful picture of a 10-pound bowfin,” Gestring laughs. Their coloration and head shape are different, but the key distinguisher is the anal fin. Snakehead have a very long anal fin, while bowfin do not.

Fortunately, many anglers have become snakehead obsessed. Many swear by the meat, even boasting of miraculous health benefits such as supposedly hastening the healing of wounds. They can be found sulking in culvert pipes and are particularly fond of eel grass. Wheeler explains, “The most popular technique to target them is to throw plastic frogs across the surface, or flip for them.” Isackson reports, “They will eat everything. I’ve heard of them making unusual meals of young iguanas, ducks, and coots.”

LIONFISH

Native range: Indo-Pacific waters, Red Sea
Avg. size: 1-2 lbs.
Edibility: Excellent

This Indo-Pacific reef fish is an unscrupulous eater, gulping up juveniles that pass just a little too close to it. These flashy fish became a big concern because of their extensive range of salinity, depth, temperature tolerance, and reproduction rates. Since their introduction in 1985, the lionfish has made its way up to the Carolinas with ease.

Luckily, there are many movements already taking place to control this insatiable invasive, including outreach programs, tournaments, even a growing commercial market demand. “In recent trips, we’ve been having to look harder and deeper than normal to find them,” reports Kali Spurgin, FWC’s lionfish outreach coordinator. “One area out of Panama City, where we expected to find 40 plus, we only found eight.”

Natural ledges, reefs, and other underwater structure are usual hangouts. “Look for the distinct white flashes of their fins,” Spurgin advises. Lethargic by nature, lionfish practically roll their eyes at a spearfisherman, unfazed. Resilient, lionfish have been known to wiggle right off a pole spear, so aim for the back of the head for a quick kill.

Their fillets have been described as buttery and succulent. Despite its beautifully intimidating appearance, filleting a lionfish doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Hold them with a reliable pair of heavy duty, puncture-proof gloves and proceed to cut off all the poisonous spines, thirteen on the dorsal fin, three on the anal fin and two on each pelvic fin. Fillet as normal.

THE VERDICT

Everglades angler with hard-fighting oscar.

Are these fish as big of a threat as once believed to be? Well, the answer is not so black and white.

Due to their aggression, reproduction, numbers, salt and temperature tolerance and ability to spread, the most concerning are snakeheads, oscars, Mayan cichlids, and lionfish. Despite this, with over 20 years of on-site testing, diligent record-keeping and numbers-crunching, Gestring reports little to no decline in native fish and plant species attributable to the presence of freshwater exotic fish species. Exotics often filled niches or utilized habitats not used by native populations, as how black acara thrived in ditches and other disturbed habitats.

Turns out non-natives’ biggest weakness is water temperatures, with 86 percent of them having no chance of survival after dips in temperatures lower than 46-53 degrees Fahrenheit. A strong cold snap, like the intense winters of 2000 and 2010, can devastate exotic populations.

“A lot of exotic species die from cold in winter,” Moody stated. Gestring chimes in, “In 2010, there were a lot of dead peacocks, tilapia, Mayan cichlids, walking catfish, clown knifefish; a lot.”

Non-native fish and wildlife biologist Kelly Gestring with Midas cichlids at FWC South Region office.

Mother Nature is like that; she always seems to have a master plan to maintain balance. Some credit must also be given to the efforts of conservation agencies and anglers. With the establishment of exotic fish tournaments, extensive mapping, record-keeping, educational awareness and outreach programs, Florida has more ways than ever to effectively preserve native species and habitats. So, do your part: Go fishing. Catch something new and exotic. Take advantage of the unique opportunities Florida has to offer.

For More Information

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website, MyFWC.com, has a wealth of information on exotic species. On the commission’s Wildlife and Habitats menu, look for “nonnative species,” and then “freshwater fish.” myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/freshwater-fish/ To find out about places where you might catch these fish, visit the commission’s Freshwater Fishing page and click on “sites and forecasts.” myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecasts/ You can also scroll down and follow some of those links to further information, such as canal guides. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine August 2019

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