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Peacock Bass Fly Fishing, South Florida-Style

Equatorial natives survive on the edge of the subtropics.

A narrow, stagnant, weed-choked canal produced this male peacock bass.

During my high school cross-country running days, practice was held at John Prince Park, in Lake Worth, Florida. We trained around Lake Osborne. And ran through heat so severe that fish kills due to freezing temperatures seemed a meteorological impossibility. I took my mind off thirst and leg cramps by watching the lake's dedicated bass anglers.

The anglers worked the pepper grass and hydrilla beds so slowly, so patiently, that the throngs of jetskis and ski boats often made me feel sorry for those urban anglers. Sure, the scores of largemouth bass tournaments held on Osborne, and in Palm Beach County's interconnected lake system, which includes Pine Lake, Lake Clarke, Osborne, Lake Eden and Lake Ida, attest to a productive largemouth fishery. But every fish I saw them catch seemed such a moral victory that the prospect of urban fly fishing amid the infernal whine of personal watercraft engines long deterred me from exploring these convenient waters. It took rumors of a peacock bass population proliferating in the chain to coax me out there. The chain has been stocked with them periodically, and a series of mild winters have allowed the lakes to produce some real trophies.

I started exploring the lake chain with my buddy Brett Fitzgerald, who lives on Lake Clarke. The canoe limited our range, but the prospect of finding a pet school of butterfly peacocks in our backyards motivated us to explore farther and farther out from Brett's house. A half-dozen outings yielded many nice bass and panfish, dozens of other cichlids, but only one tiny peacock.

“You guys were fishing too far north,” Capt. Doug Kimball said, as we idled south from 6th Avenue. “Lake Clarke is great for big largemouths, but it gets cold enough in the central-county area that you only occasionally find a few small peacocks chasing shad up there in the summertime.”

Doug had invited Greg Snyder and me to fish through a sweltering day for both bedding and blitzing peacocks. Although we sweated off five pounds apiece, we caught numerous peacocks, largemouths and oscars.

At daybreak, Doug dropped the trolling motor in a little bay fed by a canal just southwest of the 6th Avenue bridge. The spot looked mighty fishy: A big grassbed guarded the canal entrance, and numerous docks provided cover along the seawalls. Doug assured us it held both largemouths and a school of peacock bass, which further complicated the age-old question, “How should we fish?”

Mayan cichlids -- relatives of peacock bass -- also take flies.

Peacocks like poppers, sliders and streamers fished at a good clip—fishing in Miami's airport lakes with peacock-bass guru Alan Zaremba, I've had to use the double-handed stripping technique just to get their attention. And while largemouths knock the shine off a fast-moving buzzbait or soft plastic shad, flyfishing success for that native species usually requires slow, tantalizing presentations.

We decided to vary our targets. Snyder fished a No. 4 chartreuse popper, I tied on an orange-and-white Clouser Minnow, and Doug alternated between a walking plug and a swimming plug. Snyder fished his popper at a snail's pace, which fooled a couple of respectable largemouths. Doug caught a largemouth on the Top Dog, and I caught a humongous oscar on the Clouser. But no peacocks. Doug looked worried—he'd taken us directly to the honeyhole. Two weeks prior, a sewer line was ruptured and 100,000 gallons of raw human excrement had poured into Ida. The water quality looked suspect at best—small algae blooms floated in the tannin atmosphere. There'd been no word of a fish kill, but we had to wonder.

We moved south to another small, half-moon bay in the backyard of an apartment complex. Beneath the manicured lawn, an unruly, subaquatic hydrilla hedge extended out into open water. Again, largemouths assaulted the surface flies and Doug's lure the second they hopped off the mat. And 3-pound oscars attacked my black-and-orange Clouser with the voracity of piranhas. But no peacocks. We visited another dock-studded bay while the sun was still too low to sightfish the beds. The schoolie largemouths inhaled poppers, the oscars became a pestilence and finally, about the time we were ready to declare Cichla ocellaris extinct in Palm Beach County, Doug fooled one small peacock with a Rat-L-Trap.

“Let's try the canals,” Doug suggested, once the brutal sun climbed above the houses.

The heat and humidity in those tepid canals were the only environmental qualities akin to the Amazon basin, but they were chock full of peacocks. We idled into a narrow ditch constricted by protruding docks, and further constricted by mats of hydrilla. Small, orange, crater-like beds were swept out of the weeds near every culvert, piling, or PVC pipe. Guarding the beds, bull peacocks glared up at us menacingly, as if they planned to ram the hull with their humped heads.

“Careful not to spook them,” Doug quipped.

Tight canal quarters call for strong-arm tactics with feisty peacocks.

During breeding season, male butterfly peacocks develop a distinct fatty lump on the top of their heads, and there is much speculation as to the purpose of this growth. Some scientists think it may provide a food source for the peacock's fry for a period after hatching. Others think it may disperse a chemical marker that keeps the young close to the adult. In clear water, you can see tightly packed clouds of peacock fry swarming about the head of their protective father. The growth on the head is often rubbed raw, as if the young have been nipping away at the nodule. Regardless, peacock bass are territorial fish, and they defend their substrate most aggressively when they're guarding the bed.

It takes a brick of a cast to spook a peacock off the bed; even if you spook one, the fish will return momentarily. But, fly fishing for bed-guarding peacocks requires a really accurate short game. Today's stiff, 9-foot, saltwater-oriented rods are hard to load with short casts. They're designed to cast long distances with aggressive tapers into wind, and loading them requires longer lengths of fly line and a deliberate double-haul, which translates into overmuch line speed for dropping a fast-sinking fly onto a bed at short range. So, choose a shorter, softer, slower rod. Shorter rods are more efficient levers, so you don't need to make a bunch of false casts to load them, which get you into trouble in tight spaces.

I used an old favorite, an 8-foot, 6-inch, 6-weight, which once levered a 30-pound snook out of Whitewater Bay mangroves. It also proved itself on Dade County peacocks, and despite having a stiff butt, the rod is flexible enough to make short, precise casts with a weighted Clouser or a Woolly Bugger. It's also great for making trout-stream-style parachute casts, which cause the streamer to plummet vertically toward the bed. This presentation seems to elicit more violent strikes. You don't need much leader. A stiff, six-foot length of mono tapering down to 12-pound test suffices. Because of the thick hydrilla, it's best to use knotless leaders nail-knotted directly to the fly line.

The record-setting team of Capt. Alan Zaremba and Marty Arostegui swear by flies that imitate small peacocks and other cichlids. Juvenile cichlids will forage on peacock eggs more fearlessly than native species. So, they both maintain that bed-guarding peacocks will attack such imitations even more aggressively than they'll attack a leach pattern. Snyder had tied a bunch of orange-and-black Clousers, Bendback-style, due to the thick hydrilla. Tying one on, he looked as serious as a gunfighter. Aiming for the hump, he shot the fly right at a big male's face. The fish inhaled the fly, and shot it out of its mouth like a spitball before Snyder could set the hook. This shootout went on for a dozen rounds: The fish either spit the fly out too quickly or merely nosed it off the nest. Finally, the big male became so enraged at this “baby peacock's” audacity it crunched down on the fly with its strong jaws, and shot a look of impunity at Snyder. When it felt the hook's sting, the 4-pounder, a very large specimen for Lake Ida, jumped twice ricocheting off a nearby dock, lunged under the boat, splashed my old coach, and eventually came to hand.

This 4-pound male is a large fish for Lake Ida.

“That's as big as any of the peacocks we've caught in this chain,” Doug said, and he's been guiding on these lakes for nearly ten years. “We usually don't get enough warm winters for them to grow that big.”

In every stagnant canal we caught peacock bass guarding yet another large year-class. And the canal habitat allowed us to fish all day without contending with the scourge of personal watercraft, which kept to the open lakes. Yet this summertime peacock-bass fishing seemed counterintuitive to us bass buggers. The hotter it got the more aggressively the fish fed. By midday, we switched to topwater tactics.

“The bite's been happening early afternoon,” Doug said, as we idled out of the canals. “Although it can happen at any time of the day, these fish seem to feed most actively in the hottest part of the day, especially into September and October.”

We began casting poppers, Dahlberg Divers and topwater plugs at weeds and structure around the canal entrances. It was slow at first, but the oscars kept us entertained. Then, around 2 p.m., a blitz occurred. Big schools of peacocks ravaged shad—and our flies and lures—for about half an hour. These blitzes mostly occurred at the canal entrances, or in the cul-de-sacs at the backs of the canals. But Doug said that when the South Florida Water Management District is moving water, he often finds them on the downcurrent side of the bridge pilings. Then, abruptly, the waterway became as still as a millpond. I reached into slushy ice in the cooler, and realized we'd consumed six quarts of Gatorade, two liters of water, and a six-pack of Diet Cokes.

“It's hard to imagine that this water gets cold enough to kill anything, isn't it?” Doug said. “Pray for another warm winter. That 4-pounder you caught will be a 6-pounder if it lives another season.” FS

First Published Florida Sportsman May 2005

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