May 16, 2011
Follow the water to find hungry peacock bass in the canals of western Broward County.
With a few hours to kill, George Smith and I drive west out Griffin Road, paralleling the long, straight C-11 canal. George is new to fly fishing and from the look on his face, he hasn't become a believer. Still, I've convinced him to lob a small, weighted fly into the clean water flowing out of several culverts, so far without result. When we grind to our third stop, I see that the water's clear enough to see sunken weeds so despite his protestations, I talk him into making a few more casts. He immediately hooks a fish that pops his leader. Suddenly, he's jazzed. I've seen the look before. If I can keep him going for a few more casts, I know the peacock bass are going to own him.
George re-rigs with a No. 6 purple Flashabugger and continues casting. It doesn't take long for another peacock to notice and within minutes, he's beaming over a shining pound-and-a-halfer with a hump on its head. It's his first and I'm happy for him but there's room for both of us and probably, more fish.
During the next half hour, I manage to catch two small peacocks and miss a dandy. George lands a bigger one, which considering his cracker box rig, is a feat. I'm concentrating on the big one I lost (they'll bite more than once), when I hear him yell.
Sure enough, he's hooked the big fish on a 6-foot combination fly/spin rig that he'd purchased from a cigarette company's accessory catalog. He's never caught much on it, at least nothing that could really run drag and his reel doesn't have one anyway. I wince every time the runaway handle raps his knuckles.
By now I'm excited enough to drop my rod and slide down the bank while offering encouragement, but after a few minutes of winding and cursing, George manages to beach the fish without my help. When I hold it up, he grins. It's a doozy alright, but no bigger than many of the peacocks we catch hereabouts. I snap a picture and slide the fish back while George catches his breath. When I look at his tiny outfit, I suddenly realize that he's never smoked.
Anyone who chases butterfly peacocks will discover that they, just like native largemouths, prefer clean, clear water. Accordingly, it's always a good idea to check outflows, or any potential fishing site for that matter, for clarity. Whenever I'm out on Griffin Road, for instance, I make it a habit to stop at several of the culverts that pour into C-11. These miniature spillways drain runoff from adjacent housing subdivisions and like other sources of moving current, play host to hungry peacock bass. Peacocks like current and after heavy rains particularly, these culverts generate substantial flows. If you look into the water, you'll see the connection.
Right away, you'll notice the tiny minnows that wash out with the weeds and current. The local peacock population understands and whenever conditions are right, gathers downcurrent to feed. In some instances, one side of a current plume may be clearer than another. Without further explanation, that's the side to fish. Whenever water in a lake or canal is uniformly cloudy due to construction or weed-elimination efforts, it's time to look elsewhere. Canals alongside Flamingo Road, US 27, and a number of other western Broward roadways usually offer clearwater access.
In short, once you understand water movement within the limited range of peacock bass, you're on your way to catching fish.
Since off-color water severely hampers fishing, checking out shallow lateral canals is always worthwhile, so long as the water is warm enough for peacocks. Butterfly peacocks are tropical fish, accustomed to feeding in 80 degree-plus water. In Broward County where water temperature-wise, is considered marginal come winter, locating warm water is every bit as important as finding moving current. When Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Paul Shafland originally stocked peacocks back in 1984, he looked for waterways deep enough to escape winter chilling. As it turned out, most of these were in Miami-Dade County but several Broward systems, including C-11 and C-14 also qualified. Now, thanks in large part to the effect of several warm winters, peacocks inhabit nearly all of western Broward, from the easternmost flood control dikes to the far limits of the Glades.
Like their Miami cohorts, fly fishermen from nearby Ft. Lauderdale soon learned to tap into the resource. And, they discovered that culverts and spillways are only part of the picture. Peacocks cruise along ledges or weedlines between feeding forays, which adds to their vulnerability. Admittedly, peacocks may be the ultimate freshwater shoreline fish but a small boat can provide access to otherwise unreachable lies.
Peacock expert Carlos Hidalgo's father-in-law lives on a Hollywood, Florida lake. As a result, Carlos gets an opportunity to work a privately-owned shoreline from his small johnboat. Although boats aren't neccessary, Carlos appreciates the solitude. He casts to ledges and sunken weeds and in the fall when the peacocks are fattening up for winter, he covers the swirls. You could say that while fishing from his aluminum platform, he's literally caught enough fish to fill a book.
Every summer, butterfly peacocks begin their annual spawning ritual. By then, South Florida's rainy season is in full swing with water levels at their highest. Broward's peacocks love the high water. Accordingly, they're quick to take advantage of swollen waterways to build their nests in the nearshore gravel where later, they'll deposit their eggs. Despite their apparent vulnerability, they're actually quite at home so long as they can hide against a rocky ledge or weedbed. Shallow water is a prerequisite for spawning, which brings me to a story.
My pal Laswell is the quintessential suburbanite. Whenever he's not being a grandfather or coaching kids' soccer, he pokes around the City of Weston in one of those trucks that's farmy-looking enough that only professional types can afford to own one. Laswell likes catching peacocks. In fact, he likes it so much that he's afraid to break his lucky streak. Every Saturday after soccer practice, he scouts around the bridges. If he spots a peacock or two, he'll fish but if he doesn't see pink behind the weeds, he won't string up his rod. It's a lawyer thing I think, where a bunch of them fish and afterwards, compare notes. Nobody wants to come up short as in, I didn't catch any even though I tried.
Anyway, one day I told Laswell that I knew where we could catch some really nice fish. He was skeptical, not having personally discovered the mother lode, but agreed to go along on the off-chance that if he stayed home, he'd get stuck doing yardwork or worse. What he didn't suspect was that I knew a place where the big peacocks were getting ready to spawn.
There's a big rock in three feet of water that offers spawning peacocks plenty of protection. Whenever the water level's right, the fish line up near it to share a few days of honeymoon bliss. Since the rock's a prime spot, it attracts the largest fish that run everything else off. Considering the water level and time o
f year, I figured the fish would be in a running mood.
Incidentally, Laswell actually knew about the rock but hadn't been there when conditions were right. But by the time we quit that day, he'd learned plenty about water levels and harassing pre-spawn peacocks. When we first arrived, the fish were patrolling back and forth; by the time we left, most had retreated closer to the bottom to contemplate their sins. I should mention that if we'd seen them actually hovering over a spawning bed, we'd have walked away. The same holds true if we had seen too many onlookers.
Quite a few South Florida population centers offer good fishing but when it comes to finding a launching ramp or fishable shoreline, that's another story.
Surprisingly, finding a place to fish in western Broward isn't as difficult as it looks. All of the major exits leading west from I-95 or Florida's Turnpike, so long as they're south of the Palm Beach County line, eventually intersect peacock habitat. Keep in mind that peacocks are temperature-sensitive and that even minor microclimatic differences put a halt to their spread. So while you're looking, keep an eye open for unposted areas in any of the local towns. Margate, Sunrise, Plantation, Cooper City and Davie have established peacock populations. If in doubt regarding access, inquire at any local tackle shop.
Western Broward's major north-south arteries include University Drive and Pine Island, Nob Hill and Flamingo Roads. These thoroughfares transect the heart of peacock country and once you reach any of the residential areas south of I-595, you'll enter the epicenter of Broward's fishery. If you intend to fish in private residential communities like Rock Creek or Weston, you'll probably need permission; however, there's still plenty of open bank along Highway 27, Griffin and Flamingo Roads. The same holds true along parts of C-14 in Pompano Beach. Many laterals pass through unposted commercial parking lots or other areas with public access. If you have a canoe or small john boat, additional options exist.
Small boaters can launch in C-14 near Southgate Blvd or at Markham Park along I-595 (remember to exit 595 at 136 Avenue and head west). Remember that the peacocks at Markham are in the east-west canal. Also, there's a crude ramp just west of I-75 on Griffin. Few anglers use it however, since the entire bank's accessible on foot and peacocks are at their best from shore.
Fly fishermen don't need specialized gear to fish for peacocks, provided they can control a runaway fly reel handle. I prefer to use a standard bass rig with a No. 5 or 6 weight-forward floating line and a 7-foot leader tapering to a 10-pound-test tippet. Some anglers may prefer to go heavier, not so much for the fish but for the heavy flies they occasionally use. Heavily-weighted patterns such as Clouser Bombs (heavy Clousers) are effective when water temperatures drop but I get the same effect, without the hassle of ducking every time a heavy fly passes my head, by lightly weighting my flies and letting them sink or by using a medium full-sink line. Getting down is important, but not at the expense of comfort. If I intend to use a jig, I carry a spinning rod.
Short, brightly-colored flies are standard armament in the peacock arsenal. Any lightly-weighted orange or chartreuse streamer tied on a No. 4 hook will probably work, due to its resemblance to cichlid fry, but I've found that alternating back and forth between bright (chartreuse) and dark (purple) Woolly Buggers is the surest way to guarantee action. Maybe it's the element of surprise or maybe just the color but if the day's dark, I start out with a chartreuse bugger. Then, after I miss a fish or two or raise one that refuses to strike, I switch colors. If that doesn't work, I move on. But before I pack up, I try a few additional tricks.
Normally, I start by experimenting. When I suspect fish are in an area, I try varying my retrieve. Sometimes, especially if it's early in the day, I strip slower and give each area a little more time. Like I said, I don't mind changing flies and if the water slicks off, as it does after a summer thunderstorm, I might even go to a surface pattern like a yellow Marabou Muddler. But regardless of the season, I always pray for bright sunlight. You'll be surprised what a difference radiant lighting makes when you're fishing for peacocks. Besides making them easier to see with polarized glasses, it cranks up their metabolism. And that makes them hungry and eager to strike.
The residential lakes and canals of Broward and Dade counties house a treasure trove of butterfly peacock bass. To catch these South American transplants, all you need is access to the miles of shoreline and an understanding of these few basic rules:
Fish when the water's warmest, over 75 or even 80 degrees preferably, with a high sun, and don't waste time on extremely low or dirty water.
ä On midwinter days, carry a thermometer. When the water temperature plummets, peacocks become dormant. Usually, a few warm days is all it takes to put fishing back on track.
Concentrate on the downside of clear, moving current and if you can't find it, look for deep weeds, ledges or structure.
When the South Florida Water Management District opens flood control gates after a period of heavy rain, it's time to fish the culverts along the main canals, which will be carrying water and forage from the adjacent residential lakes and lateral canals.
When water managers are filling the main canals prior to discharge, it's time to fish "across the street" in the subdivision canals, into which the water will be flowing.
Whenever the water's high, look for fish in relatively shallow water, then when the summer spawning season rolls around, watch for pre-spawn fish patrolling nearshore areas that back up against rocks or weedbeds.
Any time you see skittering baitfish, don't hesitate to toss your fly in their direction.
If you don't feel like memorizing all the rules, just grab your rod and walk along the bank. Wear your polarizes glasses and watch the water. You'll figure out soon enough where to cast for peacocks.