September 27, 2021
By Brenton Roberts
When you hear the word bass, most think of sparkly boats, baitcasters and big tournament payouts. But for fisherman in South Florida, the peacock bass is the staple in the local freshwater systems. With their aggressive eats, strong runs and beautiful colors, these fish have become prized gamefish.
Scientists introduced butterfly peacock bass to South Florida in 1984. Scientists needed a fish to combat the booming populations of invasive species such as spotted tilapia and Oscars that had escaped from breeding ponds during hurricanes and people releasing them into the wild. These fish were negatively impacting native species such as largemouth bass. The peacock bass happened to be the perfect match for this task. Peacocks were slowly introduced into small waterways as somewhat of a “test,” to find they did the intended job well and could flourish in South Florida.
The peacock bass is actually not a bass at all; it is in the cichlid family. Including the butterfly, which has been introduced to Florida and Hawaii, there are 14 different subspecies of peacock bass native to the Amazon River and its tributaries.
Starting in Palm Beach County and working their way all the way to Florida City, peacock bass can be found intermingling with the freshwater natives. Some anglers report of peacock catches as far west as the Naples area. This South Florida ecosystem is the only place in the continental United States peacock bass can be found. These are warmwater fish, originating from the Amazon River. During winter months, South Florida is the only place that stays warm enough to support the peacock bass. This is due to the Floridan aquifer maintaining a constant 72-degree water temperature.
These fish attract people from around the country who are looking to catch a beautiful exotic fish, but don't want to travel a far distance to catch them. I spoke with Adam Rizzi of Reel Deal Adventures (561-706-8013) who has been fishing for peacock bass for 15-plus years. Adam was happy to provide some great information on these fish. Adam primarily fishes for peacocks from land, due to the ease of accessing multiple spots in a day. Fly and artificial are usually enough when targeting these fish, but he does provide live bait if necessary. A four to six hour trip starts at $150 depending on the number of anglers.
Where to Find Them
Peacock bass relate to largemouth bass in the sense that they both like structure. Peacocks love the limestone found in South Florida. In some places, the limestone creates an almost vertical drop off from shallow to deep water; this is a great ambush point for these fish. They also tend to favor limestone to bed on. These rocks also retain heat very well, and if there is one thing to remember about peacock bass is, they love the heat. You will find these fish hanging around sunken trees and brush piles as well. I have even seen fish hanging around a sunken shopping cart.
The South Florida canal systems were cut into the earth in the early 1900s for drainage, water storage and flood protection. Box-cutting was the technique used for these canals; hence the steep walls that nearly make a 90-degree angle to the canal bottom.
The canal systems of Dade and Broward County are very intricate, with a majority of them connecting to one another through culvert pipes. “These are fish highways that almost always have fish on them,” says Rizzi. This is a very productive and easy way to catch the peacocks. Dropping a live shiner down at the mouth of one of these pipes is almost a guarantee. These fish tend to be schooling together and are looking for an easy meal. Fast retrieval of a crankbait such as a small Rapala X-rap in front of these pipes is another great way to target these fish. Peacocks are aggressive and will run down a fast-moving bait. If the fish aren't reacting to your lure, quick reeling and sporadic jerks of the rod tip can trigger a reaction strike.
Most of the water in South Florida is relatively clear, making it great for sight fishing. Sight fishing with the fly rod is my favorite way to target these fish. You will often find these fish cruising the shallow water banks either alone or in “wolf packs” of 2 to 5 fish. This is the perfect opportunity for a fly. You will want to lead these fish, dropping the fly 2 feet or so in front of them. If you notice they are tracking the fly but won't commit, often times a few very quick strips will trigger their predator instincts and seal the deal.
Peacock bass inhabit most of the fresh water in South Florida, but only some places are accessible to fisherman. A lot of the time, you are able to pull off on the side of the road and fish a spot, “spot hopping” as my buddies and I call it. Griffin Road in Fort Lauderdale, west of the Florida Turnpike is a great place to target peacock bass, with easy public access.
Public parks throughout Broward County such as C.B. Smith Park, Quiet Waters Park, and T.Y. Park offer opportunities at peacock bass as well. In Dade County, Tropical Park has long been a popular fishery. Lakes Ida and Osborne in Palm Beach County are other good starting points when looking for peacocks.
Time of Day
In contrast to many other South Florida Fisheries, the hotter the temperature, the hotter the fishing is. No need to wake up before sunrise to target peacocks. These fish love the heat from the sun. Originating in the Amazon, they are used to hot days and warm water. Sight fishing only gets better as the sun rises as well, making it easier to spot these fish.
When scanning the banks of the ponds and canal systems, you will often find these fish paired up and hanging around a certain area. These fish are on bed and are spawning. These fish find a partner and start scouting for a spot to spawn starting around March. This will go on through August, with peak months being April and May. These fish are looking for hard bottom or a rock to lay their eggs on. The eggs stick to this harder surface and do not drift away.
When you do come across these fish, they are typically easy to catch. These fish aren't eating because they're hungry; they're eating to protect their eggs. They tend to be very aggressive in this stage, especially the “humphead” male peacocks. This hump on their head forms when they are in their mating stage. A lot of the time peacocks will “blow” the bait away from their beds, not eating it. When they do swipe at it, it's very fast, so quick hooksets are necessary.
Catch one of the fish off of the bed and leave the other. This leaves one fish to protect the eggs from other cichlid species. The caught fish will generally go back to the bed within 30 minutes of being caught. Rizzi believes that when both fish are caught, not only do their eggs get eaten almost immediately, but that pair of mates will not spawn for the rest of the season.
In clean water, these fish are very vibrant and show their fluorescent colors. In dirtier water, the darker the greens and other colors tend to be. These fish will also “light up” when they are aggressively feeding. These fish have three vertical black stripes and as they grow these stripes tend to fade.
When I first heard of peacock bass, I assumed that my go-to 7 ½-inch ribbon tail bass worm would be killer on these fish. I was wrong. Peacock bass are minnow eaters, and don't typically target worms or other creatures. A majority of the peacock bass diet is other cichlids, such as small Mayan cichlids and spotted tilapia. Jewel fish are another species that peacock bass key in on. Using invasive exotics for live bait is illegal in Florida, though. Store-bought shiners are among the best baits for peacock bass, so no worries on missing out on the live bait bite.
Although you cannot use juvenile cichlids for bait, many manufacturers make lures that “match the hatch” of these baitfish almost perfectly. According to our sources at Kendall Bait and Tackle (305-670-3474) in Miami-Dade County, one of the best lures for summer peacocks is the classic Rooster-Tail inline spinnerbait. Bright colors work great, such as the firetiger pattern which mimics the bright colors of cichlids. The 2 ½-inch green back Rapala X-Rap is also a great lure to work the edges, and can often produce a hard strike, due to its erratic swimming action that really gets the peacocks fired up. For bedding fish, the Spro Phat Fly bucktail jig works well: You are able to keep it in the strike zone, hopping it off of bottom. If you find the fish hanging on deeper water structure, try a lipless crankbait such as a blue back Rat L Trap or Rapala Shad Rap.
During the winter, many fishermen advise fishing bigger baits for peacocks. When spring rolls around, it's time to downsize the bait; the peacocks are keyed in on the smaller “fry” this time of the year.
There is one crustacean that peacock bass can't resist, grass shrimp. These translucent critters are only an inch or two long, but are killer baits for peacocks and panfish alike. As their name implies, grass shrimp associate themselves with vegetation. Catching grass shrimp is pretty easy. Run a fine-mesh dip net through the shoreline vegetation, scooping up the weeds, and sift through it, picking out the shrimp. Pay close attention when doing this--there's a reason why they're also called “ghost shrimp.”
A 2000 sized reel with a 7-foot medium light action rod with 10-pound braid and 20-pound leader will suffice for peacock bass. The reason for the leader is that when these fish take a run, your line may rub on the limestone, culvert or any other structure, causing you to break the fish off. A lot of guys will downsize their tackle for a little more fun. If live baiting, size your hook according to the size of the bait. A size 1 circle generally will work for most baits. Be prepared with a few small floats and split shots as well if you find the peacocks hanging in a certain part of the water column.
As for lures, anything mimicking a baitfish will do the trick. Soft plastic paddle tails and jerkbaits tend to be my favorite, since they can be rigged weedless. But crankbaits, both lipped and lipless work great, especially if they fish are found a little bit deeper.
For the fly guys, a standard 5 weight is great, with a 6-foot strip of 20-pound leader. Some of my favorite flies to throw for peacocks happen to be the same flies that I love to use for beach snook. White DT Special, Steve Farrar Blend Clouser Minnows, and green back deceivers are a few that work. Anything that has some orange and yellow in it works great as well, being that it mimics a baby cichlid. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2015