August 31, 2022
By Michael Salomone
In the summer of 1996 I was fly fishing for largemouth bass in an urban canal in south Florida known more by a letter and a number than a name. The canal reportedly held a plentiful population of largemouth bass and spunky bluegills. When my chartreuse-and-white Clouser began to buck wildly against my feeble 5-weight fly rod, the cheap click-and-pawl reel started to squeal. I braced myself for what I was sure would be my personal best bass on a fly. The fight worked my forearm, tested my touch, and ultimately yielded a smallish, foot-long, clown-colored rhinoceros of a fish. Later, I positively identified the colorful, hump-headed creature that fought way above its weight class as a foreign transplant called a peacock bass. I was intrigued.
The discovery of a new group of fish in fresh water that would eat a fly begged for more research. Soon I discovered a whole new class of invaders living in South Florida’s interconnected waterways. These tropical fish are aquarium rejects and funky Frankenstein fish shipped from continents I could never visit. Yet, here they were for the catching. This new menagerie of foreigners have flourished in their new environment. Every summer since, I’ve waited for June to arrive so I can head to Florida to chase some more of these freaks on flies.
Tropical fish from all over the world have assimilated into South Florida’s warmwater environment of canals and ponds—and the Everglades. The Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) will likely never be able to eradicate these fish. Fly fishers from all over have recognized the opportunity to catch a huge variety of bucket-list freaks in one location.
In the 1960s, invasive species began a massive incursion into the waterways of South Florida. When the 80s hit, population numbers exploded. The FWC deliberately introduced butterfly peacock bass to curb the ever-growing numbers of spotted tilapia, oscars, and other invasive species.
Peacock bass are voracious feeding machines, and spotted tilapia have become one of their favorite prey species. But peacock bass and most other exotics cannot tolerate cold water. In the past, winter cold fronts have limited peacock bass population growth. Now, the effects of climate change have allowed for some peacock bass to grow to impressive proportions.
Angling for exotic fish species—especially peacock bass—has fostered an entire class of professional guides, and peacock bass have earned an FWC gamefish designation, with size and bag limits. Fly anglers who can’t afford to travel overseas have taken advantage of this opportunity to catch peacock bass on the fly stateside. A Florida freshwater fishing license is all that’s required.
We all enjoy catching native fish, and as conservationists we support all efforts to preserve native species, whether that means cutthroat trout in the Rockies or Eastern brook trout in Pennsylvania. But sometimes when you are fishing in South Florida, there is too much wind on the flats, or too many weeds along the snook beaches. But there is always an exotic species willing to eat a fly. And the fishing itself is inexpensive, accessible, and challenging.
Urban, suburban, and rural areas all hold substantial populations of exotics, and they eat many fly patterns you probably already have in your boxes: Woolly Buggers, Clousers, Game Changers, and Deceivers. My personal favorite flies are topwater sliders, divers, and poppers. Gamefish that will slam topwater flies with gusto are always worthy of attention.
You don’t need a boat. Chasing freaks in Florida is easy to do on foot—a perfect activity for do-it-yourself fly fishers. You can pursue exotics from the Everglades wilderness to manicured shopping malls and public parks, and anywhere along countless miles of canals.
Most Florida exotic species fight with tenacity. The muscle and broad tail of peacock bass make them a worthy fly fish. An average peacock bass would drown a largemouth bass of the same size. Plus, they just look weird.
A multimillion-dollar industry has emerged in south Florida, offering specialized gear and guides who cater primarily to this new game. This game appeals to young, “flat-brimmed hat” fly fishers, and anyone else who thinks nontraditional fish are cool. Whether carp in the L.A. River, northern pike in the Boundary Waters, wipers in the South, or peacock bass in South Florida, catching fish other than trout is often oddly attractive for fly fishers who like to swim against the current.
We need more young guns, and freaks are a perfect fit. Exotics are also perfect fish for social media sustenance. The narcissism involved with some angling posts exceeds limits. The long list of colorful species in Florida can fill a fly angler’s Instagram feed with eye candy to last for weeks, and the photo subjects aren’t as delicate or revered as trout and steelhead. Peacock bass were practically made to be photographed.
Flights into Miami and Ft. Lauderdale arrive all day long, and many fly fishers who regularly chase exotic species in Florida realize that the lakes and ponds immediately surrounding Miami International offer some of the best peacock bass fishing in the state. The deep water in some of the airport lakes—including the Blue Lagoon—provides safety from inclement weather. Pacu, delicious food fish also imported from the Amazon basin, are rumored to be roaming the Blue Lagoon, too.
Exotic species hail from some pretty shady areas of the world—places you might not want to travel. But in Florida you sometimes need to go no farther than across the street from your hotel. Tropical fish from all over the world are caught on consecutive casts, no passport necessary. Travel to far-off locations also requires intensive planning, and Covid-influenced hurdles are everywhere. But not in Florida. Come as you are. Communication barriers are nonexistent, unlike in other countries, where language can be an obstacle.
The nastiest insects you’ll encounter are mosquitoes, and they can carry many of the same diseases as mosquitoes in other countries. Use DEET and/or treat long pants and long-sleeved sun shirts with permethrin. You can also buy pretreated clothes from Simms—anything branded as BugStopper clothing is treated with Insect Shield.
You should also learn how to release your catch quickly to avoid alligators. Many trophy peacock bass have been lost to alligators, which have become habituated to the splashing sounds of fish at the end of a leader.
Rex Hannon of Jensen Beach, Florida is an avid fan of the South Florida freaks. He uses an 8-weight fly rod exclusively, as his close proximity to the coast means he finds snook and juvenile tarpon in the same waters as native largemouth bass, tilapia, and Mayan cichlids.
Rods for targeting the smaller exotics—the lightweights, such as the Mayans, oscars, and jaguar guapotes—normally fall into the 4- to 6-weight range. When you target heavyweights, including peacock bass, grass carp, and snakeheads, 7- and 8-weight rods are a must.
Your reels do not require great lengths of backing. This is not the open flats—the battles take place in close quarters. If a fish takes 50 yards of backing here, you likely have already lost the fight. So use a reel with a stout drag and stop the fish quickly.
Leaders for peacock bass and snakeheads need to be stiff and short to turn over heavy flies and defeat thick vegetation. Leaders from 5 to 7 feet are a best for casting accuracy and should end in 15- to 20-pound test tippet. Mayan cichlids, oscars, and jaguar guapotes don’t require heavy leaders. A tapered 9-foot leader ending in 8-, 10-, or 12-pound-test tippet should suffice.
For peacocks and snakeheads, and the occasional snook or tarpon, strip-set hard, as you would in salt water—these fish all have hard mouths. Panfish-size exotics can be taken with a quick trout set. Both become cognitive reactions depending on the situation and conditions. In other words, based on the location, the feel, and the previous species you’ve been catching, you’ll know how to strike.
A nonslip loop knot is the best terminal connection because it allows a fly to move with lots of action—even when using heavy tippets. The Tamiami Trail, canals, and public ponds require flats boots or other study footwear due to rocks, concrete, rebar, hot asphalt, and broken glass. If you are on foot, take your time and move slowly. Sight-fishing techniques will increase your catch rate.
Florida Exotic Species Checklist
In terms of exotic species, peacock bass are the number one draw in South Florida. The highest concentrations of peacocks are in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. While they are widely distributed, the waters near and along the Tamiami Trail are prime peacock bass habitat. Peacock bass are structure-oriented fish. Blind casting around bridges, culverts, and drainpipes produces results regularly. These are pinch points where predators can ambush their prey. Peacocks are super-aggressive—they also sometimes strike flies defensively, as the females carefully guard their young, and often keep them in their mouths as a protective measure.
Topwater flies such as Gurglers, sliders, and poppers enhance the freaky fun. A solid Round Dinny Popper has a unique wobble, both on the surface and stripped just underwater. And spun deer-hair poppers in old-school patterns, such as the Fruit Cocktail, always provide excitement.
Peacock bass-colored Deceivers attract both native and nonnative species. Blue and black Game Changers will catch anything that swims.
There is no closed season on any of these exotics—you can chase them all year. Peacock bass are classified as gamefish, with a daily harvest limit set at two fish, only one of which can be more than 17 inches in length. There is no limit on other species, including tilapia, which are fine food fish sold in many grocery stores.
The state record peacock bass in Florida is a 9.11-pound fish. Recent warm winters have encouraged their growth, and the average size of peacocks has become impressive. It seems as though the opportunity for a record-breaking fish is increasing daily.
Bullseye snakeheads are also now common in South Florida. Native to Asia, snakeheads can endure stagnant water with low oxygen levels, survive out of water for short periods, and even wiggle across dry land to find water. Most known snakehead populations are under mandatory kill rules. There are also some guides in Florida who make a living introducing anglers to this challenging, bucket-list fish—it’s a double-edged sword. Hillsboro Canal and the ponds at West Delray Regional Park are full of these aggressive fish. [For details on catching snakeheads, see “Snakebit” by Blane Chocklett in the April-May 2021 issue or online at flyfisherman.com. The Editor.]
Another well-established nonnative fish is the oscar, introduced via the aquarium hobby and now common in Water Conservation Area canals and throughout South Florida. The adults are olive green with mustard highlights, and a bright red spot on the tail fin. They’ll hit small Woolly Buggers, chartreuse-and-white Clousers, and Gurglers. This is another boom-and-bust species, but as of late, the winters have been very friendly.
Mayan cichlids are among the most widespread exotics. Originating from Mexico, these fish tolerate moderate salinity, and you can find them in any water from the Palm Beach County line south to the top of the Keys. In Florida, they’ve earned the nickname “atomic sunfish,” and like real sunfish, they are perfect quarry for a 4-weight fly rod. A 4-weight is too light for most other Florida species, but a pond full of hand-sized bluegills and aggressive Mayan cichlids is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Small poppers increase the fun factor, and atomic sunfish love to feed on the surface.
Jaguar guapotes are also cichlids, native to Central America. In Florida, Snapper Creek (C-2) yielded the state record. Midas cichlids originated from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and love the rock walls found in Black Creek and Cutler canals.
Clown knifefish from Indochina also came to America through the aquarium trade, and now they inhabit Lake Ida and Lake Osborne in Delray Beach. A yellow Meat Whistle is a good fly choice.
Asian grass carp are a no-harvest species. These sterile fish are stocked in the canal system for weed control. While they probably aren’t good to eat, most fly fishers know that grass carp provide extremely challenging angling, and they are among the largest fish you’ll find in Florida’s freshwater ponds and canals. While they are mostly herbivores, and many fly fishers catch them on flies that imitate mulberries and other vegetable matter, they also feed on insects, including swarms of ants and big Hexagenia mayflies.
Slam chasers can enjoy a whole new set of challenges when they embrace the colorful possibilities of South Florida. FWC officially recognizes an “exotic slam,” which consists of a Mayan cichlid, oscar, and peacock bass in a single day. The International Game Fish Association lists three species in one day as a Grand Slam, four species in one day as a Super Grand Slam, and five species in one day as a Fantasy Slam.
Fly fishing for exotics can be a cool game of dropping names and numbers—without offending anyone. Catch as many as you want. The invasive nature and overpopulation of these fish make it possible for you to run up obscene numbers of fish, and no one will bat an eye.
Exotics cannot survive cold water temperatures, and some winters have been hard on them—as they have been for native fish, including snook. However, the past few mild winters have enhanced these populations, and many exotic species are expected to expand their ranges into North Florida. The entire state is connected through water. Drainpipes, canals, and frequent overland flooding are just a few of the factors that help invasive species move from one waterway to another.
While fishing for exotic species has become a primary focus for some visiting and local anglers, targeting exotic species with a fly rod can also be paired with a family beach vacation, fill a long layover at MIA, fill an afternoon fresh off the plane for a flats trip, or give you some excitement when your offshore trip has been canceled by wind. Who knows? You may also bag a new state record, or one of the coveted slams.
Michael Salomone is a fly-fishing guide and the Angling column writer for the Vail Daily newspaper. He lives in Eagle, Colorado.