Introduced to the southern Florida canal system in the 1980s by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Peacock Bass are a member of the Cichlidae family. Cichlids are known as the freshwater aquarium fish you buy in pet stores. Often these pet-store fish have been illegally dropped into the canals of Southeastern Florida by people moving away, who no longer want them or flushed down the toilet and into the ecosystem. Along with Oscars and a host of other imported pets dropped into the water behind the house, they eventually became a problem. The biggest of the species – the genus Cichcla – was imported by Florida Fish and Wildlife (MyFWC.com). These included the Butterfly Peacock Bass and the Speckled Peacock Bass, the male of which can be identified by a lump or extrusion on the top of their heads.
Why were they released? Initially, it was to eat their smaller, illegally dumped cousins, along with whatever else passed by their ravenous jaws. However, the more important reason, at least to anglers, is they were put there for you and me to catch. Their aggressive behavior, obvious love for the environment, and willingness to eat just about anything you throw at them (more on that later) made them an ideal target species for recreational anglers like the people who read this site. The first goal, while well-meaning, did not quite work. While the bigger Cichlids will eat the smaller ones, like their neighbor, the native Largemouth Bass, they are smart enough not to eat them all. The second goal was far more successful for a number of reasons: the species are targeted by anglers, both local and visiting, there are guides that specialize in them, and people largely let them go, meaning the population, while targeted, continues to expand.
To catch Peacock Bass, you should start to think about:
- Where do you go to catch them?
- When is the best time to catch them?
- What lures or bait should you use?
- What kind of tackle should you take?
- Who might want to target this species with me?
Where to Catch Peacock Bass
As previously stated, Peacock Bass were released into the coral canals of southern Florida in the 1980s and have been eating baits and satisfying (and frustrating) anglers ever since. They do not appear to have had any negative impact on the native Largemouth Bass population, which continues to thrive in the system. Some of the canals are heavily fished, while others are left largely alone. They provide us an amazing fishery and sport hundreds of miles of shoreline, rip-rap (those angled piles of stones that keep the edges from eroding), sea walls, bridge pilings, corners and turns, and all kinds of vegetation where you can walk and drop a kayak and paddle or boat into the water from any of the dozens of ramps in the systems. We will be offering extensive, detailed maps of each of the dozens of locations, but if you find a residential canal or fish the Tamiami canal system or any lake, pond, etc. south of the area of Pompano Beach, you will eventually catch a Peacock Bass. While Peacock Bass fishing, you can also catch anything from Snook, Tarpon, ten-pound Largemouths, and Catfish to Tilapia and species none of us could identify without a degree in weirdness.
The canals reach deep into many of the residential areas of the southeastern Florida neighborhoods. You can take a simple look at GoogleEarth – a free application we strongly suggest any angler install and learn to use – and see a spider web of canals. Looking from the Street View (keep clicking till the scene changes and it looks like you are in your car), you can see the canals behind people's houses. You have only to drop in a kayak and do little paddling to discover how productive they can be.
The canal systems are largely cut from agatized coral, a near-gemstone quality fossilized material used by the indigenous peoples to create some of the most valuable spear points and (much later) arrowheads, knives, tools, and even personal jewelry. This means that the edges are solid, almost vertical, making this not a place you want to wade fish. But the shorelines are vast and you can walk for the rest of your life on the system and hardly fish the same place twice. The fish tend to stay along the walls. The best places are bridge pilings, sea walls with shape, docks, and the corners of ancillary canals. The canal systems have a flow that can become quite strong as managers open and close the control valves. When open, the fish tend to move to the corners, bends, and even the cul-du-sacs of the side canals.
When is the Best Time to Catch Peacock Bass?
You can catch Peacock Bass any time of the year, though the month of March opens up a spring feed as the fish prepare to spawn, and the most active times are from March to early June. September also is particularly good for schooling fish. But again, this is a tropical species native to South and Central America, and can handle warmer water then the Largemouth Bass with which they share the waterways.
The fish are most active near the edges of structures. During the brightest and hottest days, they will show up and feed in groups to a much greater degree than Largemouth Bass do. They do not feed at night or in the dark. Early morning is good as is early evening, but the beauty is they will eat even in the middle of a bright sunny, hot day, so feel free to sleep in.
Lures and Baits for Peacock Bass
Artificial lures rule the day for many of America's anglers, and the Peacock fishery's many devotees are no exception to that basic rule. When it comes to freshwater species, artificial lures probably catch more fish than do natural baits, either living or dead. Let's take a look at both artificial (first) and natural (our favorite, but second).
Artificial Lures for Peacock Bass
No doubt, if you talk to enough people who successfully target these imported wonders from the tropics, you will find that most fish artificial and the fish they catch are caught on topwater lures. These come in three varieties.
The Rapala Skitter is a propeller bait. One of the two stick baits, they make noise on the surface when you retrieve them so the propeller turns and bubbles behind the lure (and directly over that treble hook). Bend down the barbs on ALL your treble hooks. They make releasing the fish – something you should do most of the time – much easier and result in a much higher post-release survival rate (the fish live when you let them go).
The first are Stick baits. They look like fish made of a single stick, and often have propellers on them, but they come without the props as well. The ones with propellers create a wake when they're moved more than a few inches and pulled with the idea of making the prop bubble.
The Shimano Orca is another version of the stick lure – this time without the propeller(s). It is most successful when walked. The technique, known as Walking the Dog, results in the lure – which floats on the surface – moving in an obviously annoying (to the fish) Z-pattern or as most say Zig Zag.
Popping plugs or Poppers have concave surfaces and make a loud popping noise if you cast them out and snap them so they pop and spit water forward. Peacocks will strike the same lures you use for Largemouth bass.
The lure below is a Heddon popper. With it you can catch a Peacock Bass in any of the miles of canals in southeastern Florida.
All Other Lures Except One
Though they are well-known for their aggressive topwater strike, Peacock Bass will hit many of the same lures that Largemouth Bass do (with the exception of the plastic worm) and you can catch them in the same lakes, ponds, residential canals etc. of south Florida and throughout the tropical zones. However, due to their aggressive nature, topwater lures, jigs and crankbaits are the Peacock’s favorite and the most exciting lure to use.
They will also strike swimming plugs, and putting these lures into the deeper water columns and around deeper structure in the hottest and coldest times of the year will often draw fish.
The Bomber Lure Deep Flat A is a typical and highly effective deep diving lure. They will draw Peacock Bass from deeper habitats, and there are plenty of 12 foot and deeper spots near structure in the canal system where you can find the fish.
Natural Baits for Peacock Bass
All fish will sooner eat live bait than an artificial lure. That said, you can buy shiners – though they're not cheap – or catch any of the many baits you will find in the canals where you can catch the Peacock Bass, including Panfish, which is legal as long as you catch it on hook and line.
To catch baits, use a Sabiki rig. They are often used by saltwater anglers to catch live baits for Snook, Tarpon, Redfish, and most every other species they target. But Sabikis should not be limited to use by saltwater anglers. A small piece of bread dough scented with any number of stinky products or even mashed with a little bit of sardines from a can will produce endless live baits, from Golden Shiners to the ubiquitous tropical species like Oscars.
To fish a live bait, either freeline them – line to (fluroucarbon) leader to hook with nothing in between but knots and maybe a small(?) split shot to keep the bait from moving too fast in the (managed) flow of water – or fish with bobbers or corks. A live bait on a bobber or cork in any of these canals will get eaten by either a peacock (like you're looking for) or an equally aggressive and hungry black Largemouth Bass.
Tackle for Peacock Bass
Peacocks are big, powerful fish. They're not going to surprise you and peel off a hundred yards of line before you can get your thumb on the spool, but they are hard fighters. You're also fishing conditions where there are bridges, coral, sea walls with debris clinging to them, trees, both standing and fallen, and other obstacles that can snag a line. Ultra light tackle used for Panfish (also rich in the canals) is not recommended. You can go light – we do for most species – but do not go too light.
Spinning Tackle is perfect for everything if it is sized right and built for the job. For Peacock Bass you want light spinning rods about six to seven feet long. If you're fishing live bait more often than artificial, consider a rod with slower action. This softer rod action is good for live bait. You are less likely to throw a live Golden Shiner or Oscar bait to somebody's kitchen window. If you fish artificials, a seven foot rod with fast action will give you more snap at the tip and better casting distance and accuracy.
Baitcasting Rods and Reels are perfect if you can use them. Most Peacock Bass fishing involves tight spaces where you are pitching and flipping jigs next to seawalls and docks, requiring a high level of accuracy. The fact that the reel sits on top of the rod blank provides something traditional bass anglers have grown used to: leverage. You can haul a ten pound Bass out of lily pads with a casting rod easier than with a soft spinning rod.
Why people are so committed to Fly Fishing for Peacock Bass is not surprising. Fly rods require a gentle touch, they are tough to use, expensive, and will result in you catching fewer fish than your friend with the soft spinning rod floating Golden Shiners in the strike zone, but it is the most challenging way to catch Peacocks. All flies will work, including poppers that break and bubble and otherwise disturb the surface.
Planning a Fishing Trip for Peacock Bass
There are forum members on our site that have reportedly left their homes in Tampa, Florida to go Peacock Bass fishing in south Florida, and while driving down the Tamiami trail have stopped by the side of the road, thrown out a line, and started catching fish. The first few they caught were Largemouth Bass, the native and in many of the canals the most common fish caught by sports anglers. But a little closer to the Dade County line they started seeing what they said looked like watermelons in the water; golden/brown Peacocks, with green and even blue shades.
You can hire any number of popular guides, some of whom post right here on our front page, to take you where they know Peacock Bass are biting. We’ve known many people who have hired professionals and had great experiences. Or you can use our forums to put out word that you want to hunt these relatively new targets and plan a trip. Again, it is perfect kayak fishing water, so if you're a paddler (or even a walker) you can probably find somebody here to fish with and share your new fish hobby.
Summary about Catching Peacock Bass
Peacock Bass are popular, easy to find (especially if you use our maps) and are a sustainable and growing fishery. Although normally a species from foreign waters that is growing in a healthy way is not a good thing, in the case of Peacock Bass, it can benefit both the environment and anglers. Brought here to eat Oscars and their cousins in the Cichlid families, you can catch live bait to fish for them right where they live, or you can follow thousands of successful Peacock anglers and use a range of artificial baits. If you're going to go the artificial, route, start with topwater. The fish are active and love topwater, where the edges of the canals can hold fish any time of the year, but they can also be found in deeper water, where jigs and diving plugs will work.
Tight lines, and if you catch a Peacock after reading this story, or if you found it useful, please comment, share, and do submit your pictures and videos to The Online Fisherman!