Peacock Bass in South Florida

These exotics are a species that has been welcome in the area!

On The Fly Freshwater

September 2022

Article and featured photo by Gabriella MaGrath

When one thinks of a freshwater fly-fishing destination in Florida, they may not consider going as far south as the Everglades or Miami/Dade County, but if you can beat the heat, these destinations are hot spots for the exotic peacock bass. They are very strong fish pound for pound and provide an excellent fight on a fly rod.

Peacock bass are not actually bass at all, but a species of cichlid. They are non-native to Florida. The aggressive species is native to the Amazon region of South America. There are many different subspecies of peacock bass, but the ones in Florida are butterfly peacock bass. They were introduced to South Florida’s waterways by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the 1980s to control the populations of other invasive species, such as tilapia and oscars, which were rapidly growing and encroaching on local, native fish populations. The FWC reports that the introduction of the peacocks to the region has proven successful and encourages anglers to catch and release the species to allow the population to continue to thrive for its intended purposes.

The author with her peacock on the fly. Photo by Capt. Debbie Hanson.

Persistence was key for my success in catching a peacock bass on fly. As a novice fly angler, it took me three trips down to South Florida, before I finally landed one. The thrill of the catch was matched only by the kick-off of a sensational release.

I linked up with Captain Debbie Hanson of SheFishes2 charters to go after the bucket list species. Debbie trailers her 15-Foot Tracker boat east from the Fort Myers area and will ask you to meet her at the boat ramp. She can take up to two passengers.

Capt. Hanson with a big butterfly peacock bass. Photo by Gabriella MaGrath.

These fish can be found as far west as the brackish water canals off the Gulf Coast and as far east as the freshwater canal system in Southeast Florida, where they were originally stocked. If you tell Capt. Debbie you’re interested in chasing the peas, she will advise you on the best time of year/month she has available and take you to where the bite will be the hottest.

The best season to target these fish is the summer, when they are most active and in shallow water. They do not like the cold. They cannot survive in water temperatures below 60 degrees. So, in the winter, they move into deeper water areas and conserve their energy. It’s not impossible to catch one during the cold season, but they are nowhere near as fired up as when it’s warm outside.

The weapon of choice was a Reilly Rod Crafter’s True 7-weight fly rod from the Debbie Hanson Signature Series accompanied by an Orvis 7-weight reel. The leader was a 30-20-10 tapered monofilament. The fly was the Everglades Assassin tied by Joe Mahler. The peas like anything brightly colored or flashy. Topwater and popper flies are also great choices, as they make a commotion to attract the fish. 

Everglades Assassins. Photo by Capt. Debbie Hanson.

The fish are very territorial and even if they are not hungry, they are likely to attack a fly if it is invading their space. When stripping, you must strip rapidly with sporadic movements to entice a chase. If the fish is chasing it do not stop! 

Often, the water in the canals is clear enough to sight fish. The casts needed to reach the fish are not extremely lengthy, usually less than 10 yards. There are often areas of overhanging trees; you will want to make sure to be aware of your surroundings to avoid snagging. The fish can often be seen hanging out on limestone ledges on the edges of the canals, especially in the mid-day when the heat from the sun radiates off these rocky structures. If there is a drop-off, it creates a good ambush point for them.  As with any fish, it is always a good idea to cast where there is moving water, such as a run-off or culvert.

My trip with Captain Debbie was in the canals of the Everglades. If you are interested in going after these fish on foot, FWC provides a map of the canals where they have been stocked in Southeast Florida.

            When fishing the canals, look for the indicators such as limestone ledges, vegetation and other structure. You may see the fish holding on the edges of the canals, but try not to let them see you or hear you. Tread very lightly with soft footsteps. They might swim away from your shadow or by feeling the vibrations of footsteps on the bank. Even if they hold their place in the water, they may lose interest in the fly, once they sense the angler’s presence.

You likely will see wildlife here. Don’t be afraid of iguanas, they will not hurt you, but watch out for alligators and snakes. Close toed shoes or boots are recommended when fishing the canals, as you will sometimes encounter tall grass.

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