Contributed by Alex Vail of The Flying Kayak
With the weather heating up, and summer right around the corner, now is the best time to fish for some of my favorite fish: Exotic cichlids in South Florida.Many of these fish were originally introduced into the canal systems throughout South Florida as far back as the 1960’s. Cichlids are primarily aquarium fish. You know, the kind you might find in your local pet store. Oscars, Mayan Cichlids, Jaguar Guapotes, etc. All these fish are loose and reproducing in the South Florida freshwater canal systems and are there thanks to irresponsible pet owners. Pet releases from home aquariums actually led to the establishment of many of these species.
The good news? They’re an absolute hoot to catch. Many of them fight as aggressively as some saltwater species and to make matters even better, they’re good to eat. And if that wasn’t good enough news, the state of Florida has waived any size or bag limits on them. You can keep as many as you catch.Cichlids prefer warm waters (hence them being loose in South Florida), but even the winters down in Florida are enough to make them lay low. However, spring is here, and the water temperatures are heating up. That means that the cichlids are out in full force and ready to feed. Small diving lures, flies, and even earthworms are favorite bait for this ferocious species.
There is, however, a little bit of a time limit for these fish. Summer is closing in and that means rain for South Florida. Water levels will soon rise and most of the canals will flood into the surrounding areas. That means that the cichlids (as well as other fish) won’t be restricted to just the canals and will spread themselves out considerably. You can, of course, still catch them during the summer months, but don’t expect to find them in such high volumes during that time of year.It’s important to note, however, that the small cichlids aren’t the only thing to target this time of the year. Their predator is, too. The smaller cichlids pose a big problem to some of our native fish species. They out compete many of Florida’s species, like Largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcrackers, etc. Realizing that the cichlids were an issue in the South Florida canal systems, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission purposefully introduced a predator of the non-native cichlids: the Butterfly Peacock bass.
Reaching sizes of up to 5lbs, these fish are just as ferocious as the small cichlids, but pack an even bigger punch. With their prey out in force this time of year, they’re actively hunting and feeding. On top of that, they’re beginning to bed as well. Anglers can catch them on live minnows, diving lures, and even flies. Since they’re spawning right now, look for them to be guarding their beds in the shallow waters lining the edges of the canals.The rules and regulations for Peacock bass differ from their cichlid counterparts, though. They do have a size and bag limit set in place. The reason behind this? They were purposefully brought in to help control the cichlid problem. If they start to get over-fished, the already present issue of too many cichlids will become much more serious.
So if you find yourself in southern Florida this time of year, be sure to bring a rod. There is almost no roadway around the area that doesn’t have a canal nearby. And there is almost no canal that doesn’t have these aggressive and fun fighting fish in them. Just don’t forget the cooler!