Florida's Fish Of A Different Color

Suppose you could design your own game fish.

If you're like most anglers, you would see to it that the fish struck fast and ferociously on a variety of baits. You would want it, also, to pull with stiff vengeance, something like a snook, and then jump spectacularly, like an athletic tarpon. And you wouldn't skimp on aesthetics, either. You'd give it the memorable coloring that makes the rainbow trout prized.

Well, dream no more. Such a fish already swims in South Florida waters. Avid fishermen will recognize the name: butterfly peacock bass. It is a star in South America, where it has the reputation of a world-class freshwater sport fish.

Part of its fame stems from the fact that this is simply a glorious-looking fish, one that seems touched by the artist's brush. Three dark vertical bars stripe its yellow-green sides. Its fins are tipped in orange yellow. Its tail sports a hint of turquoise and a yellow-ringed black dot, reminiscent of the markings on a peacock.

Credit the bulk of its fame, though, to its nature. A slab-sided, well-muscled fish, the butterfly peacock bass always puts up a fight. Even the smaller ones don't come straight in, resisting mightily to the last.

As intriguing as its natural history is the story of how this prize made its way to the lower reaches of our region. It came here courtesy of one man, Paul Shafland. As director of the Non-Native Fish Research Laboratories of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Paul spear-headed the project to stock this exotic fish in the labyrinth-like canals of southeast Florida.

The decision to voluntarily introduce an exotic fish into an ecosystem already plagued by too many exotics may seem curious, but Florida had a terrific problem to solve. Spotted tilapia, an African fish accidentally released, were overpopulating the drainage canals around Miami. So Paul began looking for a way to bring the tilapia under control. That was about 15 years ago.

Today, as he trailers his boat down the busy freeways south of his Boca Raton office, Paul explains why he chose the peacock. It proved to be an aggressive predator of the spotted tilapia. It grew and reproduced at a fine rate while not competing with any native fish. Geographically, its range was limited by its inability to withstand low water temperatures. It simply could not spread outside the canals of Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward Counties.

"Plus, it is probably the world's premiere inland warm-water game fish," observes Paul.

He himself carefully bred fish he received from Brazil, Guyana, and Peru; the commission began releasing his "super Florida stock" in 1984. Five years later, the state officially opened the fishery, establishing a daily bag limit of two butterfly peacock bass (with only one exceeding 17 inches). "Since the first one was caught, the record's been broken seven times," says Paul, who expects the peacock to top out between 10 and 11 pounds. The current record stands at 9.08 pounds.

As he maneuvers his boat into Airport Lake, jets scream to a landing at nearby Miami International. "If the planes were a little slower, you could probably troll a Rapala out the window, " he quips. The point is well taken: The setting is most unusual, but you can catch peacock bass in all sorts of places on all sorts of bait. The fly-fisherman might take them using little glass minnows with streamer tails, but the novice can be successful with a pole, bobber, and live shiners. Maybe the biggest challenge lies in using spinners, crank baits, and minnow imitators on light and ultra-light tackle.

Paul steers the boat away from the boat ramp, past two high-rise hotels, into a narrow canal, and anchors under a bridge. He baits his hook with a shiner and casts into the deep shadows. "We put in at the end of a runway, but there are more than 330 miles of fishable water here for this fish. In some spots you don't even know you're in an urban area."

A strike interrupts him. Grinning widely, he hands his pole to his fishing partner, who hauls in the first bright peacock bass of the day. Gently releasing the 10-inch fish, Paul concludes, "If I had had a native fish that would have done everything the peacock bass would do, I would have moved it in here. The study, we were doing just led to this fish, and everything's been positive. It has gone way beyond even some of my optimistic predictions." A lot of anglers already agree.

Dianne Young, Southern Living, February 1994

See also : "Peacock Bass No Threat to Florida Largemouth", Florida Today - March 10, 1996 - by Bill Sargent. Other related articles : Peacock Bass Fishing - Galen Greer; The Amazing Peacock Bass - Herb Allen

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