Contributed by Alex Vail, The Flying Kayak
Crouched down in the tall grass, I carefully balanced myself as I stripped out fly line on the bank of the canal. Through the blades of grass I could see a fallen tree that was half submerged at the edge of the water. I quickly began my cast and landed my grasshopper fly within a foot of the sunken tree. With one short strip, I popped the little fly once across the surface of the water and waited. Ripples were still moving away from the grasshopper in the mirror-flat water when a V-wake appeared behind the fly. Suddenly there’s a splash, my fly is gone, and the fight is on. But what’s at the end of my line, you may ask?
A cichlid. A Mayan Cichlid, to be precise. And for anyone familiar with fish keeping and aquariums, cichlids are popular pets. So what was it doing in a canal?
Through problems associated with the exotic pet trade and home aquarium releases, wild populations of exotic cichlids are now established in South Florida canals and ponds. Mayan Cichlids, Oscars, and Jaguar Guatpotes are just a few of a long list of exotics now swimming freely in Florida waters. In order to combat the possible detrimental effects of non-natives in our waters, FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) introduced another species of cichlid: The Amazonian game fish, Butterfly Peacock Bass.
Though Peacock Bass didn’t wipe out other cichlid populations, their presence has proven useful in keeping them in check. This means in addition to small cichlids roaming around the freshwaters of Southern Florida, there are now large Peacock Bass as well. And as an angler, these species are an absolute blast to catch.
Two of the most common species of cichlid caught in the Everglades are the Oscar and Mayan Cichlid. Though they don’t get bigger than a large panfish (10-12 inches), they fight 3-4 times as hard as a native bluegill. The closest thing they can be compared to would be some sort of freshwater snapper. And just as small cichlids fight harder than native panfish, Peacock Bass fight harder than native Large Mouth bass. It’s important as an angler to have the right tackle selected when targeting these fish.
For Oscars, Mayans, and the wide plethora of other smaller cichlids, I prefer to use a 3 Wt fly rod with a floating line. For fly selection, I choose anything I Bream would hit. Cichlids aren’t exactly picky. For the larger Peacock Bass, a 6-7 Wt fly rod with floating line works best. Flies such as clousers or poppers work great on these aggressive fish. Cooler months are probably the best time to target cichlids as less rain will lower water levels in the canals and force fish to congregate. In addition, target structure when casting about. Rocky outcroppings, stumps, and sunken trees all provide great cover for these fish.
Like I did on this particular day, fishing from the bank of the canal is an effective method for catching these fish. But an even better option is to take advantage of the many public boat launches that lead directly into the canals and take a small boat or kayak. The ability to quickly cover large areas of water and keep a low profile (as opposed to exposing oneself high on the bank), make fishing for cichlids much easier.
All of this is fine and dandy, but I’m sure many people will ask: Are they good to eat? The answer is yes! Fried or grilled, any species of cichlid that can be caught in the canal systems in Southern Florida are great at the dinner table. In addition, FWC has set in place laws that actually make it ILLEGAL to release exotics once caught. The angler is responsible for properly disposing of the fish. And for most of us, this translates into: “Dinner”. With the exception of Peacock Bass, no other exotic has a size or bag limit. Keep them all!
For more information on cichlids in Southern Florida be sure to visit: www.myfwc.com.
Other agencies also host an exotic fish tournament every year. You can find information on: www.evergladescisma.org.
So if you ever find yourself in Southern Florida and are able to pry yourself away from the fantastic saltwater fishing, be sure to give the lowly inland canals a try. You certainly won’t regret it.