It had been a grueling drive from Vermont to South Florida with my friends Marty and Tim Sienkiewycz to fish with the self-proclaimed “Bonefish Whisperer,” Cordell Baum Jr. , who was waiting for us right by the road when we arrived just after noon on a Monday. Since we were raring to go, we all strung up 5- and 6-weight rods to head out for some freshwater action in the canals around Miami, which are home to a wide variety of fish: natives such as largemouth bass and sunfish swim alongside introduced species like tilapia, grass carp, and peacock bass. There are also a number of aquarium fish that are present–mostly cichlids like guapote, Midas cichlids, Mayan cichlids, and a bunch of much smaller species that are of little interest to anglers but fascinate a fish geek like me.
Cordell got us on the highway, and we started for an off ramp next to a lake in the canal system. He pulled off the side of the road into a grove of trees, and Marty followed with much honking from motorists behind us. This is the only way to access this lake, so it doesn’t get that much pressure. Within moments, we were by a culvert looking at a bunch of fish. The huge blue tilapia want nothing to do with flies, but the peacocks are another matter altogether. Marty got into the first peacock, not a big one but any fish was going to work at this point.
The peacock bass in South Florida took a big hit during the big the freeze of winter of 2009-2010, when there were massive die offs because of the cold. Peacocks are an Amazonian fish that can’t handle temps below 60 degrees for long. Miami suffered a three-week period that winter where the temperatures remained in the 40s. Fortunately this past winter wasn’t as bad, and the fish are recovering. Peacocks grow fast and were definitely starting to spawn, which was going to work in our favor!
Tim picked up a second peacock similar in size to Marty’s. Gorgeous colors on those fish. I could not get anything to stay on the hook. I got a couple of good takes, but I was not sealing the deal. I was tired from all the driving and lack of sleep, and it showed. A huge snook–in the 15- to 20-pound range–coming through the culvert got our attention. Cordell explained that it was not unusual to see these saltwater predators stalking the canals. He also fishes for freshwater tarpon in the same areas.
After working these fish for a bit we packed up and headed to another stretch of canal. There were lots of bigger peacocks in the area, as well as other fish. It was a 20-minute drive (which is fairly quick by Miami standards) until we parked behind some fast food joints. The fish were there though: much larger peacocks, some Florida gar, and a variety of other exotics. I was having fun watching jewelfish–small, bright red West African cichlids–chase each other through the maze of limestone along the edge of the canal.
After watching Marty and Tim both nail some nice peacocks, I was getting antsy. I had a couple of shots at good sized Florida gar, but they were not interested in the least. None of the native sunnies wanted anything to do with my flies, either. But along one canal, something gold caught my eye and I pitched my orange-and-green Clouser Minnow right to it. I watched the fish hit that fly hard and knew I had a guapote!
The guapote is a fish I am very familiar with, having kept it and bred it in aquariums. The guapote (more properly Parachromis managuensis) is primarily black with gold or silver vermiculations. This highly aggressive cichlid will readily attack anything that comes in the neighborhood of its nest, including a fish keeper’s hand. Considering the teeth that they have and that they can reach about 20 inches, this aggressiveness makes a pretty formidable fish on a 5-weight.
The fight was awesome! The fish dug deep into the canal and peeled line off the reel. It took about 5 minutes to land. I got some great shots of it and then released it to get back to doing what it was doing–making more of these little terrors. I’m definitely looking forward to finding them there next time I hit the canals!
I never got a peacock to hand that first day. I had a good solid take from a really nice fish but the fly popped from its mouth. Marty and Tim really outfished me. I will blame it on my lack of sleep and being overly excited, but the reality is that they simply got the job done better. All in all this was a good warm up for what was to come the next day–the flats of Biscayne Bay for bonefish.
Drew Price is a guide who lives in northern Vermont. He specializes in trout, pike, and other species, including bowfin and fall fish.