South American peacock bass are adjusting to suburban life in Florida (The Kansas City Star)
By BRENT FRAZEE
HOMESTEAD, Fla. | Brett Isackson was searching for a piece of the Amazon in the most unlikely of settings — behind a Bloomingdale’s store in a mall in a Miami suburb.
Standing in his bass boat in a canal, he was fishing for peacock bass — the freshwater fish most often associated with jungles, piranha-infested waters and countries such as Brazil.
Not the land of shopping malls, upscale neighborhoods and busy parks.
But ask Isackson, and he’ll tell you that the colorful peacock bass are almost at home in one setting as the other.
Oh, the Florida fish don’t grow nearly as large as their cousins of a different strain in the Amazon. And they aren’t as plentiful.
But since being stocked by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the 1980s, they have built an impressive population and have created a multimillion dollar fishery.
Even in surprisingly tame settings, Isackson will remind you.
“Your readers are going to think you are making things up when you tell them we put in behind a Bloomingdale’s,” Isackson said with a laugh. “But a lot of these places down here where we fish for peacocks are surrounded by a lot of activity.
“We fish for them in the lakes at the Miami International Airport, the raceway (Homestead-Miami Speedway), and a lot of canals running through neighborhoods.
“The key is warm water. These peacocks can’t tolerate water temperatures much lower than the mid-60s. If they have good, warm water and a lot of forage, they do fine.”
The peacocks and many other fish ran out of warm water in early January, when a prolonged cold spell hit Florida. The peacock bass were among the many species that suffered losses.
As Isackson, a guide for the BassOnline Fishing Service, maneuvered his bass boat down the narrow canal, he was surrounded by reminders of the cold. Dead iguanas floated in the shallows. And dead fish floated on the surface and littered the bottom.
But there was plenty of life in the water, too. Schools of bright-orange Midas cichlids glowed in the clear water. And the peacock bass he was seeking were there, too.
No sooner had he announced, “We call this section Peacock Alley,” than he felt something jolt the gold Rapala he had just cast out.
The fish pulled hard, then burst to the surface and made an acrobatic leap. But it wasn’t long before Isackson had the fish in the boat and was admiring its beauty.
“Even these small ones will give you a fight,” he said as he tossed his catch back. “You’ll be fighting these fish and you’ll think you have something much bigger on. They’re like smallmouth bass on steroids.”
Isackson enjoyed plenty of those fights on a weekday last week. He and I caught 12 peacock bass in a variety of sizes and lost four others. We also landed several Oscars, cichlids that are popular with those who have aquariums.
Isackson used a tried-and-true pattern to catch the fish. He used a No. 7 gold Rapala and retrieved it with an erratic motion parallel to a rock ledge descending into the clear water. The closer to the wall, the better.
“They’ll get back in some of the holes and under some of the overhanging rocks,” said Isackson, 38, who lives in Davie, Fla. “They’re ambush feeders, a lot like a largemouth.”
Isackson said the fish he and his customers catch often run in the 1- to 3-pound range. But there are exceptions. A fisherman in his late 70s once caught a 7-pound peacock on a fly rod and a Clouser Minnow fly. The Florida state record is 9.08 pounds.
Isackson uses other common bass baits to lure the peacocks. He has caught fish on everything from topwater lures to spinnerbaits to Rat-L-Traps to Lucky Craft Pointer crankbaits.
“You never know where you’re going to find them,” Isackson said. “They aren’t too picky about where they’ll spawn.
“One time, I told a customer to pitch in on a baby crib that was down on the bottom. He did, and he caught a nice peacock.”
Experiences like that have created a rabid following for the exotic fish. Isackson laughed about the day he took a loyal customer out fishing.
“He rolled up his sleeve and showed me a tattoo of a peacock bass that he had gotten,” Isackson said.
After that brutal cold spell in early January, things are getting back to normal in southern Florida. The water temperature has climbed to 67 degrees, the fish are shaking out of their doldrums and Isackson is back in shorts, fishing for the peacock bass he loves.
“I’m sure the population took a hit with this cold weather,” he said. “But we’re seeing that plenty of fish survived, too.
“If the peacocks can pull off a good spawn, that would definitely help for the future.”