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Florida Fish Busters Bulletin

September 2014

Nonnative fish provide exotic fishing alternatives
By: Bob Wattendorf, with Vance Crain and Kelly Gestring
Freshwater anglers enjoy at least 25
species of popular native game fishes in
Florida year round. Most are within a 45-
minute drive of anyone wanting to wet a line
to enjoy some exciting outdoor recreation.
Besides those species, the free Florida Big
Catch angler recognition program ( features six species of exotic
fishes from other countries and several fish species that expanded their ranges from
further north.
Of those nonnative fishes, only butterfly peacock were stocked intentionally by
the old Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, now the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission (FWC). I had the pleasure of working with exotic fish expert
Paul Shafland at the Nonnative Fisheries Research Lab in Boca Raton during the early
1980s, when initial research and bio-ethical discussions were taking place.
At the time, expansion of numerous nonnative fish species in south Florida was
causing grave concern. An intensive research effort was directed at determining their
impacts on our immensely popular and valuable recreational fisheries, native wildlife
and their habitats. Species such as walking catfish and several types of tilapia were well
established by that time, and we had abolished a breeding population of piranha. Other
species, such as electric eels, electric catfish and freshwater stingray, had the potential
Peacock bass were stocked by the FWC to create a
localized fishery (Photo courtesy of FWC and Vance
to be imported by the aquarium industry as novelty species and posed a threat to native
species and a concern to people. Accidental introductions were largely attributed to the
aquaculture industry, including fish holding facilities around the ports of Miami and
Tampa, or to individual aquarists.
To reduce the chance of further introductions,
the predecesor to todays restrictions on introduction of
nonnative species into the state (Wildlife Code 68-5;
see had been passed. Current rules state
in part that: No person shall transport into the state,
introduce, or possess, for any purpose that might
reasonably be expected to result in liberation into the
state, any freshwater fish, aquatic invertebrate, marine
plant, marine animal, or wild animal life not native to
the state, without having secured a permit from the
Commission. The only exceptions are fathead minnow, variable platyfish, coturnix quail
or ring-necked pheasant.
In addition, two lists were established for species that require permits for
possession. Conditional species require strict adherence to detailed rules intended to
prevent escape, primarily from commercial facilities. Prohibited species permits are only
available under very stringent conditions for research or public display at secure
Currently, there are 23 established, two locally established, nine reproducing but
not-established and seven freshwater fish species that have been observed but are not
John Cimbaro holds up a snakehead
from south Florida. FWC rules are
intended to reduce the introduction and
spread of nonnative species (Photo
courtesy of FWC).
known to reproduce in Florida. Another 14 species have naturally died out or been
eliminated by the agency (go to and select Nonnative
Species then Freshwater Fish).
Prior to introducing peacock bass in 1984, discussions were held with leading
experts from around the country from federal and state fishery agencies, university
scientists and representatives of the American Fishery Society. The purpose was to
convert a large biomass of established nonnative fishes, which were mostly too small to
attract anglers, into a valuable recreational fishery. Studies were conducted that
identified the lower lethal temperature of peacock bass and ensured they would only be
able to overwinter consistently in a limited area of south Florida. Their primary habitat in
Florida is associated with box-cut canals that were built to control water levels in the
Everglades. None of the originally imported fish were actually stocked, to avoid the
chance of introducing foreign parasites or diseases. Instead, we spawned the fish at the
Boca lab, and then reared the eggs to fingerlings prior to stocking those.
Chris Collins, associate editor of Florida Sportsman, penned a great article about
the peacock bass fishery in the publications
September issue. Titled Peacocks rise
again, it highlights the recent recovery of
this multimillion-dollar recreational fishery
following the ultra-cold winter of 2010.
Butch Moser, a local fishing guide on
and around the Lake Osborne-Ida chain-of-
lakes in Palm Beach County, targets
Butch Moser with a clown knifefish, note the long
anal fin that lets them move backwards (Photo
courtesy of Sue Cocking/Miami Herald Staff).
nonnative fish. He concurs that peacock bass are back. Sight fishing for peacocks using
small gold-colored Rapalas or topwater chug baits during the day can be extremely
productive. If the water is too opague to see them, you can anchor in the middle of a
canal and drop a minnow anywhere. Through August, many of these gorgeous fish still
displayed spawning colors. Males had prominent nuchal humps on their foreheads.
Peacock bass are the only nonnative fish designated by the FWC as a gamefish. The
bag limit is two, only one of which may be 17 inches or longer in total length. Any over
18 inches or 4 pounds qualify for Big Catch recognition (13 inches or 3 pounds for youth
younger than 16).
It was not only peacocks that were slammed by the cold and are now recovering,
says Moser. In late August, he said he had never seen the fishing as good as the last
two or three weeks. Several locks along the canal are open, and running water is
attracting sunshine bass, peacock bass, clown knifefish -- the whole gamut.
J ust when you think you have it figured out the patterns shift and fish are hitting
all day long, even in the middle of day, Moser said.
One of his favorites, the unique clown knifefish, are running from 3 to 10 pounds.
They are normally full of shad but aggressively take any 3- to 4-inch minnow coming up
from below to attack the bait. According to Moser, they jump like tarpon, but when first
hooked they actually back up, then make a quick run. They are tough to net since they
back away and jump, so Mosers tip is to get the net under them when they jump.
He recommends watching for a round boil and bubbles on the surface. Cast
directly to disturbance or fish using a float with a live bait 3- to 4-feet deep and kept
down with light weights. In the heat of the day, shade around bridges or pilings is
productive. Since clown knifefish are a relatively new (1994) introduction, with a limited
range in the Osborne-Ida chain, they are not included in the Big Catch program.
Catches should be placed on ice and harvested, and should under no circumstances be
transported alive elsewhere.
Moser also enjoys catching Mayan
cichlids on poppers or minnows. Youll find
them in shallow water. They provide a great
fight and meal. As with all nonnative fish,
other than peacock bass and triploid grass
carp, there is no size or bag limittake all you catch. Those longer than 11 inches or
heavier than one pound (8 inches or 0.75 pounds for youth) are eligible for a Big Catch
Vance Crain, an FWC fisheries biologist in the South Region, has observed
increased catch rates for oscars especially in the L67A canal. You can catch oscars
throughout the L67A, as well as alligator alley, Miami canal, Tamiami and WCA II. Cane
pole anglers do well with crickets and worms, but beetle spins, small Rapalas, top-water
poppers and all work. This winter, anglers came home with dozens every trip. Oscars
have been in Florida waters since at least 1969 and are recognized in the Big Catch
program. To qualify, submit a photo of one 11 inches long or longer, or 1.25 pounds or
heavier (8 inches or 0.75 pounds for youth).
Brightly colored Midas cichlids shine in the Miami-Homestead canals; look for
clear water and sight-fish for them with little jigheads and a worm, using 4-pound
ultralight gear. Crain describes them as Bluegill on steroids.
A beautiful mayan cichlid showing the
characteristic dark eyespot bordered by turquoise
near the tale (Photo by John Cimbaro, FWC).
Although these species have not
been documented to cause major
disruptions in native ecosystems or to
reduce the harvest of native sport fishes,
you should not release them (except
peacock bass and triploid grass carp). Releasing fish from aquaria or moving them
between water systems could produce detrimental effects and is illegal.
Check current fisheries forecasts, because conditions can vary drastically. (Go to and select Freshwater Fishing then Sites and Forecasts. Be
sure to follow the Freshwater Fishing Blog on for
more articles by FWC biologists.

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A showy midas cichlid is a native of Nicaragua and
Costa Rica (Photo by Vance Crain, FWC).