A quick report on our recent visit to South FL
A scientist from a young age, I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of biological invasion. Alien species taking foothold in novel ecosystems. Often wreaking havoc along the way. In New York, such invasion was limited to a select few. Round Goby, Zebra Mussel and Alwives most prominent among them.
In Florida, however, where I spent my undergraduate years, biological invaders abound. And, while I could write (and, admittedly, have written) term papers on the history of biological invasion in the state, I’ll do my best to avoid that rabbit hole as we move forward.
Instead, let’s focus on the fish. The exotic quarry that still peak my interest near 20 years removed from my time in Florida.
In the near 70 years since the first Oscar found their way into Miami’s urban canals, a tidal wave of exotic fish have inundated south Florida. The fault of agriculture, aquaculture, mother nature and even government forces, many of these fish have established and spread with ease. The result, urban canals and even the remotest of Everglade waterways looking more like an exhibit at your local aquarium than anything that belongs in North America.
An ecological disaster (one of many in south Florida these days), the outcome has also been a boon to the angling community. The bass, snook and juvenile tarpon that have long hunted these waterways now share them with new gang of predators.
Peacock Bass now hunt side-by-side with largemouth. The physical embodiment of the “Fire Tiger” lure pattern, these predatory cichlids were intentionally stocked to combat Oscar and their smaller cousins. Further north, the air-gulping snakeheads, deemed less destructive than their northern brethren, dominate the canals of Fort Lauderdale. And, Clown Knifefish, the oversized oddities that once graced so many childhood aquariums, now abound in the Lake Ida system to the north. At present count, the cichlid species alone total two dozen with new eccentricities adding to the count with each passing year.
Given the diversity of opportunities available (many accessible by foot), it’s a wonder that more anglers don’t flock to south Florida for this intent each year.
When a plan comes together
With an eye towards targeting exotics, Maedbh and I settled on a long weekend visit in early March, booked our flights into Fort Lauderdale and found a hotel southwest of Miami that provided easy access to both the urban canals and Everglades (via the Tamiami Trail). With only four days to work with, we’d be emphasizing diversity over any specific targets with an eye towards documenting the experience through her lens.
While the urban canals of Miami-Dade and adjacent waterways that paralleled the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades would be our primary focus, our flight into and out of Fort Lauderdale offered our best shot at both Clown Knifefish and Snakehead. More common here than in waterways to the south, we hopped our early morning flight intent on completing a first day circuit that would see us head north toward Boca Raton for Knifefish before working our way south intent on targeting Snakeheads, Jaguar Guapote and a variety of smaller cichlids along the way.
Unfortunately, the air travel is never as cut and dry these days as it once was. So…I should not have been surprised when, after touching down in Fort Lauderdale 20-minutes early, we proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an additional hour. Our arrival delayed by what appeared to be a private jet with tires on fire along an adjacent runway.
Additional baggage delays and rental car hiccups behind us, we reassessed our situation as we hit the road and elected to bypass the drive north for knifefish in favor of better odds at a snakehead nearer to Fort Lauderdale.
While snakehead abound in nearly every waterway in Broward county, we made our way to a small public park with access to both a prominent canal system and shallow manmade lagoon. Cyber sleuthing had suggested this park offered our best bet for a snakehead, and I did my best to mimic the tactics of conventional anglers who frequent the same waters.
Rigging my 8-wt with a large, black deer hair pattern attached to a short, heavy tippet, I began working the lily pad chocked edges of canals. Ambush predators, the snakehead were known to hold close to the edges of the canal. Lying in wait among the rocks and weeds. Their strikes explosive as they keyed in on passing prey.
The action that followed did not disappoint as my topwater offering was greeted with explosive strike after explosive strike. However, for whatever reason, my hook never seemed to connect, and, time and again, the explosive strike was followed by a limp line.
Winds eventually limiting my ability to cast the large topwater bug, I switched to smaller subsurface offerings. First selecting a micro gamechanger lost when it was taken by a large mayan cichlid already tethered to the bottom by a bait fisherman’s large hook and heavy braid.
In the end though, it was the swap to a simple yellow woolly bugger that finally broke the skunk and brought a fish to hand. Working the weedy edge of the main canal, I had just watched in awe as a large snakehead gulped air mid-canal when a large Oscar passed in and out of view. Flipping the fly to the opening where I next expected it to appear, my line went taut.
An unexpectedly strong fish for its size, this original Florida invader (perhaps the slimiest fish I have ever held) proved a worthy first catch on our exotics adventure.
The sun now getting low in the sky, we decided it was time to call it a day. Heading to our disaster of a hotel (a story for another day) before treating ourselves to dinner and drinks along Calle Ocho. What is a trip to Miami after all without a Cuban Sandwich and Mojitos?
With three days of fishing to go, there would be plenty of time for more fish.