“Huh?! Come again,” I asked, straining to hear over the cell phone connection. “Where did you say exactly?”
“Behind the Walmart in Blahblahville, he said, “Yeah, right behind the Walmart shopping center at the intersection of Yaddahyaddah and Umptyscratch Streets. You can’t miss it.”
“There’s a freshwater canal back behind it, and at this time of year, they’ll be stacked up in there,” he promised.
Naturally, I was deeply skeptical of the simple instructions, especially the part about finding good fishing behind a shopping center. But without other options, I followed the local fishing guide’s instructions to a T.
He was right, there in the canal behind that giant Walmart Supercenter rested my South Florida quarry: peacock bass.
I’ve wanted to chase these big golden-green tropical fish from the Amazon region for a long time. I just wasn’t crazy about the expense of getting from the good ol’ US of A to South America to fish for it.
I’d heard that they’d been brought to South Florida to battle the growing populations of invasive fish that had been taking over the freshwater canals that crisscross Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
These invasives are even sometimes aquarium fish – like oscars – that people chuck into the canal system to get rid of.
I’ve fished Florida’s salt waters many times but I’d heard that the freshwater fishing in the suburban canals – and the Everglades – are often overlooked by traveling fishers. I’d also heard that the freshwater fishing shouldn’t be missed.
So when a Naval Academy classmate invited me for a visit to Fort Lauderdale, I packed my bags pronto.
I planned to arrive a little early to do some fishing before meeting up with the local guide and then afterward with my shipmate. Before heading south, I asked the guide about how to do DIY peacock bass on the fly.
He told me that since it was mid-March, the peacock bass – which are actually cichlids, not bass – would probably be post-spawn and protecting their nests from predators. They’d be very aggressive toward any fly (or lure) you put in front of them.
He was right.
I arrived at Walmart mid-afternoon to find behind it a wide, well-groomed grassy area along a canal. The guide told me that the “peas” – as some call them – don’t get active till the water warms up later in the day so my timing was perfect.
I parked the car, slathered on sunscreen and rigged up my 6-weight fly rod with a sink tip line right from my luggage in the trunk of the rental car. Obviously not shopping, I kept waiting for Walmart security to shoo me off.
“It just couldn’t be this easy,” I thought, “here I am chasing peacock bass – the king of the canals – an hour or so after leaving Fort Lauderdale airport.”
As I approached the canal down a gentle slope – my head on the swivel for some massive alligator protecting its turf – I saw a good-sized, male peacock backed up to the shoreline in about a foot or two of water.
The males have this large, unmistakable lump atop its forehead during the spawning season.
I launched a chartreuse and white Clouser Minnow fly to within a few feet of it. The kerplunk of the heavy fly didn’t seem to spook the pea. I stripped the fly to within a few inches of the bass and – boom – it hammered it.
The peacock bulldogged for a few seconds, but after a couple of short, powerful runs, the 2- to 3-pound fish easily came to hand. The first fish of several I’d land that afternoon, marching my way through suburbia with a fishing rod in my hand.
Indeed, friendly homeowners on the opposite bank cheerfully gave me scouting reports on the peacocks they’d seen while walking their dogs along the canal – and wished me luck.
I also caught plenty of peacocks with the guide on a lake using his bass boat the next day. The Everglades canals, guided by my classmate and a pal of his, were even more fun. The variety of freshwater fish was impressive, including peas, largemouth bass, Florida gar and the colorful Mayan cichlid, among others.
From what I understand, Florida’s peas aren’t as big as those in the Amazon. But who needs the Amazon? I’m plenty happy hooking into these great sportfish anywhere – even in a canal behind a shopping center.