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Nonnative fish provide exotic fishing alternatives; most have no bag limits!

Fish Busters' Bulletin

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Media contact: Bob Wattendorf, 850-488-0520

Florida freshwater anglers target at least 25 species of native fishes. Most are within a 45-minute drive of anyone wanting to wet a line. In addition to those, the free Florida Big Catch angler recognition program (BigCatchFlorida.com) features six species of exotic fishes from other countries and several fish species that expanded their ranges from farther north.

Of those nonnative fishes, only butterfly peacock bass were stocked intentionally by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) predecessor, during the early 1980s. At the time, expansion of numerous nonnative fish species in south Florida was causing concern. Walking catfish and several types of tilapia were well established. Species, such as piranha, electric eels and freshwater stingray had the potential to be imported by the aquarium industry and posed a threat to native species and a concern to people. Accidental introductions were largely attributed to the aquaculture industry or to individual aquarists.

To safeguard native resources, restrictions on introduction of nonnative species into the state had been passed.

Two lists exist 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 available only under very stringent conditions for research or public display at secure facilities.

There are 41 nonnative freshwater fish species that have been observed or are known to reproduce in Florida. Another 14 species have naturally died out or been eliminated by the agency. To see the list, go to MyFWC.com/WildlifeHabitats, select “Nonnative Species” then “Freshwater Fish.”

Prior to introducing peacock bass in 1984, discussions were held with leading experts from around the country. The purpose was to convert a large biomass of established nonnative fishes, which were too small to attract anglers, into a valuable recreational fishery. Researchers documented the lower lethal temperature of peacock bass and determined they would be able to overwinter consistently only in a limited area of south Florida. The originally imported fish were not stocked, to prevent introducing foreign parasites or diseases. Instead, they were spawned and their eggs grown to fingerling size prior to stocking the offspring.

Chris Collins, associate editor of “Florida Sportsman” magazine, just wrote a story about 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 nonnative fish. He agrees peacock bass are back. Sight-fishing for peacocks using small gold-colored Rapalas or topwater chug baits can be extremely productive. If the water is opaque, try a live minnow. 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 peacock bigger than 18 inches or 4 pounds qualifies for Big Catch recognition.

Not only peacocks were slammed by the cold and are now recovering, said Moser. In late August, he said he had “never seen the fishing as good as the past few weeks.” Several locks along the canal are open, and running water is attracting sunshine bass, peacock bass, clown knifefish -- the whole gamut.

One of his favorites, the unique clown knifefish, are running from 3 to 10 pounds. They are often full of shad but aggressively take any 3- to 4-inch minnow. According to Moser, when hooked they back up, then make a quick run and jump like a tarpon. They are tough to net since they back away and jump, so Moser’s 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 the disturbance or fish 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 not be transported alive elsewhere.

Moser also enjoys catching Mayan cichlids on poppers or minnows. You’ll 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 limit; take all you catch. Those longer than 11 inches or heavier than 1 pound are eligible for a Big Catch certificate.

Vance Crain, an FWC fisheries biologist in the South Region, has observed increased catch rates for oscars. 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 or topwater poppers all work. 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.

Brightly colored Midas cichlids shine in Miami-Homestead canals; look for clear water and sight-fish for them with little jigheads and a worm, using ultralight gear. Crain describes them as “bluegill on steroids.”

Although these species have not caused major disruptions in native ecosystems or reduced harvest of native sport fishes, you should not release them (except peacock bass and triploid grass carp). Releasing fish from aquariums or moving them between water systems could produce detrimental effects and is illegal.

Check current fisheries forecasts, because conditions can vary drastically. Go to MyFWC.com/Fishing, select “Freshwater Fishing” then “Sites and Forecasts.”



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