I almost never write about freshwater fishing even though I do a fair amount of it right in my backyard. I live on a small lake in Southwest Cape Coral and it's full of fish, especially largemouth bass, bluegill, and tilapia. Sometimes I'll put in my flats boat at the ramp up the street but usually I tool around in my 12' dinghy with a small electric motor that we keep on the dock. My boy does the driving and I'll toss flies at the bank, usually catching a handful of small to medium size bass around sunset. It's an absolute blast and the Cape actually has over 400 miles of canals and quite a few lakes that are almost all accessible to everyone. While most hardcore bass anglers will head to Lake Okeechobee for its giant largemouth, Cape Coral has plenty to offer. We also have quite a few exotic species to catch like the very popular peacock bass.
This stunningly beautiful and hard fighting fish isn’t actually a bass at all but a member of the South American cichlid family. Even though they’re native to the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, peacocks are not considered an invasive species here in Florida. They were actually introduced by the state in 1984 to control other non-natives around the Miami-Dade area. As a bonus, South Florida got a great new gamefish that quickly made its way across Alligator Alley, mostly in the Naples and Golden Gate area. This was obviously thanks to some anglers practicing what's known as “bait bucket biology.” It's not exactly legal to move these fish from spot to spot, but no one really complains.
Ever since we moved to the Cape I planned to make a trip down to Collier County to finally catch my first peacock, but never seemed to find the time. About three years ago, a member of the local bass club mentioned some canals in the Northwest Cape where they were abundant, and that kicked things into gear. My buddy and fellow writer Capt. Alex Moran whipped up a dozen peacock bass flies, which were just simple pink and green Clouser Minnows, and we launched my 18' Beavertail Vengeance into fresh water for the very first time. Since we were both rookies at this, I wasn’t expecting much to happen. I figured we’d need a couple trips to different parts of the Cape before we stumbled upon the fish, but that wasn’t the case.
After a few dozen casts along a concrete seawall, Alex came tight to a half-pound largemouth, his first Florida bass. A few yards later he got another slightly stronger hit. This time we saw some color in the water and a similar sized peacock came thrashing to the surface. This was the first one I’d ever seen in person and one of the most photogenic animals I’ve ever encountered. Peacock bass are truly gorgeous but even better than that, they were eager to eat our flies. We stuck a few more before dark and then went out the next day on a windy and rainy morning. This trip was even better and we landed half a dozen peacocks and a single largemouth on one short stretch of canal. We were both really surprised that the peas outnumbered the largemouth by about four to one in this area.
These fish all hit the same Clouser Minnow and seemed to like a fast retrieve. Most grabbed the fly just a yard or two from the shoreline or right under a dock. When one of us was on the bow with the fly rod, the other was at the back of my skiff casting a small Zara Spook with spinning gear. This got a few hits but was way less effective than the fly. None of the fish we caught were trophies. Peacock bass can grow three feet long and weigh over 20lbs. The world record fish was 27lbs and was caught in the Rio Negro River in Brazil. The Florida record is just over 9lbs and came from Dade County. Our Cape Coral peas are definitely a much younger population, probably reestablished by local anglers after the freeze-induced fish kill that hit us back in 2010.
Now it's three years later and I'm finally starting to catch juvenile peacock bass right in my backyard lake. I'd seen a few from my dock but wasn't sure if I was looking at the similar and more common Mayan cichlids instead. My son and I were out in the dinghy last month catching our usual sunset largemouths when I got an usually hard hit and in came a palm-sized peacock. That was probably a six-month-old fish so they're definitely breeding out there. They grow quickly so in another year or two we could have some real trophies right behind my house.
While we probably won’t be setting any world records here in Lee County, I couldn’t be happier. We have a relatively new species in our backyard that’s hard-fighting, beautiful, not all that difficult to catch, and you really don’t even need a boat to do it. There are still plenty of open shorelines, especially in the Northwest part of Lee County. Spend some time with our local peacock bass. They’re one more reason that this part of Florida might be the best place to live in the entire state.
Capt. Gregg Mckee