Freshwater fishing in South Florida is unique. Largemouth bass share canals and small lakes not only with peacock bass, but with many of their smaller cousins from Central and South America.
Using a lipless crankbait in a Collier County canal, Jonathan Johnson recently established the first state record for one of the latter, a 2.37 pound Mayan cichlid.
“I looked up the record about six months ago and saw that it was vacant,” said Johnson. “I have caught hundreds of Mayan cichlids but only a couple that I thought were large enough. I was targeting them specifically that day and caught about 25, this being the largest one by about half a pound."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) made the Mayan cichlid, a nonnative species from Central America, eligible for state record status in 2012. But the record has remained vacant until now.
It was first reported in Florida in the early 1980s. During the mid-1990s, the fish began expanding its range and has become common throughout south Florida’s freshwater lakes and canals. Both local and out-of-state anglers target the now-popular fish. Its bright red coloration and scrappy disposition when caught prompted FWC biologists to nickname it the “atomic sunfish.”
In fact, the Mayan is equivalent of a bluegill or crappie in more ways than one. Neither largemouths or peacocks are true bass, but the largest members of fish families with lots of relatives, cichlids for the former and sunfish for the latter. Another of the peacock's cousin, the Oscar, is the No. 1 fish caught in portions of the Everglades and the No. 2 fish sought, behind largemouth. Although reputed to grow to a weight of 3 pounds or more, the state record is 2.34 pounds, caught in 1994 in Lake Okeechobee.
The state record butterfly peacock bass, meanwhile, weighed 9.08 pounds, and was taken in Kendall Lakes during 1993.
Following thorough study to determine that this subspecies of peacock would have little impact on the largemouth population, it was intentionally introduced into the canal system around Miami in 1984. Biologists hoped that it would join the bass in gobbling up smaller cichlids that had been released by irresponsible aquarium owners and could threaten native species via their sheer numbers. While doing just that, it also provides an increasingly popular sport fishery.
Many of the 34 species of nonnative fish now established in Florida are cichlids, including the jaguar guapote. As with the Mayan, FWC requires a minimum of 2 pounds to qualify for a state record.
Fortunately, none of these invaders seemed to have caused major disruptions in native ecosystems "or reduced harvest of native sport fishes," said the FWC. But it encourages anglers to keep all cichlids that they catch, except for the legally-introduced peacock.
"Most exotic fishes provide excellent table fare," the agency said. "In addition, releasing fish from aquariums or moving them between water systems is illegal and could produce detrimental effects."