It had been well over a year since I’d last visited the South Florida canal systems. That particular trip took place in February of 2011 and was quite easily my worst trip to the Glades…well…ever. We somehow managed to time our trip perfectly with a cold front that turned the bite completely off for the whole weekend.
That mistake wouldn’t happen again. No cold fronts would be wandering through South Florida in the first weeks of September.
Rather, it was brutally hot. Oven-like, in fact. Hot enough that our chances of catching anything depended on how close we could land a fly to the Lilly pads. The fish might have had the luxury of shade, but we didn’t. Baking in the sun, we could look down the canal to a vanishing point without the first sign of above-water shade.
It was going to be hot, and we were going to need to get used to it. Quickly. We were on the hunt for aquarium fish.
To make a painfully long story short: Cichlids were introduced into the man-made canals of Southern Florida decades ago, many through the exotic pet trade. They became established and eventually thrived. The state introduced the Butterfly Peacock Bass (another cichlid) as a biological control for these invasive fish. Years down the road, we have cichlids, peacock bass, and every other exotic creature you can think of now running around in the Everglades.
But the past few years, finding these fish has been an increasingly difficult task. During the 2009/2010 winter, South Florida experienced record cold temperatures that killed off -A LOT- of cichlids. But even after the winter kill, I managed to find and catch a boat load the following summer. That was 2 ½ years ago and South Florida has yet to see another freeze like that. I therefore assumed the cichlids would be on the rise and back in full force.
But I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life.
Our first stop was one of my “go-to” canals that had always produced fish. I’d brought the 3wt fly rod with me specifically for cichlids and I couldn’t wait to start catching them. However, once we launched into the canal, I noticed something was different. There were few fish to be seen. Normally one can just look into the water and see the cichlids circling roots, rocks, or Lilly pads. But this day was different. I couldn’t see –any- fish. The water was also much clearer than usual. At times, I could look down and see the bottom of the canal approximately 12 feet down. In this same canal, two years prior, I caught a total of 43 NATIVE largemouth bass in addition to a cooler full of cichlids. But this day, I never even saw a largemouth. Something changed and I don’t know what, but we knew it was time to look elsewhere.
Our next stop was the canals off of the Tamiami. Even after the freeze, these canal systems held fish so I was once again hopeful. We launched, motored about a mile down the canal, and started fishing. Almost immediately both my dad and I had a double hook up. Whatever I’d hooked was actually fighting hard and I was praying I’d be pulling up a cichlid. I was relatively surprised when I looked down to see a nice Bluegill on my fly.
My dad’s fish was even bigger.
And it was like that almost every cast. The closer the fly landed to the Lilly pads (and the shade), the better. We could have easily had our limit within just a couple of hours, but I generally like to release natives when fishing in the Everglades. I figure they need all the help they can get while competing with the exotics. That, and I hate cleaning Bluegill. Everyone knows they reproduce once placed on ice and I didn’t feel like being behind a cutting board for hours. In previous years we’d almost caught no Bluegills in this particular canal and I took their presence as a sign that the cichlid numbers were low/non-existent.
No cichlids off of the Tamiami, and we were now running low on ideas. Sure there are plenty of launches into other canals, but those are all located in the kicked-over anthill that is Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. The last thing either of us wanted to do was go fishing smack-dab in the middle of a booming metropolis. Instead we stuck to the saltwater fishing in the Everglades and pretty much crossed cichlids off the list.
But I had an incessant need to land a cichlid on the 3wt. It practically haunted my dreams and I forced my dad to pull over and stop and literally every canal we drove over. And finally, on the second-to-last day of our trip, I stepped out of the truck to check on a roadside canal. I looked down in the water and had to do a double-take. There were cichlids! Lots of them. I scrambled back to the truck and quickly assembled my fly rod.
Once back by the water’s edge, I spotted out 2 big Mayan Cichlids, and made a cast to them. My fly landed only inches from them both and I carefully twitched the fly to entice a bite…But nothing happened.
Confused, I made another cast. This one landing just past them and I began working the fly right between the two fish. To my shock, they spooked. Both fish were terrified of my grasshopper fly.
I repeated this process a few dozen times before I switched flies. Figuring a bead-head nymph couldn’t –possibly- scare a fish away, I began casting it to the exotics below me. But once again, every time the fly came near, the fish spooked. I literally tried everything after that. Different flies, tippits, you name it. Nothing worked.
There are only two things in nature that literally drive me insane: Whitetail deer, and seeing fish that I can’t catch. I was going to solve this “no catching” problem one way or another.
Anyone who has regularly read this blog knows that I’m not a purist when it comes to hunting or fishing methods. I’ll just as soon blast a deer with my rifle as I will stick one with a bow. And I’ll just as soon use a rod and reel as I will hop in the water with a speargun.
So it should be little surprise to anyone that the following morning I was back at the same canal, fresh out of Walmart, with a brand new cane pole and a can of worms.
I walked to the edge of the canal, saw my prey, and could hardly contain myself for all the anticipation. I’d waited almost two years to catch these fish again…and it was about to happen. However, my visions of filling the cooler with cichlids were quickly snuffed. I placed a juicy, wiggling worm right on the nose of a cichlid, and watched as it turned away and swam off to deeper water.
Every fisherman has had –that- moment…The moment when dynamite and hand grenades suddenly seems sporting. When, just once, you’d like to hang up that bow and take out a howitzer for those deer. Or just nail that fish sitting the shallows with a big ‘ol rock.
This was one of those moments…
Completely and totally fed up, I sat down in the tall grass near the edge of the canal, and just watched the water despairingly. But after a few minutes, I noticed the fish were coming back. Right up into the shallows in fact. Slowly, I flipped a worm down to them and…boom. Cichlid.
The curse was broken! And I’d figured out something important. If I stood up, and the fish could see me, there was no chance of hooking one. So I spent the rest of the morning creeping along the high grass like I was on some African safari hunt, and would flip a worm over the edge of the canal in random places. It worked surprisingly well and it wasn’t long before I was filling the cooler with cichlids.
But something was still missing; I’d yet to land one on the fly.
With my new found knowledge and restored confidence, I set about walking down to the water’s edge, crouching in the high grass, and casting parallel to the shoreline. My little fly landed in the mirror still water just a few inches from the shore. I peered through the grass at the ripples it made as it hit the water and I gave it one little “pop”. Immediately, a V-wake moved right for it and a big mayan inhaled the popper.
I did this for the remainder of the evening and caught both Mayans and Oscars on the fly. The fish were spread out quite a bit, so it took some walking in between bites. Unfortunately there were no boat ramps into this canal, which figures since we didn’t bring the kayaks this year. But even with as much work that was involved in just catching one of these fish, I had a blast. They fight exceptionally hard for their size and actually taste great. Hopefully in the coming years they won’t be such a nightmare to hook, but I know I can’t wait to chase them again.