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Gronaw: The canal gig for Florida exotics

As some of you may have surmised, I don’t get out much.

Plain and simple, travel has not been my game over the last decade or so. However, I recently had the opportunity to fish in southernmost Florida for a variety of freshwater “exotics” that have been cruising the ponds, creeks, and canals of that state for several decades.

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There are many enjoyable, yet non-native, species from Naples to Miami and throughout the Everglades vastness that are fun catches and offer unique angling opportunities on a budget-minded foray.

The most popular species are peacock bass, Mayan cichlids, various Oscar species, jaguar guarapote, Midas cichlids and tilapia. Each have their own habits and preferred waters, but many of them “overlap” in these dark and tannic waters that number in the literal thousands of ponds, canals, creeks and potholes of southern Florida.

Throw in standards like largemouth bass, coppernose bluegill, spotted gar, chain pickerel, baby tarpon, and red ear sunfish and one may never know what they are likely to hook at any waterway, on any given day.

This year we have had an extremely mild winter and many media outlets are showing selfies of locals, Eastern Shore and Mid Atlantic anglers with some impressive bass. Yes, we’re in for some cold days and some beefy snowfalls.

I managed to hook up with longtime angling friend Lee Lustig, who is a year-round resident in south Florida and was more than happy to put me on the local population of Mayan cichlids and Oscars. We hand-picked a day that was topping out at 90 degrees and ventured along the expansiveness of the Alligator Alley, Tamiami Trail, and the Turner River Canal system to find these fish and just share the Everglades experience.

When you fish the roadside canals and backwaters of the Everglades, you often encounter alligators, sometimes big and sometimes many. We hit the jackpot at “gatorville central” at our first spot — a long, low-slung bridge deep in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

South Florida transplant Lee Lustig is all smiles with this plus-sized Mayan Cichlid he caught from a roadside canal along the Tamiami Trail. Cichlids, Oscars and gators make for exciting, challenging fishing.
South Florida transplant Lee Lustig is all smiles with this plus-sized Mayan Cichlid he caught from a roadside canal along the Tamiami Trail. Cichlids, Oscars and gators make for exciting, challenging fishing.(Jim Gronaw Photo)

Lee informed me that the secret to landing your catch was to fish away from the cruising gators and try to hurry the fish in before the leviathans could muster an attack. When the gators heard the commotion of a splashing fish, they headed your way. Your next cast should be behind them or off in the distance.

Savvy info, it worked well.

Almost immediately, Lee was into the Mayan cichlids in number and size and he seemed to have a knack for avoiding gators. Using frozen shrimp for bait about 30 inches below a bobber, he calmly moved around on both sides of the bridge and averted them. After failing with some of my more “sophisticated” tactics, I caved in and fished shrimp on a jig below a bobber and found that, “when in the Glades you do what the Gladesmen do.”

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Mayan cichlids are indeed beautiful fish and look somewhat like our local bluegills. They have brown to rust colored flanks with vertical barring and a small, elongated mouth. On their tail they have an “eyespot” that is outlined with a blue or turquoise halo and another blueish patch mid-body. Strong fighting fish, they can exceed a pound and we caught numerous fish that exceeded 10 inches in length.

Lee led the way with several pound-or-better cichlids with the simple bobber and shrimp gig.

On our way back we stopped at a few other promising looking spots that yielded spotted gar and I managed to catch a very large Oscar on a #3 Mepps spinner. This was actually the second Oscar of my stay, having landed another large one from a small pond within walking distance of my hotel. Oscars have been in Florida waters for several decades and can be of several species and in varying color schemes.

They hit a variety of lures and baits and some locals were targeting them in quest of enough fillets for a fish fry. For their size, they have a larger mouth than the bluegills and will attack even bass-intended baits. As a fighting fish, I would classify them as “bluegills on steroids.”

Big, aggressive Oscars will clobber bass-intended baits and fight like bluegills on steroids...what a fish!
Big, aggressive Oscars will clobber bass-intended baits and fight like bluegills on steroids...what a fish!(Jim Gronaw Photo)

The multiple, crimson red eyespots along their upper flanks and tail make them easy to identify and the long, full soft dorsal fins allow for powerhouse fighting ability that would make one think they were much larger than they really are. Wonderful fish!

Before the day was over, I had added four new species to my lifetime “fish list” of catches. No, we didn’t get the coveted peacock bass or the monster tilapia, but we caught a ton of cichlids, some gar, Oscars and a few other surprises along the way.

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You can check out some of our highlights on my YouTube channel “Fishin’ with Jim Gronaw.”

What a great day in the Glades, fishing for whatever would bite. Would I go back? You bet!

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