By Steve Waters
Although South Florida is renowned for its largemouth bass fishing, exotic fish such as peacock bass and snakeheads have established themselves as bucket-list fish for both local and visiting anglers.
One of the best places to catch the latter two species is Lake Ida and the canals that are connected to the lake. They extend from Boca Raton to Boynton Beach.
Peacock bass were stocked in several canals in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the mid-1980s by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist Paul Shafland. His goals were to provide recreational fishing opportunities and for the peacocks, which feed primarily on fish, to control the expanding populations of illegally introduced exotic species such as tilapia and Mayan cichlids.
Shafland’s plan was a huge success. The colorful fish that are native to South America’s Amazon River and its unspoiled jungle tributaries are equally at home in the bustling canals of Palm Beach County. After being stocked, peacock bass migrated north into the Lake Ida chain.
Some of the best fishing is in the C-15 Canal along the Boca Raton-Delray Beach line, the Hunters Run canal just north of the boat ramps at Lake Ida Park in Delray Beach, and the Boca Rio canal that runs along the western side of Florida’s Turnpike in Boca Raton.
Angler Ed Connell shows off one of 38 big snakeheads he caught on a single fishing trip with Zaremba. BELOW RIGHT: Snakeheads are known to be attracted to frog lures floating on the surface of the water.
Those same waterways also are home to snakeheads. According to the FWC, bullseye snakeheads are native to Pakistan, Malaysia and southern China. They were first documented locally in 2000. No one knows for certain how they got here, although they were sold by some pet shops, so it’s likely that aquarium owners released the fish, which can grow to about 15 pounds.
What anglers do know is that snakeheads love to chase down lures fished on the surface, they fight hard and their firm, white flesh is low in mercury and can be prepared in a number of tasty ways.
Capt. Alan Zaremba, who specializes in fishing for snakeheads and peacock bass, said his anglers can catch both species on the same trip using hard jerkbaits and topwater plugs in local canals. Snakeheads also bite soft-plastic frogs and jerkbaits fished on the surface.
“To me, this is the best time to go after snakeheads,” Zaremba said. “They seem to be done with all of their spawning; they’re done with protecting their young. And they’re sitting underneath the cover waiting for food, and they’re feeding right now.”
One of his best days was just before a November cold front when he guided his angler to 20 snakeheads. He later smashed that personal best when he and his customer Ed
Connell caught and released 38 snakeheads up to 11 pounds.
They were fishing in shallow, narrow, shabby looking canals in Boca Raton. Snakeheads breathe air, so water quality does not matter to them. They do like canals lined with vegetation, where they wait to ambush small fish as well as frogs, lizards, snakes and baby ducks and birds.
“When I get somebody who wants to target snakeheads, I take them into my ugliest canals and that’s where the best fishing is,” Zaremba said, adding that many of those canals are 4-5 feet deep and shallower. “That’s not to say you can’t find snakeheads in deeper canals, but the ones that are actively feeding are usually in canals with not much water in them, and they’re usually very narrow.”
Zaremba said snakeheads are wary, so long casts are essential to avoid spooking the fish.
He rigs his spinning outfits with 15- and 20-pound braided line, which casts farther than monofilament line of the same strength, and has his anglers retrieve the lures across the surface and parallel to the bank.
When you see the wake of a snakehead following your lure, keep reeling until the fish hits it. Then drop the rod tip, reel up the slack line and set the hook. If all goes well, you can check off the snakehead from your bucket list and even take it home for dinner.
Outdoors writer Steve Waters can be reached at email@example.com.