Quirky peacock breaks the fishing rules

The peacock bass is a formidable fish that defies normal conventions. This permanent resident alien species from South America sports rainbow instead of camo. It bites more aggressively in bright sunlight than gloom. Its very nickname is a misnomer because it's a cichlid and, therefore, no relation to the largemouth, the smallmouth or the spotted. And it can be caught and released using almost any fishing technique - from deep-running crankbait to fly rod.

"They're bonefish that won't swim away," jokes Hollywood's Alan Zaremba, peacock guide extraordinaire, who has tracked the species from the southernmost canals of South Miami-Dade to Lake Ida in Palm Beach County.

Carolyn Epstein, a skilled light-tackle saltwater angler who lives in Islamorada, had never caught a peacock bass until she accompanied Zaremba to the Snapper Creek (C-2) Canal system in South Miami-Dade a couple weeks ago. On that day, Zaremba would have preferred to fish canals to the north where he had just seen larger fish beginning to spawn. But guide and angler settled on Snapper Creek because Epstein only had a half-day open.

"This is a totally different type of fishing than what you're used to," Zaremba told her as they departed the narrow boat ramp at Snapper Creek Dr. and SW 97 Place. "We're going to go find fish; we're not going to blind-cast."

This time of year, Zaremba likes to sight-fish for peacocks which he says are in a "territorial mode" due to spawning. He incites them to strike by pitching noisy, bright-colored Rat-L-Traps weighing 3/8 to 5/8 ounces as they sit - virtually snarling - in their rocky lairs along canal banks.

The guide favors 30-pound Power Pro for this technique.

"When they are on the beds, I don't want to use super-light line so the fish has to struggle and has difficulty getting back on the bed," he explained.

After a short demonstration of how to pitch the blue-and-silver Rat-L-Trap, Zaremba and Epstein began their peacock exploration. Using a bow-mounted trolling motor, he idled along the Kendall canal in his 20-foot Sea Chaser skiff scanning the shallows. Unfortunately, a persistent cloud cover forced him to idle closer to the bank than he would have preferred.

Within a few minutes, guide and angler located a pair of peacocks facing out from a limestone bed, red pectoral fins shining garishly despite the overcast skies.

Epstein made three or four creditable underhand pitches to the peacocks' stony fortress, inciting the smaller one to charge briefly after the Rat-L-Trap. But the fish stopped short of nailing the lure.

"Initially, they get mad. Then they calm down and then they get upset again," Zaremba explained.

Eventually, the peacock could stand it no longer and inhaled the bait. Epstein reeled in a 1-½-pounder - her first.

"They're so beautiful," she said, admiring its bright hues before releasing it.

The Sea Chaser continued slowly along the canal bank, stopping beneath a low bridge where a pair of peacocks lurked beside a concrete piling. After Epstein made several perfect pitches with no strikes, Zaremba decided to switch to a larger and even more garish red-and-yellow Rat-L-Trap with black stripes. Eventually, the new bait yielded a 2-½-pounder, plus about a half-dozen more peacocks before it was time to head back to the ramp.

All were released.

"If you want the fishing to remain as good as it is, you have to put them back," Zaremba said.

His favorite South Florida peacock season is October through early December when the fish usually aren't spawning, but tend to roam around in packs chasing bait.

As waters get colder, the fish grow sluggish and don't make themselves as visible. From numerous trips to the Amazon, Zaremba has learned that fast-trolling floating No. 4 and No. 9 Rapalas, especially underneath bridges, is key to locating scattered fish.

"Very fast - five to eight miles per hour - like wahoo fishing," he said.

Just another quirk of an exotic fish that breaks all the rules - to the unending delight of anglers.