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When I was a kid I watched in horror as my favorite pet goldfish Raisin devoured his fish bowl companion. To make matters worse, my mom brought me into the bathroom to watch Raisin spin off into oblivion with one flush of the toilet. Perhaps a more ethical solution would have been to release him in a nearby pond, though he would have never survived an upstate New York winter.

In southeast Florida, it’s rumored that some tropical fish owners could no longer care for their growing aquarium pets. Too big to flush, they dumped them in the freshwater canals behind their homes. Today, some of these exotic species are thriving in Florida’s tropical environment.

While largemouth bass have called these freshwater canals home for years, they now share the same waterways with exotics like the colorful butterfly peacock bass, Mayan cichilids, tilapia, snakehead, Oscars and even the “eel-like” clown knifefish.
Some anglers go to great lengths traveling to South America and Thailand to catch these exotic fish. For me, only a two-hour car ride from my parent’s winter home separated me from this new adventure.

I met up with Brian Nelli of Pushin Water Kayak Charters who was more than willing help me land a few of these exotics. We met at an undisclosed location where our Hobie Mirage Outback kayaks could be easily slid down the bank and into these residential canals. Our first stop would be a ten-minute paddle to where the canal opened up into a small lake.

While peacock bass and clown knifefish have been known to take artificial lures, they can’t resist a live minnow swimming freely in front of their noses. A large bucket with a battery-operated aerator would sit behind our seat and keep our bait alive during the day.

We each were armed with a medium weight spinning rod, braided line, a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader and a small hook with no weight. I hooked a live minnow through the lips and gradually let line out behind the kayak. A half of a kick of the MirageDrive gave us enough momentum to move the live bait along a drop off where fish were lurking.

Not three minutes had passed in our snail-like troll and I felt a tap, tap on my line. “Let him chew it!” Brian yelled at me. I flipped the bail of the reel, allowing the fish to take line and then laid into him with a strong hook set. A strong run and this 17-inch largemouth would fly out of the water several times before I could lip and release him. We made a couple more passes picking up a half dozen largemouth. Today, largemouth bass would be the bycatch…

We pedaled on. While Brian was checking every dock for a peacock bass that might be hiding, I was distracted by the numbers of iguanas dotting the back yards of these communities. Another exotic species thriving in paradise.

We came to a bridge overpass. We tossed an anchor and tied it off to the back of the kayaks in order to hold position from the wind blowing toward the bridge. This time we would be casting minnows against the underside wall of the bridge. Peacock bass seek shelter in the darker water under the bridge and ambush their bait against a wall or the shoreline. One cast and about two minutes would be all it took to hear the sound of my drag pulling line. Where there was one peacock bass there were usually a few more. These hard-fighting fish are quite colorful with parts of green, yellow and orange with a large spot near their tail. A four- to five-pound peacock is a large fish in Florida in comparison to their distant relatives in the Amazon that can reach over 20 pounds.

We knocked off two species but still needed a clown knifefish to complete this tropical slam. Our last stop would be the honey hole, off the beaten path where few boats can access. The clowns liked to hang out under another bridge with moving current. I quick-tossed a live minnow under the bridge, allowing it to sink closer to the bottom. Clown knifefish have poor eyesight and therefore rely on their lateral lines to feel the vibration of an approaching meal.

Before my minnow reached the bottom my line got slammed. The drag screamed as I held the fish from running into one of the bridge pilings. It was a couple silver flashes in the milky brown water. This fish was all muscle. Brian grabbed the net but before the net hit the water, the clown went aerial, landing inside the kayak at my feet. We covered the fish with the net in the bottom of the kayak to keep it from leaping overboard. A pair of BogaGrips helped held this beautiful fish for a couple photos, then we released her.

Just another day at the tropical fish store!

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