The waters flowing through Big Cypress National Preserve always have been a lure to anglers.
When the annual dry season arrives each winter, all the bass and panfish that normally spread over tens of thousands of acres of shallow marsh are pulled back into the only remaining water - the canals and sloughs - creating a fishy stew.
In years past, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sometimes removed the size and bag limits there, allowing anglers to take all the fish they wanted. Otherwise, many would starve before summer rains again sent them back into the broad swamp habitat.
There are still plenty of bass and other native fish in Big Cypress. But these days, the resident fish rarely beat imports from Central and South America to the hook.
The waters, including pretty much every wet spot south of Lake Okeechobee from coast to coast, have been invaded by species brought into Miami as aquarium pets decades ago. And a lot of these pets were released into area canals when they got too big for their fish bowls.
They quickly took to their new home, with plenty of food and water temperatures approaching what they were used to in their native countries. And in the past 20 years, they have spread throughout the Everglades and Big Cypress, creating a new ecosystem.
Drop a fly or earthworm on a hook into the water flowing under any bridge along Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami and you soon will sample some of the colorful aliens that live there.
Most are of the cichlid family, corrupted to ``chiclets'' by local anglers.
They'll Eat Anything
They are colorful panfish that average about 8 inches long, but sometimes exceed 12 inches. And all are known to readily take an assortment of artificial flies, worms, crickets, grass shrimp and pretty much anything else that will fit down their throats.
All of these species are prolific spawners, and some of the better canal areas are so jammed with them that the surface looks as if someone is constantly throwing handfuls of pebbles into the water as the fish feed steadily on minnows and grass shrimp. All of these imports are edible, and there is no bag or size limit on them.
And, there are some added ``visitors'' that have been imported on purpose.
The peacock bass, also known as the butterfly bass for its amazing yellow, black and red coloration, has been stocked in southeast Florida canals for at least a decade. These fish are true gamefish, reaching at least 10 pounds and fighting more like snook than freshwater bass. They readily strike artificial lures and live shiners, and they're delicious on the table.
Because the conservation commission hopes the peacocks continue to thrive, there's a limit of two fish daily, and only one more than 17 inches can be kept daily. (Peacocks are more common in Miami-Dade County than in Big Cypress, however.)
All of these species are from the tropics, and thus far seem to be limited by cold weather. There have been no reports of any of them surviving north of Lake Okeechobee.
Tilapia Are Everywhere
The same can't be said of the blue tilapia, mistakenly called the ``Nile perch'' by many anglers.
Not only is Tilapia aurea common in South Florida, it's found in pretty much every lake throughout the central part of the state, and even in brackish coastal rivers. It gets up to 4 pounds, but is a vegetarian, so it's tough to catch on a hook. Some anglers catch them on frozen peas, but otherwise the only way to capture them is with a cast net.
They are good eating, but little utilized, and they compete with bass for prime spawning shorelines.
The southern visitors appear to have settled in permanently, and anglers might as well enjoy the invasion.
All of the panfish-sized chiclids put up a good battle on the hook, and a stop at any bridge along the trail, or on Loop Road that exits U.S. 41 at Monroe Station and rejoins it at 40-Mile Bend, will supply endless opportunities to catch the brightly colored critters.
The graveled and sometimes potholed Loop Road also offers the attraction of lots of unwary alligators very willing to pose for photos, as well as lots of bird life and some interesting views of the interior of a cypress swamp. The water is clear enough that you can see every fish in every pool. And you just might get lucky and spot a black bear or a panther; this is the heart of the limited Florida panther range.