This past weekend, I had the privilege of fishing with fellow contributors, Preston and Nick. It was not our typical saltwater outing to Matlacha or Pine Island Sound, though. This time we found ourselves down in Naples fishing freshwater canals and ditches on the side of the road.

2014_Logo_colorIt all started when we saw the flyer put out by the Everglades chapter of the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) about an exotic species kill tournament. I am certainly not one to go out and kill everything I catch, so I was skeptical at first. After looking at the details of the tournament and reading up on just how harmful invasive fish species can be to Florida’s freshwater ecosystems, I was all about it. Invasive fish have no natural predators and threaten native fish populations by competing with them for resources (food, space, etc.). We are encouraged to remove and kill any exotics that we catch to help eradicate their populations. It is also especially important that we do not transport non-native fish to other bodies of water or release our pet fish into the wild.

The goal of the “Non-Native Fish Round Up” was not only to remove these exotics and document their distributions, but also to raise awareness about the invasive species problem plaguing our waterways. This tournament did just that.

After some quick research to familiarize ourselves with potential locations and methods for targeting invasives, we rigged up and were ready to make the drive to the Golden Gate area early Saturday morning. Our first spot was a canal on the southwest end of Golden Gate where we tentatively began looking for exotic fish in our kayaks. The action started slowly with a few small native bass here and there; not what we were looking for. Then, as the sun moved higher, we began seeing the unmistakable electric blue and orange of the mayan cichlids.

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The Mayan Cichlid (cichlasoma urophthalmus) is a beautifully colored, hard fighting fish native to Central and South America. They were unintentionally introduced to southern Florida waters in the 1980s. Due to its ability to tolerate a wide range of salinities and habitats, it has been steadily spreading north just past Lake Okeechobee.

Nick was the first, and only one, to convince a mayan cichlid to eat his white grub-tail jig. They are normally pretty aggressive, but the fish we were seeing likely receive fishing pressure due to their proximity to the boat ramp and park, so they were not eager to eat our flies and jigs. We decided to pack the truck and try our next spot.

The “spot” was really just a nasty water management ditch along Collier Boulevard called the CR-951 canal. We pulled up along the inconspicuous waterway overrun with weeds, and much to our surprise, saw an abundance of life. There were alligator gar, bluegills, bass (some pushing 4 pounds), and, unfortunately, mayan cichlids everywhere.

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After some trial and error and a great deal of persistence, we figured out that the mayans were eager to bite a very small, well placed fly. We walked along the canal for the remaining few hours of the tournament, stopping to cast at the largest of the mayans. Preston managed to land the biggest of the day (a 1.25 lb male) by persistently casting to him for 20 minutes until it decided to attack the pesky fly. Nick ended up with a pair of large mayans while I had a knack for pulling out all the smaller ones (11 total).

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We got to the weigh-in at 3:00 (located at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida), unloaded our catches, and reported the locations where they were taken for the database. Other competitors brought in their catches from all over SW Florida, which included more mayan cichlids, a few oscars, and sailfin catfish.

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The mayan cichlids and other invasives are on the rise and spreading fast. Events like the Non-Native Round Up are great ways to make a dent in slowing them down. With only 17 competitors from our region, this is still a small and not well-known annual tournament. I would strongly encourage people to participate in future years. With an entrance fee of only $15 and the ability to fish anywhere, this is a laid-back tournament accessible to anglers of all fishing abilities. I also learned a lot about our local invasive species issues and saw first hand how they have taken over native fish habitats. It would be great to see tournaments like this continue to grow and for awareness to spread even faster than these invasive species!

 

By: Joey Nicotra