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Fishing for cichlids provides fun and good eating [Sun Sentinel :: BC-OTD-FISHING-CICHLIDS:FL]

In South Florida's tropical climate, many exotic fish species are right at home in local ponds, lakes and canals.

Mayan cichlids and Oscars are two of the more abundant non-native species. Both are from South America, although Mayans are also native to Central America.

Anglers who fish bass tournaments in the Everglades dislike catching them because reeling in and unhooking Oscars and Mayans reduces the amount of time they have to catch bass. But pretty much everybody else likes catching the hard-fighting cichlids, which are also good to eat.

Those species turned a slow bass trip at Sawgrass Recreation Park into a pleasant outing. Paul Schmitz of Coral Springs, Fla., and I were hoping to catch 100 or more bass, but high water levels all but shut down the bite.

Fortunately, Schmitz's friend Glen Luensman of Barrington, Ill., did catch a couple of colorful Mayans and an Oscar on the small popping plug that he was using for bass.

"I thought it was a bass," said Luensman after he landed the Oscar, which snagged the lure on a lily pad in the north canal at Sawgrass, forcing Luensman to reel in the fish and the vegetation. "He's a little fighter."

"That what makes up for the slow times if the bass aren't biting," said Capt. Alan Zaremba of Hollywood, who specializes in guiding anglers from all over the world for peacock bass in local urban canals and the Everglades.

"It's part of what we do here. All the exotics play into it, and it's great for our tourism."

Zaremba noted that even mudfish, a hard-fighting native species with a mouthful of teeth that hit everything from plugs to plastic worms to dead shiners, are a treat for his out-of-town customers.

"They get a bad rap from bass fishermen, but if you're not a bass fisherman, they're great," Zaremba said. "A good tug's a good tug."

Zaremba said small jerkbaits, panfish lures such as Beetle Spins and Rooster Tails, topwaters such as Tiny Torpedoes, any popping fly and live worms and crickets will all catch Oscars and Mayans, as well as natives such as bluegills, spotted sunfish, shellcrackers and warmouths.

He said the key is to cast whatever you're using close to the bank, beyond the lily pads that line the canals. Zaremba uses 10- or 15-pound braided line with a 15-pound monofilament leader so his anglers can bring the fish through the lily pads.

Kelly Gestring, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who specializes in non-native fish, said Oscars have been in South Florida since the 1950s. A popular aquarium fish, they were most likely released by their owners into local waters, which is illegal.

Gestring said Mayans were first documented in Everglades National Park in the early 1980s and have since spread up the west coast to Tampa and up the east coast to Merritt Island.

The good news: Mayans and Oscars don't appear to have that negative an impact on native fisheries.

"They're problematic, but not catastrophic," Gestring said. "They are permanent members of our fish communities, and we're not going to be able to remove them.

"They do provide some pretty interesting recreational angling unlike anywhere else."

Anglers from a number of southeastern states come to places like Everglades Holiday Park to fill 128-quart coolers with Oscars and Mayans because there are no size or bag limits.

The consumption of exotic species is something Gestring encourages.

For everyone but young children and women of childbearing age, the Florida Department Health fish consumption advisory is two meals of Mayan cichlid per week, a meal being six ounces of cooked fish, for fish caught in most canals from the Everglades to the Lake Ida chain of lakes.

In areas where Mayans have higher levels of mercury, such as Everglades National Park, meals should be limited to one per month.

For Oscars caught in Water Conservation Area 3A, which extends from the Broward-Palm Beach county line to Tamiami Trail, the recommendation is one meal per week. To see the entire advisory list, visit floridahealth.gov.

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