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‘Vampire fish’ in Florida’s waterways?

By Capt. GEORGE TUNISON - | Apr 23, 2021

Capt. George Tunison

With local angler’s attention focused on tarpon, beach snook, permit, snapper and grouper, exotic fish and animal populations are quietly growing with more heading our way.

If you’ve been waiting all year to battle a bright chrome, high jumping spring tarpon, then hooking into a fish that gets even bigger, and jumps as high will probably get your interest.

In their South American home range, arapaima grow to over 10 feet long, weigh north of 400 pounds and jump high when hooked. Last week many of us saw TV reports of a baby 4-footer found washed up along our river’s shoreline. That’s one heck of a long swim from the Amazon.

Like tarpon, arapaima can breathe below and above the surface allowing them to live in low oxygen content backwater areas.

These huge fish are a major food source for native populations but due to habitat loss and increasing market or commercial fishing, their numbers are dwindling.

With traveling anglers always looking for the next big fish adventure, Amazon locals now enjoy the added income hosting and guiding exotic species anglers from around the world. Quite easy to understand the comparative values of a one fish meal verses one valuable fish that provides income over and over, as it’s caught and released over a period of years.

With our local arapaima population presumably increasing and growing, we might not have to wait long to hook a 10 footer. If you’re into breaking angling records, you’ll have to beat the current IGFA all tackle mark of 339 pounds, 8 ounces.

With other exotics species, like peacock bass, plecostomus, pacu, snakeheads, lionfish, even red bellied piranha, along with a large and diverse population of other South American cichlids now all thriving in Florida’s waters, many local species may become or already are in trouble.

Most of these non-native species originally came from fresh and saltwater fish tank owners releasing their imported exotics into local waters. In salt water, the unusually beautiful and tasty, poison spined lionfish has become a big problem, eating everything in sight and rapidly increasing in numbers.

In some cases exotic or non-native species are introduced on purpose by local agencies like the FWC’s 2019 release of 500 grass carp into the Cape’s Lake Kennedy area to control tape grass. These guys grow to over a hundred pounds and are also sought out by anglers, especially fly anglers. Eighty-seven pounds, 10 ounces is the current all-tackle record for these vegetarians.

In other cases, state agencies releasing non-native species into local waters to control vegetation has caused huge unforeseen problems like the grass carp explosion destroying local fish populations and habit all throughout the Midwest and now threatening the waters of the Great Lakes.

With red-bellied piranha populations now growing in Florida’s fresh water lakes and rivers, the FWC may have to bring in the piranha’s only natural enemy to control them. The “vampire fish” or payara is the only known fish species that regularly snacks on piranha. Growing to 3-4 feet long and sometimes tipping the scales at 40 pounds, they also have become a highly sought after gamefish species by traveling anglers. These powerful, high jumping predator fish feature two, 6-inch fangs growing upwards from their bottom jaw which fit perfectly into two, top jaw holes or sockets, when the fish closes its mouth.

With huge pythons, very aggressive monitor lizards and pesky iguanas all moving north to join our resident gator populations, and our local waters filling with large, strange and sometimes dangerous species of fish, be careful where you wade.

For many the permit is a true bucket list fish and now’s the time to catch one on a nearshore wreck or reef. Have a selection of small crabs (3-4 inches) onboard, and you’re in business.

When permit move back inshore, they are one of the world’s hardest flats gamefish to fool on artificials.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. You can contact him at 239-282-9434 or captgeorget3@aol.com.