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Cichlids are small but big fun

They came to south Florida in a quiet, undetermined way, and are making a name for themselves.

They are short and stocky and full of fight. When they strike, they hit hard.

These hardy fish, increasing in number, rarely do but can grow more than a foot in length and reach 2{ pounds.

The fish are welcomed by some and unwanted by others, but the Mayan cichlids can't be denied attention.

The reason for some disdain is that the cichlid _ the cousin to oscars, peacock bass and tilapia _ is referred to as exotic or non-native and invasive. No one knows who invited the fish to the party.

The first records of cichlids date back to 1983 in Florida Bay. The fish are not exclusive to freshwater, as they can tolerate a wide range of salinities.

The Mayan cichlids are invading large areas to the south, from Florida Bay to the Everglades and small waterways. Even Lake Okeechobee has a fair population of them.

How they got here is a mystery. But through the receptive hands of anglers and the species' proclivity to breed, cichlids rapidly are becoming a fish to be reckoned with.

"You can catch a hundred of them," anglers say.

There lies the reason some groups have put a bounty on the cichlid. Nevertheless, anglers pursue the fish with the enthusiasm they show for larger, more game targets.

My last fishing trip to south Florida was for oscars. The allure was simple. I heard that a half-pound oscar could pull a 1-pound bass backward. Enough said.

On a recent outing, though, the quarry would be oscar's tougher cousin _ the Mayan cichlid.

It was at the insistence of long-time friend Frank Morello, a retiring Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, that I first fish for the oscars then the cichlids.

Both fish can be caught simultaneously, but during that first trip a cold front kept the cichlids at bay. Still, the chance to fight a small catch that packs a wallop couldn't be ignored. I had to return for the Mayans.

One of the benefits of pursuing either species is that you don't have to get up long before dawn to catch them. We didn't leave the dock until 9:30 on each outing.

Oscars and cichlids, being tropical fish, thrive in high temperatures. Often, the best bite occurs during the mid-day summer heat.

Both are easy to find depending on the water level. If it is down, the canals and ditches that make up the Everglades will hold large congregations of fish. It is then that anglers can land the highest number.

When the water level is high, the fish spread onto the vast flats. In the tangled river of grass, the fish find a myriad of places to hide and the catch rates go down.

Cichlids are highly predatory and will strike live and artificial baits. Red wiggler worms, grass shrimp, snails, small fish and crickets are among their favorite live baits. Jigs, small spinners, wooly streamers and popping bugs are some of the artificial lures they will hit.

We used crickets rigged on small wire hooks under bobbers.

Some of the best waterways to try are the ditches and canals of the Everglades.

For west coast anglers, Alligator Alley gives access to prime cichlid territory. Once on the part of I-75 that crosses from the west to the east, there are numerous access points complete with launch ramps.

Shore-side anglers will have to find their fish in places with scarce vegetation. It is safer to search for Mayans in those spots than to work overgrown areas because the alligators are plentiful and reside along the banks.

These fish and others are among the main attractions for anglers fishing the ditches of the Everglades. If the restoration begins, the plan is to fill in the ditches and canals.

Once completed, a tremendous fishery and millions of dollars will be lost. There are numerous arguments for both sides of the project. Only time will tell which restoration idea is adopted.

_ If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino, (352) 683-4868.