Like many anglers, I cut my teeth chasing bluegills and sunfish in farm ponds, first with worms under a pencil bobber, then graduating to cork popping bugs trailing behind a spinning bubble, and eventually to a fly rod. It’s fun to revisit those carefree kid fishing days when I caught fish-after-fish in the warm Kansas summer sun courtesy of a newcomer to Florida that’s a bit of a bluegill look-alike—the Mayan Cichlid (p. sicklid), also called Atomic Sunfish because of their explosive colors. When the snook are snoozing, the redfish retiring, and tarpon torpid, these hard-fighting invaders from south of the border provide endless entertainment.
Indeed, my fishing buddy Bob Wayne and I are so enamored with them that we call them Mayan Chicklettes, which sounds ever so much more inviting and appropriate than the unappealing name some scientist visited upon them.
What’s not to like about these invaders? They may not be all that big, rarely growing larger than nine or ten inches, but in addition to their flamboyant colors, they are eager to eat anything that moves and feisty with pulsating runs courtesy of a big fantail caudal fin.
It’s so nice to have an immigrant from Central America that even Trump could love…if he fished. Chicklettes are indeed invasive, found throughout the Everglades in fresh and brackish water. They were first discovered in the area in 1983, probably released from home aquariums by owners when they got too big or perhaps escaped from aquaculture impoundments. Now they are everywhere in canals lining highways throughout the region like the Tamiami Trail (US 41) and in backcountry brackish water lakes and ponds and waterways like Halfway Creek and the Turner River. The real treat and test is in the backwater lakes where sight fishing for Chicklettes along shorelines in shallow water is a real possibility.
Standard gear for snook, redfish, and seatrout are just fine for Chicklettes. I favor a light/medium 6 1/2-foot spin rod with a 2500 series reel and don’t switch from my usual 30# test leader that I use for bigger fish. Chickies are definitely not leader shy. Any lure that resembles a small forage fish or minnow will work. Just remember to keep them little given their diminutive mouths. My favorite is a mini orange or yellow curlytail mounted on a 1/16 ounce or smaller jighead.
My somewhat snobby fishing buddy Mr. Wayne favors a 6-7 weight fly rod and a small streamer, size 4 or smaller.
He also whacks them on surface popping bugs, although we both find larger fish down deeper. A caveat: Bring along a good hook remover for your flies. The critters have small mouths and some small but nasty sharp protruding little teeth that make extraction with one’s phalanges a challenge.
The Chicklettes seem to turn on best in warmer water (above 70 degrees), which is not surprising given the warm climates where they originated. In Florida they spawn in March and then right through the summer. They usually have several broods each year which accounts for their prolific numbers.
This is one fish you should keep and eat. It’s easy to catch a mess, and you will be doing your conservation duty by removing this invasive species. Scientific studies have established reductions in native fish populations when Chicklettes increase in number, probably through competition for food and space as well as predation. So have a blast catching these scrappy little beauties, then enjoy a tasty dinner after.