Tilapia On Fly-Backyard Bulldogs By: Josh Broer

You may have ordered tilapia at a local restaurant, or have seen them for sale at the grocery store. It’s usually the least expensive seafood entrée on the menu, and the least expensive fillets in the store.  It’s actually a decent table fare, and an easily farm-raised fish. Throughout Florida, for decades, locals have been harvesting these fish with bow and arrow and cast net.  But, there’s another use for them.

Although Tilapia are an invasive species to Florida and have overpopulated many of our lakes and ponds, years ago I discovered that there is at least one benefit.  The Blue Tilapia, or Oreochromis aureus, is native to Northern and Western Africa, and the Middle East. They are primarily a fresh and brackish water fish that lives in a wide range of habitats such as streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. Tilapia were introduced into Florida in 1961 and are now the most widespread foreign species in Florida. The bad part – they change the fish community structure, because they increase competition for food sources and spawning grounds.  The good part – they are a ton of fun on a fly rod!
In late Winter and early Spring, you can walk past almost any retention pond or lake and see the males guarding their beds.  The males dig large, circular nests with their mouths in shallow water over sandy bottom.  The male swims out to a passing female and leads her to the nest where courtship occurs. Females lay eggs and immediately take the fertilized eggs into their mouth, then swim off until the eggs hatch in the female’s mouth.  This type of parental care is called mouth-brooding.

Because of this particular type of behavior, it allows the fly fisherman to target the larger males right in their bed.  Here’s how to do it.  The males keep their beds free of foreign objects, including any type of dirt or debris, vegetation or excrement.  This is why you’ll see them constantly rooting around in their beds, sucking in debris or waste matter, and swimming to the edge of the bed to spit it out.  They’re not eating, just tidying up.

It makes sense then that if you cast a fly into their bed, they’re going to pick it up.  Almost any type of small fly will work but, knowing their dislike for excrement in their beds, introduce the “Poop Fly.”  Tie up a fly that looks like a small piece of poop.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to cut the tail off of a dark-bodied Woolly Bugger, and trim down the hackle on the body.  These fish have incredible eyesight, so use a long, light leader, and be as stealth as possible. When you first introduce the fly into the bed, the male will spook, but he’ll come back as long as he doesn’t see you.  Strip out a bunch of line, get as far away from the bed as possible and wait.  I’ll sometimes lie low in the grass or hide behind a tree.

When the male feels unthreatened, he’ll return to the bed and begin cleaning again.  It’s not always quick or easy though.  Sometimes the fish will return to the bed, but circle it for longer than you may care to wait.  They’re also notorious for swimming back into the bed but immediately swimming out, testing the safety of the environment. It can be a very time-consuming and frustrating process, so move to another bed if the fish doesn’t cooperate.

Study him carefully, and when you see him pick up the fly, set the hook before he spits it out.  It’s 100% a sight-fishing game.  Once hooked, they’ll thrash around in their beds, then make a few blistering runs before tiring out.  Three to five weight rods are ideal, and a floating line will help you see the eat.  Do not live-release them, according to FWC rules. If the water is clean enough, fry ‘em up… or use for cut bait!