Clown Knife Fish: Is This The Most Unique Exotic Species In The US?
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
By David Graham - August 7, 2021
Crystal clear springs, world famous theme parks, Cuban Sandwiches and 10 months of warm weather.... just a few reasons the State of Florida attracts millions visitors each year, and many more who permanently relocate. For the boundless angler, it means stable fishing conditions year round.
Florida's predictably warm weather keeps fish metabolism high for year round feeding and growth... that makes for A LOT of trophy fishing. The same subtropic conditions also play favor to a wide range of invasive species that have basically taken over South Florida.
Exotic birds, reptiles, fish, and even monkeys made popular by exotic pet trade and aquarium enthusiasts have been found throughout the state to have established themselves among native species. The year round warm temperature provides a lot of exotic species a greater chance of survival, where winter lows are unlikely to kill them off.
As unfortunate it is that exotic fish species have dramatically altered Florida's natural landscape, the unique established species have a lot to offer recreationally. The promotion of the pursuit of such exotic species should not be confused with the promotion or approval of their spread - this needs to be emphatically stated and established before anything else is said in this article.
Peacock bass, dozens of cichlids, plecos and snakeheads - South Florida's exotic fish species represent the different corners of the globe and each brings unique challenges to the table for anglers who may not have the funds to travel internationally. Perhaps the most unique species available though is the clown knife fish.
The clown knife fish is native to the tropics of Indochina (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia) - and because of its undeniably unique physical characteristics, it is a wildly popular species among aquarists.
How did they get here?
While its not exactly known how the clown knife fish got to Florida, they were first found in the 1990's. Its reasonable to assume its establishment is the result of aquarium release. The clown knife fish is not a 'small' species fish - as it can grow over 3 feet long and exceed 10 pounds. Aquarists too emotionally attached to their fish that has outgrown the tank or is at risk of immanent death due to a power outage (Florida is known for them!) may have been responsible for releasing them. South Florida's tropical climate just happens to be similar enough to climate requirements for the clown knife fish to survive and flourish.
Where Can I Find Them?
Today the clown knife fish is categorized as 'invasive' despite the fact it is hardly found outside of Broward and Palm Beach counties where it was originally found so long ago. The clown knife fish prevalent in most canals and small lakes around Palm Beach county - but specific environmental requirements have kept them mostly contained for decades. These fish cannot withstand prolonged cold periods - even by Florida standards.
Anglers seeking to encounter the clown knife fish in the US should look at the canals and ponds in the immediate areas of Lake Ida and Lake Osborne in Palm Beach county where they are most abundant. Because the clown knife fish is a bimodal breather, a careful scan of the water surface will inevitably reveal whether or not they are nearby as they 'roll' gulping surface oxygen. The clown knife fish has a very silvery reflective hide - making its gulp from the surface easily distinguished from other 'air breathers' like gar, plecos, bowfin, and snakeheads that it shares the water with. Clown knife fish seem to be a social species that is often found in loose groups or schools.
Areas with little to no current and some vegetation seem to be favorable to clown knife fish - and structures that provide shade seem to generally have clown knife fish nearby. While they are described as a nocturnal species - They can be caught in broad daylight as well. The clown knife fish is an opportunistic feeder that will take live bait presented on the bottom, or suspended under a float. They can also be caught on fresh cutbait and artificial baitfish patterns.
How To Target Clowns
When I am targeting clown knife fish I will specifically look in canals - I especially like to fish near structures like dams, and floating barriers. Floating barriers are common in South Florida canals to contain floating vegetation like water hyacinth. Where these barriers lay across canals and the weeds accumulate, they form massive floating structure that provides a haven for small forage fish and dark shade that is favorable for the clown knife fish. When all else fails, I have found that there are usually atleast a FEW clown knife fish to be found around these areas in Palm Beach county canal systems. I will generally not sink a bait unless I 100% see clown knife fish rolling. If they arent rolling, I am not fishing them.
Generally a free lined shiner or mudminnow will work fine - but placing one under a float or down on bottom is effective. Environmental factors like heavy vegetation on bottom or a flow of current will dictate the best approach.
'Clowns' are really weird... they have a strange bite to them, often times nibble at a bait in place before deciding to eat it. Anglers should keep in mind the clown knife fish has a small mouth relative to its body size, and its lined with small sharp teeth. Keeping bait selection and hook size small is key, but abrasion resistant flouro leaders may be necessary to combat their teeth.
The fight of the clown knife fish is hard to describe... very unexpectant and exciting leaps intermittently between what I can only describe as reeling in an inflated plastic grocery bag through the water... And, once they get boatside things get stranger. The clown knife fish is infamous for swimming in reverse, and many an angler has found themselves bewildered when trying to get a clown knife fish in the landing net only to see it zip off backwards. To physically handle a clown knife fish is a strange experience as well, they are awkward and clumsy to handle for photos where the oar shaped body continues to writhe and sway like a snake from head to tail.
Florida is considered the Fishing Capital of The World - and its freshwater arena has international faces that offer tremendous opportunity to anglers looking to test their skill with a variety of pursuit. The clown knife fish is uncommon among the uncommon - where strange fish from across the globe swim side by side it may just be the champion among Florida's oddballs'.