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Out There: Crickets and Corona bottles and electric-blue perch

1/14/2005
The entire bluish-green body was speckled with hundreds of turquoise spots that glowed with electric intensity. 

I felt like a criminal, darting from the Mexican shadows and grabbing unsuspecting passers-by. It was the only way, however, to fulfill the urge growing within me.

I had discovered a few hours earlier that Rio Grande perch inhabit Mexico's Lake Guerrero, where I had come to bass fish. These beautiful and unusual fish aren't considered trophies by most folks, but being an ardent fan of such offbeat fare, I was immediately excited at the prospect of catching one.

Unfortunately, I had nothing with which to tempt them, nor any tackle small enough to even hook one. One of the local guides offered solutions to both problems.

"Catch some creekets beneath the street lights tonight," he said. "And I will find you some leetle hooks."

So there I was, stuffing crickets into an empty Corona bottle at midnight in the Mexican desert. I hoped none of the visiting bass anglers would notice me and start asking questions. Fortunately, none did.

At dawn I was sitting lakeside, baiting one of two bream hooks the guide had given me. I stripped line from my bass reel and flipped the cricket out. It sank slowly, enticingly, then wham, a fish was on.

It fought much like a large bluegill, spinning 'round and 'round in tight circles, then darting off in a broad-sided run. "Scrappy" is a good description.

But a 16-ounce fish has little chance against a 250-pound man with greed in his heart, and soon I had it on the bank.

The colors were even more amazing than I remembered from photos I'd seen. The entire bluish-green body — the sides, the head, the tail, the fins — was speckled with hundreds of turquoise spots that glowed with electric intensity.

The fins were long and flowing. The forehead had a curious hump, as if the fish had been whacked with a baseball bat in a cartoon episode. (This, I learned later, is a characteristic of male Rio Grandes.)

I had 20 crickets in my beer bottle and within an hour I caught 20 Rio Grandes.

"Guinea perch," one of the bass anglers called them. "Because they're speckled like the feathers of guinea fowl." Other nicknames include Texas cichlid, Texas bluespot and blue-spotted perch.

To my Mexican guide, they were mojarra de Norte. He took them home for his family to eat, proclaiming them "the best eating feesh in the lake."

Although they superficially resemble the sunfishes, Rio Grande perch (Cichlasoma cyanoguttatum) are actually members of the cichlid family.

About 600 cichlids occur worldwide, including a number of popular aquarium fishes, such as oscars and Jack Dempseys. A few species are native to Asia, but most of these tropical freshwater fishes are found in Central and South America and Africa. The Rio Grande perch is the only cichlid native to the United States.

Rio Grandes cannot survive temperatures below 48 degrees, which greatly narrows their range. They were originally restricted to the Nueces and Rio Grande river systems in southern Texas and several rivers in northeastern Mexico.

The Fish Cultural Station of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought them to the Guadalupe River basin at San Marcos, Texas, in 1928 and released them into waters on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas through 1941.

They now occur sporadically throughout the southern third of Texas and are common in spring-fed areas of the Rio Grande, San Marcos, Guadalupe, Comal, Llano and San Antonio rivers. Town Lake in downtown Austin is at the northernmost edge of their range.

Introduced populations in Florida are thriving, as well. The first stockings were by an individual who released Texas stocks in waters around Mulberry in Polk County during the 1940s.

Aquarium releases and fish farm escapees became established in other areas, including several lakes, canals and rivers in the Tampa area and in Brevard, Indian River and Monroe counties. (Rio Grandes were cultured here as aquarium fish during the 1940s and early 1950s.)

The species also has been reported from a canal in Tempe, Ariz., and is present and presumably reproducing in heated power-plant effluents in Powerton Lake near Pekin, Ill. A population formerly established in Roger's Spring near Nevada's Lake Mead now is considered extirpated.

Because they occur in warm waters and spring-fed areas where water temperature fluctuations are not great, Rio Grandes are active year-round. They feed primarily on insects, crayfish, small fish and fish eggs.

Numerous strong, cutting teeth are set in the small mouth, and they commonly school to attack the nests of black bass and bluegills, seizing the spawn or the fry.

Adults will reproduce several times annually. And although a pair might hatch no more than 5,000 offspring in one spawn, almost all the young survive.

They frequently overpopulate impoundments and small rivers, becoming stunted when food supplies get short. Texas authorities have poisoned many stream sections in attempts to destroy populations, but these panfish are extremely tenacious and keep reappearing.

In most waters, Rio Grande perch 5- to 6-inches long are average size. Where food and space are plentiful, however, they grow to substantial size. Perch of 1 pound are extremely common in Mexico's Lake Guerrero and many other waters, and individuals weighing 2 pounds or more are not at all rare.

Surface plugs, spoons, spinnerbaits and spinner-fly combinations tempt the large ones, especially when worked slowly over and around weedy cover. Rio Grande perch also relish a wide variety of live baits, including worms, small minnows and crickets.

Present these at mid-depths in shallow water beneath a small bobber on a No. 4 to No. 8 long-shanked hook. Add a small split shot to carry the bait down. Carry needle-nose pliers or hemostats to remove hooks; bites from the Rio Grandes' sharp teeth are nasty.

Ultralight tackle compounds the fun of catching Rio Grandes, but they aren't the least bit wary and will strike almost anything that moves. Sometimes several will attack at once, moving in like a pack of miniature wolves.

They fight long and hard, and, though they don't leap, many claim they easily outclass black bass and trout for strength and stubborn determination.

Oddly, some might say, most books dealing with American sport fishes don't even mention the Rio Grande perch. Although this unusual fish has few fans, it is beautiful, very game and very good eating.

It is my conclusion, therefore, that it deserves much more attention from roving anglers than it has ever received.

On this point, my Lake Guerrero bass fishing buddies agreed. They scoffed at first; but after watching me land several scrappy Rio Grandes, they joined me for some Mexican panfishing fun.

Bass fishing was slow, but the electric-blue panfish provided fish-a-minute action.

That night, the Mexicans laughed at all the gringos stuffing crickets in Corona bottles.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net