Do nature a favour, catch a cichlid
  |  First Published: June 2017

Cichlid is a strange word. Let’s try tilapia. Now we’re talking about a pest fish that seems to be in every South East Queensland waterway and many others north and south as well.

First identified in our coastal waterways over a two decades ago after an introduction as ornamental aquarium fish, tilapia (from the Cichlidae family) are well and truly loathed these days due to their ability to spread far and wide.

Two strains of tilapia

The main offender is the Mozambique strain of tilapia, easily identified by its dull grey, deep body and long dorsal and anal fins. There’s also the smaller spotted tilapia which can have dark bars or blotches on its side. Both fish seem to have dorsal and anal fins that are almost symmetrical in appearance, whereas our native fish have a break in the dorsal fin that readily sets them apart.

Incidentally, the Mozambique strain of fish grow to 40cm and well over a kilogram and are a powerful adversary on light tackle. This is exactly what this article is all about – catching tilapia and then removing them from our waterways and impoundments.


First, let’s look at some information. Under Queensland law tilapia are classified as a noxious fish. They have the well-proven ability to take over an environment and make it very hard for other fish to survive alongside them. As mouthbreeders they can successfully outbreed and out-populate established native fish and can live in virtually any waterway: fresh, brackish or whatever. If things don’t suit them in the local stream or creek, they can nip down to the salt water for a while to regroup and travel to fresh destinations.

Although they carry their young in their mouths they also build shallow scooped-out nests up to 50cm wide on stream edges for their eggs to hatch in. This dirties the water and disrupts weed beds.

Worst of all is the spread of Queensland’s tilapia. First flooding moved them into fresh habitats, now cyclone Debbie has washed them far and wide. It won’t be hard to find a population of tilapia to fish for. The idea is to check out slower moving creeks, lagoons and backwaters on fresher sections of rivers, especially if some weed growth is present. These fish are omnivorous and will eat weed quite willingly. They tend to school up where they can sometimes be easily seen, not moving much at all, just hovering quietly while contemplating their next move.

Grocery store bait

Few fish can be caught as easily as tilapia in shallow water. Yes, they are present in most South East Queensland impoundments, but deeper water makes them harder to catch. It’s the creek, lagoon and pond fish that are the easiest to find and catch. Therefore these fish provide great sport.

Earth worms will catch tilapia, as will flies that resemble worms. Turtles and native fish also live alongside tilapia in the creeks and ponds and we don’t want to be giving them a hard time as well, so exploit the tilapia’s liking for weed and similar materials to keep the turtles, spangled perch and catties out of the picture.

Cichlids have a great liking for tinned tucker. It’s a trait that they share with carp, another highly invasive and noxious fish. Corn and peas can be their undoing and a small hook baited with mixed peas and corn is a top notch bait. To reduce time between bites the clue is to whip the fish into a frenzied state before putting the corn and peas out under a light float on a size 6 hook.

Berley seems to bring tilapia into a near suicidal feeding frenzy, with one fish after the other competing for the bait and coming out of the water on the hook. A mix of finely squashed wet bread, some rolled oats and even plain bran mixed up with plenty of water will see swirls and chops on the surface. This indicates that the tilapia are now looking for more tucker.

Remember, like other fish, tilapia don’t want to see a human standing on the bank like a windmill and will quietly move elsewhere. Keep a very low profile and drop a fine float loaded with bait right into the action. Three corn kernels and a green pea are ideal and the hook should be set up around 50cm under the float for the best results.

It’s common to see the float land, straighten up, and go immediately under the surface when tilapia are really on the job. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they will excuse heavy tackle or rough tactics. They won’t. The best idea is to use a fine rod, reel and line. Bream tackle is ideal. Go about things gently. A large tilapia will give a very good account of itself and a net to prevent break-offs is useful.

After capture, a bucket or bag to keep the fish in is a good idea. The DPI website specifies that the fish should be euthanized humanely and then disposed of away from the water. Their website explains suitable methods of dealing with tilapia, but the main issue is returning them to the water – simply don’t. It’s a very serious offence to do so.

For the record, tilapia – with their fine and very white flesh – are one of the most popular eating fish in the US, where I enjoyed some, but we legally can’t possess them. Our law prohibits filleting or eating them after capture. We sure can catch them, so take along the youngsters and get stuck into some tilapia. They are easy fishing fun, less spikey to handle and undoubtedly plentiful.

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