How to Catch Florida Red-bellied Pacu Fish — Guide

Small Red-Bellied Pacu fish caught while fly fishing on a river. Notice the yellow on the belly, this is typical for Pacu caught outside the United States.
Red-Bellied Pacus don’t always have a red belly. This one is yellow, from Argentina. The Florida Pacu are red-bellied when young, under a couple of pounds. © Pia Wauhg

Welcome to our “How to Catch Red-Bellied Pacu Fish Guide” where we give you the exact methods and gear you’ll need to catch this spunky little aggressive Florida fish.

[Page Updated – 25 September 2019] Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t lose it.]

WHAT RATINGS DOES THE RED-BELLIED PACU GET?
Size: 1/10 to 5/10  Fight: 3/10  Difficulty to Catch: 1/10  Taste: ?/10

INDEX to Sections in this Guide:

How To Catch Red-Bellied Pacu | Guide

PRO TIP – Red-Belly Pacu are super-aggro and will attack anything dragged in front of their evil faces. Use a bare treble hook to save your lures because these fish will destroy them like piranha. This primarily ‘vegetarian’ fish is NO JOKE.


Red-bellied Pacu fish showing typical adult coloration.
A large adult Red-Belly Pacu shows the typical coloration of adults. © Leonard Dasilver

Red-Bellied Pacu Facts

Species: Piaractus brachypomus

Other Names: Pirapitinga

Similar Species: Red-bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)- no kidding. How can you differentiate between the harmless Pacu and the Pirahna? The teeth in the Pacu are flat on top. They are sharp, but nothing like the razor-sharp teeth of the piranha.

Length: In ideal conditions, Pacu will grow to almost 3 feet in length and weigh around 55 lbs. Conditions dictate how big they grow. I have fished for this Pacu in canals between the east and west coasts in Southern Florida and never seen one bigger than 15-inches long. Juveniles of the species are 2-3 inches long and also voracious eaters easily caught on very small lures.

Weight: Typically around a pound in Florida canals, with the potential to grow much larger (50+ lbs.) in ideal conditions that a lake can provide. Fish grow fast to 1-2 pounds and are constrained by the environment from that point forward. However, if kept in an aquarium and you feed it often enough, it will outgrow all the enclosures you can afford. Hence the reason they are an invasive species in Florida. People keep them until they outgrow their aquariums then toss them into lakes and canals. Highly illegal, but it happens all over. Look at the Everglades – we have Reticulated and Burmese Pythons!

World Record Size: The biggest Pacu we’ve heard about was the 56 lb. 2.9 foot long fish mentioned on a Florida fishing TV show. That’s a big fish. Pacu can live from 20-30 years in captivity and it is not known how long is typical for wild raised Pacu.

Natural enemies include beetles and dragonflies while still in the egg larvae stage. When adult, alligators can prey on Pacus. (Paper)

Description: Very similar in appearance to the red-bellied piranha. They have a red belly as well which is mimicry and protects it from some predators, and likely people who cannot distinguish between the two when seen in bodies of water from above. Juveniles are 2-3 inches. Adults can reach nearly 3 feet long and are flat in the vertical plane. Pacus have two rows of teeth with the other row being much sharper than the inner. The outer teeth resemble teeth on a wood saw. Very sharp and good for tearing plants and catching small water-dwelling organisms. Color can be very dark, almost black with a bright red chin/belly. Adults lose the red belly and are generally dark yellow or light tan colored.

Pacu Vs. Piranha Video

Range/Distribution: Red-bellied Pacu are freshwater fish, though they can stand strong brackish water as well. They are found all over Florida in canals and lakes mostly. This invasive species has spread throughout the USA, including into Georgia, Missouri, and even Chicago waterways. Some of the fish are released by pet owners. Others escape during flooding of fish farms.

Pacu distribution
From this PDF publication at the US Fish and Wildlife Service


WHY Catch Red-Bellied Pacu Fish?

If you live in Florida, you probably already know about these fish. They are an invasive species that tend to take over because they are so aggressive toward other fish, and they have very sharp teeth. So WHY catch them? They are an absolute BLAST to catch. They hit anything you drag through the water. I’ve tried all sorts of plugs and worms. They hit EVERYTHING. Pacus are probably the best fish to target with children because you’re going to catch them without hardly TRYING. Just throw a small lure out and it WILL BE ATTACKED in the canals.

  1. Red-Bellied Pacu is an ideal KIDS FISH. Catching Pacu in the canals is so much fun for kids because they can’t do much wrong, except put a hook in their hand or leg! If they can hit the water with a lure, they’re going to catch Pacu. Pure and simple. Literally hours of fun.
  2. Pacu are, for their weight, EXTREMELY TOUGH fighting fish. This makes it even more fun for kids, and even adults. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve spent FAR more time than I thought I would chucking lures into the canals of Florida JUST to catch this fish. Great fun for all ages.


WHERE To Find Pacu in Florida?

Habitat –  Because Red-bellied Pacu is an omnivore, it prefers to eat a variety of food items. Seeds, plants, fruits, leaves, stems, are some of the plant life it prefers. It also loves crickets, ants, and other insects that fall into the canals and lakes. They also love any small freshwater fish because they attack small lures like mad.

Pacus are found in waters of temperature 23 to 28°C (73 – 82°F).

1.) Pacu can be found in nearly any lake or large canal in Florida – If you’re wondering if the body of water holds Pacu, just get yourself a light rod with 4 lb. test and put the smallest lure you have on your line. You may want a piece of strong leader – even thin wire, but they don’t get chewed through all that much.

Start dragging that lure through the water anywhere from zero to one foot deep. If they’re in there, you’ll have some of the very aggressive young ones attacking your lure like piranha.

Absolute BEST SPOT to Catch Pacu?

For non-stop action, pull up next to one of the canals that line Highway 41 between Naples and the middle of the state of Florida. I’ve caught Pacu here every time without fail. They’ve all been on the smaller side, but then I usually only drag very small lures and the smaller fish swarm them. It’s so much fun that I haven’t tried to catch the bigger Pacu yet.

More on Florida Pacu Fish

When is best time to catch Pacu

Literally anytime. The fish are ravenous eaters and especially in the canals, the competition is fierce for food so they are very aggressive. You’ll know instantly if they’re there because your lure will get attacked immediately.


Ugly Stick 7′ GX2 Inshore Rod for Spinning Reel (Redfish) – Best 7 foot Inshore Rod for Redfish 1

Ugly Stick 7′ GX2 Inshore Rod for Baitcasting Reel – Best 7 foot Inshore Rod for Baitcasting

Keep in mind, that if you’re getting a baitcasting reel – you’ll need a baitcasting rod with this finger grab:

Rod for baitcasting reel.
Make sure you get the right rod for your reel – this style is for baitcasting reels. If there is no finger-grab like this, it is for spinning reels.

Best Reel for Red Belly Pacu?

Spinning Reels

Though I strongly suggest a baitcasting reel for catching redfish, I understand that not everyone wants to learn how to use one. You probably grew up using spinning reels, and if you’re skilled at casting to redfish with a spinning reel, you’ll love these two different Penn Reels which are ideal for catching redfish of any size. Not to mention, these reels are ideal for catching any fish in the 1-40 lb. class. These are great reels for redfish, sea trout, small grouper, cobia, flounder, snook, bluefish, and other fish found close to shore. Note, the bigger the fish are, the better the baitcasting reels (below) are.

Very high ratings; Made in America (Seattle, WA.)
Best Penn Redfish Reel 1

Very high ratings; Made in America (Seattle, WA.)
Best Penn Redfish Reel 2

Best Line for Pacu?

Twenty pounds four to 8 lb test is plenty for the smaller Pacu. Though I rarely broke the line off, it was because my lures were long and the fish couldn’t reach the line to chew through it once hooked. A very thin wire leader would be perfect for this fish – which doesn’t seem to care what is moving through the water, it will eat it. Even bare hooks, I think I mentioned already.

Best Pacu Hooks?

Don’t use hooks, just use any small lure. Smaller the better. Half-inch long is perfect.

Best Rigs for Pacu?

1.) Don’t Worry about a Rig. Just stick anything on the end of your line and pull it through a canal or lake with Red-belly Pacu. Nothing fancy needed!

Best Artificial Lures

Seriously, cut a swatch of your underwear off and put it on a hook, you WILL catch red-belly pacus. They’re voracious like a piranha and attack everything!


Red-Bellied Pacu Laws in Florida

There are no catch limits on size or numbers of Red-Bellied Pacu caught in Florida waters. In fact, they are an invasive species which the state would love to be able to get rid of, but they’re here to stay at this point. Interestingly, I found an article from 1990 in which some biologists were surprised to find some Pacu in the St. John’s River. Read it here.

The reality today is that the fish has spread considerably. I’ve been catching them in the canals on the way to Miami since 1992. The canals were FULL OF THEM then. Today they’ve surely spread further inland and invaded some of the major lakes in the state.


Red-Bellied Pacu in the Pet Trade

Some people keep the Pacu in an aquarium. This is not a good idea. They can grow to 3 feet long and 50 pounds, first of all. Not many people can afford 3,000-gallon aquariums. Secondly, they live for 20-30 years. Pacus can outlive YOU. Thirdly, as if that wasn’t enough, you can’t keep any other fish with it because it will probably kill them. It needs its OWN 3,000-gallon tank.

What Do Pacu Eat in Captivity?

Pacu are primarily vegetarian consumers but as I’ve mentioned above, they will eat anything that looks alive and small that you can drag through the water. In captivity, you can feed them dried pellets or floating plant food sticks, along with plenty of fruit and vegetable pieces. They’ll eat leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, and apples, banana, peach, grapes, courgette, peas, cabbage, and carrot. I’ve seen some people fish for them with rinds from coconuts. I much prefer the live-bait looking lures though!

Here’s a blurb from a guy who kept a Pacu and fed him a variety of food items.

drummerspenc2 years ago I bought our Red Bellied Pacu, “Mowgli”, in 2004 and he was approximately a year old. Began in a 29 gallon, then a year later into a 75 gal standard, and 10 years ago into his 210 gallon home. The ave life expectancy of an RB Pacu is 23-25 years. Mowgli is adored nearly as much as our dog, by the family. For years he ate frozen broccoli until I became tiresome of the weir vents clogging. 5 years ago I switched him to frozen Italian cut green beans, which he totally LOVES, and they don’t clog filtration. My 8 and 11-year-old children love to find him worms in warm months and ask me to feed them to him, with such pride. He knows all of us, though we are all careful with no sudden movements around the tank as he spooks easily, bashes his face then does not eat for 4 days. For the past 9 years, he likes when I occasionally stroke or pet him…..He really likes it! He comers up to the opening when he knows I am there and just stays while I run my fingers on both sides of his back. For the first few beans fed to him, he gently takes them from my fingers, though I am ALWAYS cautious doing it, since I know how easily he champs nuts, as a treat. Often we meet face to face through the glass as I talk to him, and he’ll stay there until I move away. The first time he sees me walk into the room each day, he behaves as an excited dog, while moving up and down the glass until acknowledging him with a wave of my hand he can see. Being 51 years old and an aquarist since I was 6, I have NEVER seen a bond in a fish such to this extent! He truly is something rare, and we will all miss him when he lives out his life.

drummerspenc2 years ago, YouTube.

How to COOK Red-Bellied Pacu?

Though it is farmed in South America as a vital protein resource, there is very little meat on the small ones that you’re likely to catch in the canals and the fish is so hard, so bony, you probably won’t get more than a mouthful of meat for each small fish. If you catch the larger Pacu, you can give it a try. I can’t find anything about people eating them though.

TIP – in residential and agricultural areas, the pesticides from the fields leak into the canals and are concentrated. When you eat Pacu, or any fish, from Florida canals, you’re risking ingesting dangerously high amounts of pesticides. It’s just not worth it!

Red-Bellied Pacu Guide Resources

Image Credits