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Fishing Blog

So you wanna catch a snakehead?

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By John Hostalka

My chatterbait stopped violently along the edge of the spatterdock as if hung on a submerged stump. Just then, a massive dark form exploded up out of the water with my chatterbait hanging from his lip. It wasn't a normal bass jump and head shake. This fish shot up like an arrow to a height of nearly four feet above the water, flipped me the finger, and flung my lure back at me. This was my introduction to fishing for Northern Snakehead… and now it seems I am the one that is hooked.

Since their introduction, Snakehead have been on many angler's list as a target species. Maybe it's their freakish appearance; maybe it's the invasive label we've put on them, or maybe it’s because they’re tasty. Regardless of the reason you set out to get one, know that you may come to enjoy (and maybe even admire) these slimy newcomers. They hit hard, fight hard, and play dirty.

Putting up a hearty battle regardless of their size. (But, in case you’re wondering, they grow fast and get BIG!) One distinct advantage you can leverage against a snakehead is learning how to fish from a kayak. A kayak will get you into the nooks and crannies of the skinny water playground that snakeheads call home. Being close to the water gives you the ability to see these wary fish before they see you, without spooking them. If you are observant and quiet in your approach, you may spot their long brown dorsal fin rolling up out of the water as they forage. At times, you may see them near the surface making bubbles (they have the unusual ability to take in and breathe air when the water does not have enough dissolved oxygen). Other times you may just see one cruising along or lying completely motionless pretending to be a log. Remember the advice of Elmer Fudd…“be veeewy, veeewy quiet” they spook easy. Unlike bass snakehead are not afraid to have their backs (or their whole body) out of the water. I have seen them push all the way up into ankle deep stuff where there’s only inches of mud, cattails, and marsh grass. I’ve heard them even further back in the faintest traces of marsh. Once, I actually saw one jump into the water from beyond the bank (no lie!). These fish are the apex marsh predator and come with a book of tricks. I’ve seen them push up under holes in the bank and had them explode from hiding right next to me in just inches of water. I once watched one effortlessly corkscrew around a submerged log chasing minnows and I’ve seen huge beasts appear from muddy weed mats that seemed lifeless just moments before.

Basics:

Snakehead fishing is essentially bass fishing so you don't need any specialized gear. A basic bass outfit will do: a 7ft medium to medium/heavy rod with spinning or casting reel spooled with 15-40 lb. braid is perfect. For lures, you can catch snakehead on a variety of options. Topwater frogs, spooks, plugs, buzzbaits, chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, and even small inline spinners (roostertail/mepps) will work.

On the plastic front, flukes, paddletails and swim jigs can often be a better option when the louder and noisier lures aren't getting any love. If you like using bait, the largest bull minnow you can find under a slip bobber is the way to go. While many things will work on them, remember they are generally NOT found in open water, so your best lures are ones that can be pulled through the gnarliest of cover.

Getting one on your line...while not always easy, may be easier than the battle you will have on your hands once you get one in the kayak. They are powerful, super slimy fish and are masters in the art of escape. I have seen many snakeheads exit as quickly as they entered. The only piece of equipment I won't go snakehead hunting without is a landing net. Once you get one in the net, expect the real battle to begin. Just be extra careful if your new friend has multiple sets of treble hooks hanging from his lips while he’s freaking out in your lap. Fish grips, pliers, and a club are handy if you wish to take the fish home to eat. Remember, it is against the law to have a live snakehead on your stringer so if you wish to keep one, use your club and then remove the gills. As to whether to kill each and every one you catch, or put the ones you're not going to eat back…That in my opinion, is your own personal choice. Although State fish and game managers would like you to kill any you catch...I still believe that a state can't mandate that you kill an animal. After all, you didn’t put it there. That's just my opinion, make up your own mind on that one.

Early spring:

As soon as water warms in mid-March through April, the snakehead bite really starts to get going. Look for a warming trend of several above average days to get the bite heated up. If you find the right temperatures, this can be the easiest time of year to catch a snakehead. Fish seem to be roaming around (not as close up to shore as they can be during warmer months) actively searching out forage. I generally throw chatterbaits or Colorado bladed spinnerbaits this time of year as the water is often stained and both of those seem to get their attention. 

The Dance:

As the spring progresses and water temps reach the optimal spawning range, you may begin to see pairs of snakehead engaged in a most beautiful courtship dance. They will often be in very shallow water near the bank and you will see the pair circling around each other. For most of us that have witnessed this behavior, it quickly proves to be "game over" for any catching, as snakehead develop a one-track mind and a case of lockjaw during this period. Sure, make a few casts into there to see if you can get a strike, but in my experience, it is generally futile. Don't give up entirely on fishing though, snakehead don't all go into heat at exactly the same time. Snakehead are believed to spawn several times a year, although very little scientific information exists on this aspect of their behavior.

Kindercare

Once snakehead have mated and hatched out a mess of baby fry, they belie their savage reputation and become the most attentive and watchful parents. Both mom and dad will stand guard over the ball of snakehead babies, protecting them from predators until they are big enough to fend for themselves. Fortunately, this opens a window for catching one, but requires some specialized tactics. During this time of year, I scout the shoreline looking for the schools of fry in order to find the adults. The fry are unlike any other minnows you have seen as they will be extremely close together in a clump about the size of a football or basketball and are generally right near the surface along the shoreline (often they will be making bubbles in a tight cluster, which makes them easier to spot). To target the adults, cast something noisy into the school of lil’ ones. Mom and dad, if they are still around, will aggressively defend their young. Often though, you will get short strikes, or a defensive tap. To get a good hookset, I recommend adding a trailer hook to whatever you are throwing.

The Hotter the better:

One of the interesting things that has occurred with the introduction of snakehead, is that these fish have filled a niche in the ecosystem that has otherwise been vacant. Due to their ability to live in areas with lower dissolved oxygen, snakehead can survive and flourish in water that is unsustainable or marginal to bass. During the searing heat of the summer when the bass bite shuts down almost entirely, Snakehead activity kicks into second gear. This gives anglers an opportunity for fishing that previously did not exist. In the middle of the day in the blazing hot sun, snakehead are in their element. Topwater is often the name of the game during this time, but I have found that in pressured areas, smaller more subtle offerings sometimes yield better hook-up rates. I’m a big fan of a 4 inch paddletail, rigged weedless on a EWG hook. (the Snakelock jighead by Zman is a nice option)

Locations:

If you are looking for an armchair guide with exact GPS coordinates to catch your first snakehead I hate to disappoint, but I can’t give everything away here. I can tell you that everything you need is on google maps and the internet. To start, I’d suggest looking at some of the locations that snakehead were first introduced. In these “ground zero” spots you can guarantee that the population density is the highest, as they have had the most time to reproduce. The Potomac near Washington DC, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, The Delaware River and its tributaries around Philadelphia’s FDR park all have active populations of snakehead. Within this framework, look for any creek with good spatterdock and weed growth and you will likely find snakehead. Access is really the issue, as I’ve found that places that are the easiest to get into are the ones that get hit the hardest and have the majority of snakeheads cleaned out of them. The areas that have easy access for bowfishermen and their light boats get a double whammy of day and nighttime pressure. So you wanna go where no one has gone, lately. Again, a perfect setup for kayak anglers to have the upper hand over bass boats, as a kayak can get into the skinniest stuff, even on a low tide.It doesn’t necessarily need to be pristine as I’ve seen and caught some pretty crazy “sneks” in some very industrial stretches of river.

Take it to the bank

Over the years I’ve caught higher concentrations of snakehead next to steep shoreline banks than in almost any other area. In trying to understand this, I’ve come to the conclusion that hard banks function as a funnel for these fish (funneling the snakehead along as they can’t go any further back into the marsh in these areas).
In the illustration above, the hard bank areas are where you see tree growth (B). Expect your chances to see/encounter/catch a snakehead along this hard bank to go up. If you think about the swampy edge along (A) while it contains countless areas for snakehead to forage and search for food, there is also a lot more cover for them to disappear under and into, so finding them gets exponentially more difficult. I’m not saying don’t fish these areas…just pay attention to hard banks because in a numbers game your odds go up if there are less places for them to hide. 

The thick mat of spatterdock on the left side of this photo is a likely spot where you would think a snakehead would be hiding. The edges are fishable but towards the middle the weeds become too thick to get a lure into. For better odds try the skinny water along the hard bank on the right.

Invasive vs. Introduced 

Nature is constantly changing, primarily due to our influence. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, tiger musky, brown and rainbow trout are all fish that we have introduced to Mid-Atlantic waters. We’ve grown up fishing for them, so we assume that they have historically always been here…not the case. Snakehead as the newcomer to our scene may take some getting used to for folks unaccustomed to changes. Sure, they’ve got a mean mug and some nasty teeth. Your local media outlet may have even convinced you they can walk on land and will eat every fish in the pond…just for fun. So far biologists studying their impact on our ecosystems have found little concrete evidence that they are having a negative impact on other fish populations. It may still be too early to tell as they have only been around a decade or so. In the meanwhile, you may find this newcomer start to grow on you. That mean mug might start to look like a funny smile, and the battle they put up on the other end of your line may gain your respect. It certainly has earned mine.

Further reading

https://www.google.com/amp/relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/public/amp/2016/03/160317-snakeheads-potomac-river-chesapeake-bay-invasive-species-fish

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/invasion-of-the-snakeheads-85051261/

http://www.fishwild.vt.edu/snakeheads/Facts.html

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