By Jeff Little
The instant the first snakehead I caught hit my jig, I was utterly confused. I could see the explosion right where the hand tied black jig skipped to the shoreline, but my line was immediately being pulled to a spot some 30 feet away. I was largemouth bass fishing, and bass never move that fast. As a series of powerful runs came to an end, I saw the beast's mottled brown snout poke up from the murky waters of Pohick Bay, a tributary of the tidal Potomac River. A group of friends paddled over to take part in the mandatory massacre of the invasive species. I ate the fish and it was among the best I've had.
Since then, I've caught several more, tried my best to target them specifically but the best advice I've been able to give on catching snakeheads is, "Just go bass fishing!" While I know that this approach will work with time on the water, there's another angler who has had considerably more time and more success targeting this incredible gamefish.
I make a point to refer to the Northern Snakehead as gamefish, even though it's an invasive species. The fearful hypothesis that these animals would decimate the largemouth fishery of the tidal Potomac has yet to be proven. They seem to have found their niche in the ecosystem. While I keep one or two a year to eat, I release many more in hopes that I will catch them again once they are bigger. Joe Bruce hasn't kept one in several years. Let's hear what the author of Fishing for Snakehead has to teach us about catching, and hopefully releasing northern snakehead.
JL: Joe, I've caught some nice snakehead in the tiny backwater tributaries of the tidal Potomac, but it's hit or miss. Shallow water seems to be the only common denominator. What kind of habitat do they thrive in? Where would you point a beginner to start fishing for snakehead?
JB: Look for the heaviest cover in the shallowest of water. This could be grass like milfoil, hydrilla or spatterdock. Snakeheads want a “roof over their head.”
JL: In terms of lures, my best producer has been a black jig with a Paca Craw trailer, but that looks nothing like the dozens of killifish that I see in the stomach of snakeheads I fillet. Do you try to imitate the forage fish they seem to eat in such great numbers?
JB: I like frogs and swimming flukes. Color is not important. Snakeheads have vibration sensors on their heads, like northern pike, muskies and chain pickerel. They all follow their prey, so lures that make vibration get the nod.
JL: I target the spatterdock fields with some success, but have far more blowups than hookups. What tricks have you found that improve your hookup percentage?
JB: Actually those blowup are usually spooked fish. I thought the same thing, that I wasn’t be stealthy enough. All these spatterdock fields also have hydrilla. Hydrilla is like a spider web lying flat. You move one stem and this transmits to others and the snakehead feels this and blows up. These are not fish that can be caught. They aren’t feeding.
JL: What times of the year do you catch most of your snakehead? When does that slow down?
JB: From May through October snakeheads are available. June through August is the best time.
JL: I've noticed that the bowhunters have decimated the snakehead population in some tributaries. Are there spots that kayaks access that are havens from the snakehead bowhunters?
JB: You need to look over each body of water and look for areas the bowhunters' boats can’t go. This doesn’t mean these guys haven’t hit these areas on a high tide, but the shallowest water might be too shallow even on a high tide. I rarely ever fish on channel edges. This is a low percentage area for snakeheads. Of course, they do use this to move from place to place, but your chances of intercepting these fish is slim.
JL: It's still illegal to transport the fish alive, as a measure to prevent spreading their range. Nobody should take it upon themselves to be "bucket biologists." Yet we hear of them popping up in areas not directly connected to the tidal Potomac. Do you think that people are moving them around, or do you suppose that they are swimming to new areas despite the Chesapeake's salinity?
JB: I believe that they are swimming to new waters. Snakeheads found on Maryland's eastern shore rivers have DNA from New Jersey snakeheads, not the Potomac snakeheads. BUT, let me say, greed will eventually spread these fish. The more commercial fishing that goes on will spread these fish. The guys on the shore or upper bay will want to get in on the moneymaker, and they will bring snakeheads to their area. I mentioned this to DNR and they looked like I was crazy, but now they don’t. One way to slow the progress of snakehead would be to make them a gamefish. But as they can’t make the striped bass a gamefish, there's little chance this will happen to snakeheads. So for them to populate more areas in the future, I really don’t have a problem with considering what I have seen where the population is large.
JL: Thanks for taking time to answer a few questions on this fun to catch fish. Do you have anything else you would like readers to know about them?
JB: They are here and are going to stay, embrace them. They are a worthy gamefish and even though I’m too fond of them to kill them, they are good to eat.
Joe Bruce's book Fishing For Snakehead can be found at this link: www.joebruce.net