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Jim Gronaw: Embarking on rookie snakehead adventures | OUTDOOR COMMENTARY

Probably the hottest topic in freshwater fishing in the state of Maryland for the past several years has been that of the invasive northern snakeheads that have managed to find their way into many of our tidal and freshwater systems on both the east and west side of the Chesapeake Bay.

Much has been written, discussed and proclaimed about these dragon-like fish, some good and much bad. This is not a column that explores those variations of opinion and/or fact.

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Nope. I just wanted to catch one this past spring, so we made plans.

My son Matt and I did a ton of research and study to settle on a little spot in Dorchester County near Cambridge. As many of you know, this Eastern Shore region and the Blackwater complex is the acknowledged epicenter of “Snakeheadville,” and was our ideal target area. We focused on a couple of tributaries that were close by and picked out a stretch of another tidal flow for our two-day effort to catch one of these guys.

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This all took place in late April and the calendar timing was ideal. However, a couple of weather conditions made it very challenging for us to get on the fish. For one, a nasty cold front had blown in with air temperatures in the high 40s and 25 mph north winds that sucked the water straight out of the tributary regions of the Blackwater River system.

It had been unseasonably cold for several days leading up to the trip as well.

So, our first day effort was completely squashed as we launched our kayaks with high tide predictions only to have that powerful wind completely reverse conditions in our tributary launch site.

We pushed and shoved and finally got some water under our vessels in a small channel only to again quickly run up on a mud flat once again that all but closed the show. Through din of effort and a bit of luck, we managed to get back up in a channel and abort the effort completely, finally beaching our snakehead-ready crafts at a roadside culvert that held just enough water to float us.

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There we were, exhausted from a couple hours or “mud-paddling” an inch at a time, thirsty, hungry and morally shot. Plan B was in order.

Problem was, it was late in the day and we really didn’t have a Plan B as a backup in that weather. Although the temperatures were warming up, the strong wind kept tides extremely low at our planned access points. A month’s worth of planning was starting to fizzle.

We decided to do some scouting and hit a number of shoreline access spots that many of the locals fished but the tidal conditions just didn’t favor snakeheads (or bass, or white perch, or anything else) at that time.

We finally decided to fish another river system the next day and got a pizza for back at the cabin. Around 4 p.m. I was bushed and decided to take my “senior nap,” but my boy wanted to fish so he said he was going to stop and try a few close-by shoreline options we had seen. He went fishing, I took a nap.

Ninety minutes later he came back to the cabin, pulled out his cellphone and displayed the selfie of a stunning 27-inch snakehead that had ambushed a #5 Mepps at one of those “along the way” spots on the way in.

It was indeed a gorgeous fish and we ciphered it to weigh between 7 and 8 pounds. Ah, those best-laid plans.

Matt Gronaw eyes up a northern snakehead that took a 4-inch swimbait from the Transquaking River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Matt Gronaw eyes up a northern snakehead that took a 4-inch swimbait from the Transquaking River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Jim Gronaw Photo)

The next day was better. The river we had scouted, the Transquaking, was rumored to be a snakehead hot spot and there were indeed folks there fishing almost exclusively for these fish. Even a few snakehead guides were there with clients and many anglers were fishing live bull minnows below a bobber, a classic springtime snakehead tactic.

The water, though tidally low by everyone’s claim, was quite adequate for kayaking. We were at the ramp at 6 a.m. and headed up creek, casting at the myriad padfields, fallen trees and submerged brush. Using 4-inch swimbaits, Matt quickly nailed about a 3-pound snakehead and lost another. I had a powerful strike at the edge of some lily pads and just assumed it was a snakehead.

Later, I would actually hook a much larger snakehead near a fallen log that took to the air and threw my plastic swimbait just before giving me a good look at him. Disheartened again, I knew the fish was approaching 30 inches.

Although the fishing was slow, I must attest that the Transquaking is a beautiful, slow-moving tidal flow with abundant wildlife and waterfowl. It has the appearance of a deep-south estuary. I spotted ospreys and several bald eagles and imagined what the river might have been like years ago, prior to snakehead occupancy, where bass, pickerel or even crappies may yet swim.

By the time we left at midday more than a dozen boats and kayaks were cruising that same 1.5-mile stretch of the river, all appearing to be snakehead fishing.

As we were nearing the takeout ramp at the bridge my kayak drifted into a shady, sandy bottomed area close to shore. I heard a large surface splash, made an awkward cast in that direction and then somehow, somehow, a big fish was on. I couldn’t believe it!

Surely, this is the fish I was waiting for “my snakehead.” Seconds later a very healthy, fat largemouth bass rose from the water. Completely caught by surprise, I somehow managed to keep pressure on the fish and eventually got the critter in the bottom of the net.

It had circled behind me, went under the kayak (jumping on the other side) and knocked my paddle in the water during one of several boat-side efforts for freedom.

Fun, exciting, relieved, hey — at least I caught a fish!

At 21 inches it was easily my largest tidal bass ever and Matt took some nice pics for me. I had never been so happy, yet so disappointed to catch a bass in my life. Beautiful river, beautiful fish.

Even the best-laid plans can go haywire in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. I didn’t get a snakehead, but my son did, including a “near dragon” sized fish. I did get a new tidal PB bass and I got to enjoy a Cambridge crab cake.

Would I go back again? You bet.

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