Snakeheads are controversial.
They're often portrayed in popular media as "Frankenfish," a land-walking omnivore that devours everything in the ecosystem. None of this is true.
Snakeheads are viewed by some federal agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and some state agencies, like the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, as an invasive species that somehow needs to be eliminated, or at least reduced. This strategy seems doomed to failure in such waters as the tidal Potomac River, although stopping propagation of snakeheads to new waters, such as local ponds and reservoirs, makes sense, since their impact in closed systems is unknown and could be deleterious.
Snakeheads spreading to new waters, both naturally and also probably by human intervention, is ongoing.
Then there is a small but vocal group of sport fishermen, supported cautiously and quietly by some state biologists and fisheries managers, who celebrate snakeheads as a new gamefish species who fill a niche and cause little damage to ecosystems including other species — in certain environments. Propagation of snakeheads to certain waters is still a concern.
I've fished the Mattawoman area of the Potomac once or twice a summer for the last three years. Snakeheads share these waters with largemouth bass and a lot of other species. Since the tactics for taking bass in these waters also takes snakeheads, I caught one or two snakeheads on every trip using such lures as poppers, rubber frogs, flukes and buzzbaits. I actually preferred the bass and considered the snakeheads a bonus.
It does appear the heavy pressure of night bowfishing of snakeheads from lighted boats is reducing the number and size of snakeheads in easily accessible areas of these waters. (Much of this is market hunting, frowned on but ignored by state regulators.)
Joe Bruce is a snakehead enthusiast and student of the species who corresponds regularly with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk.
Odenkirk takes a neutral, scientific approach to snakeheads, but many of his studies appear to refute the alarmist stance to snakeheads in the Potomac and some of its tributaries. Joe Bruce's success with snakeheads is largely due to his persistence and use of a kayak that can access waters the lighted boats of the bowfishers and even most powerboats cannot reach.
Recently Joe invited me to fish such an area of the Potomac, using new tactics specifically targeting snakeheads, with bass and other fish likely being an incidental catch. He warned me the trip would be arduous, involving miles of kayaking and some bushwhacking to get to some prime spots.
After this trip, I am now a snakehead enthusiast.
The trip was arduous, at least for me. But the technique is as specific as it is fun. Tides and weather are critical. The ideal is to get to target areas halfway between high tide and the first hour or two of incoming tide.
Low winds are needed for boat control, but, more importantly, since snakeheads appear not to hit as readily with a riffled surface. At high tide the snakeheads are usually buried back under thick weeds, but as the waters drop they come out to the edge of channels. Some of these channels are only a few feet wide, but the longer they are the better.
We used Joe's two-rod system. Our rods are 7-foot medium to medium/heavy spinning rods, matching reels and 15- to 20-pound test neutral-colored braided line. A solid rubber frog with paddle feet, Texas-rigged upside down on a 4/0 or 5/0 hook, is the prime lure.
We used Hoppin' Frogs from Charlie's Worms, but other model will work. The second rod is identical, but the lure is a bright-colored Super Fluke, also Texas-rigged upside down.
The technique is to fish the weed edges, using the frog as a buzzbait, walking it across the surface with a distinct paddling sound and leaving a trail of bubbles. We make three or four long casts to the same area trying to attract a lurking snakehead's attention. Sometimes you'll see bulging water as a snakehead tracks the frog.
In any case, pause the retrieve about 10 feet from the kayak; often an unseen snakehead or bass stalking the frog will strike at this point. Snakehead strikes are usually incredibly explosive, and often they hook themselves. So the technique of pausing a beat or two before setting the hook is difficult, but produces far more hookups. Often the fish will miss the lure completely or just bulge behind it.
With any of these misses, the technique is then to cast back to the area with the fluke and retrieve with a slower, jiggling action, again pausing about 10 feet from the boat. The fluke technique seems to work better than casting back with the same frog or with a floating frog and probably works about half the time.
Potomac tides (and fish) are notoriously fickle. The day we fished, it barely moved, so the action was slow. I caught one 5-pound snakehead and another of 7 pounds. I missed two more the latter size on solid takes by striking too soon and had a couple of other half-hearted hits. (When a snakehead grabs the lure it really clamps down, so it's critical to strike hard after the pause.) Joe did a bit better, but far below his double-digit numbers with snakeheads in double-digit pounds of his recent better days. Experience pays.
With big fish in close waters, the fight is violent, and often one needs to go in and dig the fish out of the thick weeds it buries itself in. Snakeheads will jump during the fight, though not as frequently as bass.
Despite popular opinion, you do not have to kill a snakehead, just not have a live one in your possession. Though they are delicious, we release them all.
Snakeheads are wonderful gamefish. This fishery should be good for the next four to six weeks. To learn more, go to www.joebruce.net and order "Fishing for Snakeheads."