June 09, 2021
By Blane Chocklett
An invasive species by definition is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. Invasive species are capable of causing extinction of native plants and animals, reducing biodiversity, competing with native organisms for limited resources, and altering habitats.
In 2004, a fish called a northern snakehead was caught in the tidal Potomac River tributary on the Virginia/Maryland border. The fish—native to Asia—at that time had not previously been documented in any other body of water in the Mid-Atlantic. The discovery caused a national media tidal wave of anxiety, terror, and misinformation that can only be rivaled by the likes of a Hollywood sci-fi movie.
Snakeheads sparked many articles, videos, TV interviews, and news shows calling them Fishzilla, Frankenfish, demons that were impossible to eradicate. They could walk on land, live for long periods out of the water, travel long distances, and devour native species. The bad press has left this fish species with a reputation they will never live down. There were labeled by the federal government as an invasive species before any scientific research showed they were harming the environment or the economy.
I love fly fishing for snakeheads. I am in no way condoning the transfer or planting of nonnative species into our waters. But snakeheads are already here, and thriving. There’s apparently no feasible way to get rid of these fish, and since they aggressively smash topwater flies in shallow, clear water, I’m more than happy to catch them. In these remote, wild areas, it’s easy to imagine I’m fishing for these exotic fish in Malaysia. And after many years of fishing for snakeheads in the tidal creeks surrounding Chesapeake Bay, my observation is that there’s been no degradation of the habitat, or loss of other fish species. Snakeheads exist is a very specialized niche that doesn’t seem to overlap other gamefish like largemouth bass, sunfish, bowfins, and gars. Everywhere I catch snakeheads, these other species seem to be doing just fine as well.
John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, feels the same way and has piles of scientific research to back it up. Since 2004, Odenkirk has been tasked with coordinating all the studies on northern snakeheads and their impacts on other fish species. He is the leading snakehead expert in the Mid-Atlantic region, and probably the entire U.S.
His extensive electroshocking studies have focused on the numbers of snakeheads in the region and in certain bodies of water, and their impacts on prey species and on other native and nonnative gamefish.
So far the scientific evidence shows that a snakehead doomsday is not imminent. In fact, many of the bodies of water in Odenkirk’s studies are now healthier—in terms of prey abundance and top-tier predators—than the recorded period before snakeheads appeared on the scene.
Virginia law no longer requires you to kill snakeheads. It’s up to you to kill and eat the fish or release it. They are delicious, and in Asia they are valuable food fish.
It is illegal to have a live snakehead in your possession. This law is intended to prevent the spread of live snakeheads from one watershed to another.
Based on the evidence, are snakeheads an invasive species? Or are they merely a nonnative species, just as rainbow trout, largemouth bass, brown trout, and brook trout are in many areas? That’s up to you to decide, but before you make up your mind, catch one of these amazing fish and you may no longer consider them a threat.
For a detailed discussion of snakeheads, watch the 6-part video series “John Odenkirk Q&A” on youtube.com. -The Editor
All of my experience with snakeheads has been on tidal creeks, and not in freshwater ponds and lakes or big rivers—all of which also have snakeheads. However, I’m sure that some of the tactics will cross over to these waters. Seasonal conditions dictate movement, water temperature, reproduction, and available food sources just like any other predatory fish, so you’ll need to adjust your strategies based on the time of year.
Snakeheads prefer shallow water. Their habitat is often along shallow shorelines, and they are perfectly suited for these habitats as they can breathe air, and even wiggle across mudflats and exposed land. This makes them a desirable fly rod species, as you can often sight fish for them, and you never have to worry about fishing deep. Your fly is almost always “in the zone.”
In the early spring, much of the grass that holds snakeheads during the warmer months hasn’t grown up yet, but there are still many areas to target them during this time of year. Hunt around secondary creek mouths, downed trees, logs, cypress knees, drop-offs, hard edges off flats, warm flats with dark bottoms, and the creek channels. During the flood tide, tactics or strategies are more of a searching style due to the higher water. This allows the fish to spread out over a wider area, and deeper water makes sight fishing more challenging. This requires you to use broadcast tactics and make searching casts in all the likely areas.
The last couple hours of an outgoing tide, dead low tide, and the first part of the incoming tide are the best parts of the snakehead game. Due to the low water, this part of the tide offers up all the visuals that we fly fishers love. I have had some amazing days on the bow of a flats skiff while my buddy and snakehead guru Grant Alvis poled me into some thrilling skinny-water eats. Alvis likes to target these early spring fish when the tide is low because you can see them on the edges of the channels of the flats where they wait for the tide to push up and allow access to the many small creeks, ditches, and backwaters.
The prime season—and the most exciting—is late spring and early summer when snakeheads are post-spawn and guarding their young of the year, called “fry balls.” At this time, both males and females guard their young with a fierce strike-first, ask-questions-later mentality. I have seen this with Alvis several times. The adults keep their fry ball between them, and they attack anything that gets near their babies. This makes for some visceral assaults on topwater frogs or sliders. The strikes you experience with these fish, and the electrifying jumps, are enough to make any skeptic a fan of snakeheads. I became completely snakebit after seeing just one of these fish attack my fly. Although they are uber-aggressive when they defend their fry, at other times they can be extremely difficult to feed, and very spooky. They are as wary any other fish I’ve targeted in fresh or salt water. They are also challenging to land, as they try to unglue themselves with violent, head-shaking leaps.
In midsummer into early fall, the name of the game is fishing the grass (Hydrilla verticillata). Snakeheads sit on top of the grass or right in it. They use the dense vegetation as camouflage (look at the colors and barred patterns on these fish) as they wait for an unsuspecting victim to swim by. Snakeheads are top-level ambush predators, and this is the time for swimming weedless floating mouse and frog patterns over the tops of weeds and along the edges, depending on the water depth. You can often spot the fish lying in the weeds, but you also get completely out-of-the-blue strikes that can scare the crap out of you. Then there are those other times when they track your frog imitation for several yards and the anticipation builds until the snakeheads quietly sucks the imitation down. All of these scenarios are thrilling. You never know exactly what you’re going to get from a snakehead, but they always put on a show.
Late fall can also provide good fishing when the snakeheads start to feed heavily just before dropping temperatures force them into a hibernation-type slumber. Many of the tactics are similar to spring, because you have no grass. Look for low tides, mud flats with dark bottoms, and the channel areas around these warmer areas.
Gear & Tackle
When targeting snakeheads on the fly, I like to match my rods to the type of fly I’m using. I use a 7-weight, medium-fast-action fly rod for smaller, lighter finesse style flies and spooky, wary fish. The lighter line weight with a smaller fly allows for more accurate and delicate casts. Frogs and other large, wind-resistant flies require a 9-weight rod to make accurate casts with less effort. If you can only choose one rod, bring an 8-weight.
A good, smooth disk-drag reel is always a consideration when you purchase a reel, but snakehead fights are more toe-to-toe brawls instead of line-screaming runs. You often end up hand-stripping these fish to the boat because they spend as much time in the air as they do in the water, and wear themselves out with all that jumping. Any reel you already use for bass fishing or light-duty saltwater works just fine. I prefer lighter reels to balance the weight of the outfit and reduce fatigue, especially in the seasons when you have to make searching casts all day.
Fly lines are in many ways the most important parts of your delivery system. Choose an aggressive taper and a floating line that is overweighted to turn these bigger flies over. For instance, an 8-weight Scientific Anglers Amplitude Tropical Titan weighs 280 grains in the first 30 feet of line—that’s the grain weight of a standard 10-weight. This line also has a tropical core, and a coating that keeps the line stiff and slick even in summer heat.
During high tides, or sometimes even when I’m sight fishing in the channels and drop-offs during a low tide, I use an intermediate line to get a Game Changer or other slow-sinking fly a little closer to the fish. The narrower clear line is also a little more stealthy. The Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 Clear is a great all-around intermediate line that handles many styles of streamer patterns. This line gives you more versatility to control the sink rates on more buoyant flies or swimming-style flies. It often keeps it in the zone much better than a floating line.
The leader setup for snakeheads is pretty simple but can be modified or completely changed when conditions warrant. I use a bass-style 9-foot leader tapered down to about 25-pound-test. Snakeheads have teeth, and I have had a couple of fish bite me off, so using a heavier 30- or 40-pound bite tippet isn’t a bad idea, either. I try to use as few knots in the leader as possible, as you are fishing in and around grass so much of the year, but I do use a fluorocarbon tippet as it has more abrasion resistance.
Snakeheads are very opportunistic and feed on a variety of food sources, so you have a lot of choices in terms of fly selection. At some times of year they eat anything and everything that crosses their paths including mice, frogs, salamanders, crayfish, and many types of baitfish such as striped killifish, shad, bluegills, peanut bunker, and other small fish species.
During the summer when vegetation is at its peak, topwater flies such as frogs are a must. They should be weedless, as you will be casting on top of lily pads or Hydrilla. Other great topwater patterns include the legendary Dahlberg Diver, the Whitlock Waker series, and foam slider patterns like the Jack Gartside Gurgler and the many variation that have come from it. My Changer Craw is a great choice when sight fishing deeper fish in the channels or flats.
For baitfish, I have three go-to patterns I use during spooky low-tide periods: the Finesse Game Changer has been very successful in tan, white, and yellow. I use a Feather Game Changer as a searching pattern. One particular day while fishing with Alvis, the fish where being very sluggish, so it was a great time to try something new. I had been playing with a new pattern that I call the Jerk Changer. We tied that fly on and within a few casts I got a fish, and in the next several hours had many fish eat the fly when other flies were not producing. It’s a great change-up fly when the fish don’t seem to be reacting to the Finesse Changers.
I have spent my entire adult life as a full-time guide, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some amazing fishing destinations around the world. The best experiences are always when we find native fish in natural, pristine environments: steelhead in West Coast rivers, brook trout in Maine ponds, East Coast stripers, native cutthroat, and the list goes on an on. These places and these fish are precious and should be protected at all costs. However, most of my guide career and most of the fly fishing across this country is for introduced, nonnative species.
Many fly fishers I’ve guided in my home state of Virginia had no idea that smallmouth bass are an introduced species that has flourished for centuries. Our beloved muskies aren’t native where I guide either, yet I’m booked solid with clients from all over the country who want to catch a giant on fly. And who doesn’t love tailwater or spring creek brown trout? It seems to be a double standard to sit on our high horses, and label snakeheads as invasive because they are misunderstood, relatively new, and foreign. Many of the fish we love and target have the same environmental status as snakeheads. But their status as a gamefish and as a food fish cannot be denied, so give snakeheads a try. If you eat one, you are reducing the number of invasives in our waters. If you release one, you are allowing your fellow fly fishers a shot at a world-class gamefish in wild solitude where you won’t see many other fly fishers. Take the pressure off your local trout waters this spring and try getting snakebit. You won’t regret it.
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s the author of the new book Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020).