Northern snakeheads are an invasive species in the United States and have long stood on the list of most wanted fish. While some outlaws had the good fortune of being wanted dead or alive snakeheads are only wanted dead. Some parts of the country have actually offered the chance for cash rewards just by posting pictures of yourself with a dead snakehead. The true scope and impact of this fish invasion are still being studied but, thankfully, so far they don’t seem to be terribly injurious to the waters they inhabit. It may just be a matter of time.
Most fish and wildlife agencies want these fish gone and even dictate that they are killed when caught. They are something akin to a creature from a monster movie that no one wants around. They are aggressive, they’re big, they’re ugly, and strangest of all they can actually breathe outside of the water as they squirm overland from one pond to another. Environmentalists are waging war on the northern snakehead and this guide is here to show you how you can play your part.
The Northern Snakehead Basics
Northern snakeheads are a particular species of snakehead fish that originated from China and Korea where they are considered to be an important food fish. This is actually how they made their way to the United States. But, instead of ending up on someone’s plate somewhere they made their way to the local waters and spread. Their first notable appearance was in a U.S. news report out of Crofton, Maryland in 2002 where a man had released them after buying them in a New York market.
As soon as the threat was discovered locals drained the lake and successfully killed the two adults and 100 juveniles. However, some must have escaped because in 2004 more were found in the Potomac River. Since then they have spread to reservoirs and waters from Florida to California. The greatest concern now is that the species will eventually reach the Great Lakes. If they do it could be disastrous for that ecosystem.
A full assault is being waged on these fish. Communities are poisoning local waters with a piscicide called rotenone just to stop the spread. Fishermen and hunters alike are taking to the waters with rods, bows, rifles, and spears to kill the fish on sight. Being able to recognize and stop these fish is something that every fisherman should be able to do.
Northern snakeheads are a unique looking fish. They have long thick bodies with heads that look very much like a snake. Their backs are studded with long dorsal fins with 49-50 rays and anal fins with 31-32 rays. These fish usually grow to around 3 feet in length although some have been reported up to 4 feet and their scales often take on a golden tan to pale brown blotched appearance that is reminiscent of snakeskin. The largest snakehead caught to date weighed in at 18.42 lbs although bigger fish are believed to be out there still.
This freshwater fish is surprisingly resilient and can actually withstand a certain amount of salinity. The weirdest trait of these fish is that they can live outside of water for several days due to their unique physiology. While the adults are stagnant on land the young of the species can actually wriggle from one body of water to another. This, more than anything, makes them especially difficult to catch and eradicate.
It also doesn’t help that in less than a year and a half a collection of these fish can double their population. The females lay around 100,000 eggs a year and then both parents guard them. Needless to say, northern snakeheads are the perfect storm for an invasive species. They are tough, adaptable, reproduce quickly, and pose a threat to certain ecosystems.
Don’t Be Confused
As if dealing with northern snakeheads wasn’t bad enough there are actually two fish species that are native to the United States that look similar. There are some key differentiating traits to look out for though so you can make sure you are taking down a snakehead and not something else. The other similar species are the bowfin (Amia calva) and the burbot (Lota lota ). At first glance, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that these species are all the same.
Thankfully, the northern snakehead stands out because of its long uninterrupted dorsal and anal fins that run most of the length of its body. The bowfin has a short anal fin as well as an eyespot on its tail for males and juveniles while the burbot has a split dorsal fin and a barbed lower jaw. Keep these distinguishing traits in mind whenever you are fishing because sooner or later you are bound to come across one of these species.
When Are They Active?
With snakeheads running up and down the east coast and even popping up in California their activity is based on where you are. Down in Florida for example, they are active all year round while the winter months up north seem to slow them down and send them for deeper waters. In the northeast, snakeheads can spawn from late June to early August so this is the prime time to make a dent on the population.
The hundreds and thousands of babies that spawn together around this time will actually swim together in a tight ball near the surface of the water. When you see one it sort of has a reddish hue and the tumult it causes in the water can’t be missed. Once you have spotted one of these balls it is fair to say that the mother is probably somewhere nearby. If you play it right you can catch her and grab the babies in a net.
Where to Find Northern Snakeheads
The Potomac River and regions along the east coast are ground zero for the northern snakehead invasion so these states offer the best chances of catching the fish. Still, at the rate these fish spread and repopulate, it is worth checking with your local fish and wildlife service to see if there have been any spotted near you. Even if there have been no sightings nothing says you can’t be the first one to catch a snakehead in your area.
For the diehard fishermen who really want to battle these vicious fish, you can of course always go to the source. Species of snakeheads can be found throughout China, Korea, Russia, and other surrounding countries. In all regions of the world, these fish have shown similar behavior and preference for certain environments.
You can always start your search in fresh and brackish water. Northern snakeheads prefer shallow waters with thick vegetation so if you spot a cluster of lily pads near the shoreline you just might find a snakehead under it. They have also been known to show up in roadside ditches and canals. Because these fish can travel and survive on land for days they can be found in waters that aren’t normally well populated by fish.
These fish are ambush predators so they also like nice muddy bottoms with good cover to hide under. They will spook easily though so if you loudly walk to the shoreline or run your boat motor too close you might scare them off. It helps if you have polarized sunglasses to help you spot them in the water. Once you spot one it is best to stay still and fish from where you are.
Northern snakeheads are also notorious loners so once you have caught one in an area don’t expect to catch more. This isn’t a hard and fast rule and some anglers have caught more than one in the same area. Still, more likely than not if you keep fishing the same spot after grabbing a snakehead you’ll just end up with a bass. Fishing for northern snakeheads involves finding a nice shallow well-covered spot, fishing it for a time, then moving on to the next.
Northern Snakehead Bait & Tackle
It is said that fishing for northern snakehead is like fishing for bass but if the bass were bigger, stronger, and meaner. These fish are vicious and can put up a fight when pressed into a corner. Their razor-sharp teeth can cut through your line and their preference for thick cover mean snags are sometimes inevitable. If your line and rod are too delicate something will eventually break.
To catch a northern snakehead you will need a fast action, heavy rod, with a strong tip set with a heavy line. Not only do you need to be able to wrench the snakehead out from cover you also have to fight its twisting, turning, and running through thick cover that will snap many lines. If you can withstand that and wrestle the fish on board make sure you are careful how you handle the fish.
You never want to get your fingers near its mouth because a northern snakehead will tear through a glove and tear through your fingers. Also, make sure your hook is fully set in the snakehead’s jaw because these fish have notoriously tough jaws. This means you will also need a good pair of pliers to get your hook back out. Your entire approach to landing a snakehead should be one of strength and caution. Bring out your heavy-duty equipment and be ready for a fight.
The Bait and Lures
Both lures and live bait work for northern snakeheads but the time of year usually dictates which one works better. Lures seem to be more effective during the summer months when the fish are active and spawning while bait seems to work better during their more lethargic winter months. Remember that fish don’t follow calendars though so this behavior is really dependent on the weather and how that is impacting water temperature.
When it comes to lures most experienced snakehead anglers opt for topwater lures because of their effectiveness and spectacular display. Topwater frogs are often used with great success. Lures such as poppers, buzz baits, spinnerbaits, and chatterbaits also work very well. Which works best and why seems to be a matter of personal preference. Even among the very popular topwater frogs, there is a circling opinion about what is best.
As you begin to fish for snakeheads you should use a combination of lures and baits until you start to get a feel for what works best for you and your area. It is also really helpful to ask around, especially if you can find an experienced snakehead angler to speak with. Picking their brains for lure choices will be very helpful. When it comes to bait, things are a bit easier. Snakeheads are as opportunistic as they come so they will dive at anything that is living.
Your best choices for live bait though include large minnows, small fish, frogs, and crayfish. Let this bait float around under a floater at whatever depth you think is best and if there is a snakehead nearby they will go for it.
How to Fish for Northern Snakehead
Fishing for northern snakehead is a tough dirty responsibility that every avid fisherman should spend time doing. Presentation of the bait or lure is as simple as floating it in front of or above a snakehead and waiting for them to bite. But, once they do, be prepared for a fight. You need to set your hook fast and hard and make sure you don’t give the fish even an inch of wiggle room. As soon as you do you’ll be amazed how quickly the hook just seems to float out of their mouth.
With snakehead, you aren’t fishing with fine technique or finesse. This is all about quickly setting the hook and getting the fish out of the water. Once you get pretty good at that you can fish up and down rivers and around lakes until you have cleared them out. This takes patience and persistence. Once you catch a snakehead in one spot you should move on to the next. You should definitely return to that spot later though. Continually make the rounds on locations you identify as good snakehead hideouts, they can pay off again and again over time.
What to Do With a Caught Fish
First and foremost, always check with your local fish and wildlife service to determine what their policy is concerning northern snakehead. In most places when you catch a northern snakehead the very first thing you need to do is kill it. The usual recommendation is to freeze the fish and double bag it. Make sure you also make a note of exactly where you caught the fish and take a picture of it so it can be positively identified.
While you are doing all of this you need to be very careful around the snakeheads canine-like teeth. Removing the hook and handling the fish should be done with gloves and you should never put your fingers in its mouth. You don’t want the joy of bringing a snakehead out of the water to turn into the disaster of it biting you and returning to the river.
When you catch and kill a northern snakehead you need to notify a local fish and game agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (703-358-2148) as soon as possible. They will want to know where you caught it and they will want to see the photos you took. This helps with larger control and management strategies and helps maintain an understanding of how big the problem is.
You also need to be cautious about the risk of unintentionally catching a northern snakehead. That might sound crazy but it does happen. Baby snakeheads especially can find hiding places aboard your boat and within other parts of your equipment. Make sure you thoroughly rinse everything down, including yourself, before leaving. Because these fish can survive so long outside of water they have become notoriously bad hitchhikers in some cases.
Can You Eat Northern Snakehead?
In most of China, Russia, and other surrounding countries snakehead is known as a food fish. Many anglers in the United States don’t feel the same but the reality is you can and probably should eat northern snakehead. The fish itself is an ugly beast but they aren’t bottom feeders or scavengers and actually produce a delicious clean tasting white meat.
Northern snakeheads are a vicious and combative invasive species to the United States. Their unique ability to survive and travel on land as well as their high reproductive rates make them a particularly dangerous presence for some delicate ecosystems like the Great Lakes. Stopping the spread of this fish is something that all fishermen need to be a part of. It is necessary to preserve our waters and the fishing that we love. This guide should get you started and help you join the fight. Good luck and good fishing!
Bonus tip: Learn more about catching, cleaning, and cooking northern snakehead! You might be surprised by how good they taste.