March 23, 2022
By Matt Crawford
Way, way back before the internet turned up the volume on almost everything, an invasive northern snakehead was found in Silverwood Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. Besides a few locals, nobody seemed to give that discovery much attention. But when snakeheads were discovered in a Crofton, Md., pond in the summer of 2002, the story exploded across the country. By July of that year, Interior Secretary Gail Norton was sounding the alarm.
“These fish are like something from a bad horror movie,” Norton said at a July 22 news conference. “These fish are top-level predators. They’ll eat virtually anything in their path.”
Based on early data, Norton, along with federal and state biologists, believed the arrival of snakeheads portended a massive disruption in the ecosystems where they were being found. Less than two years later, in May of 2004, the first snakehead—labeled by the media as a “frankenfish”—was found in the Potomac watershed, in Little Hunting Creek near Alexandria, Va. By 2005, with fears the invasive, toothy creature would wreak havoc on the entire Potomac watershed, it was clear the only way to control the snakehead population was to fish for them.
So local anglers answered the call and went fishing. And why not? Snakeheads are a unique, “bucket list” species; they’re fun to catch; they can be targeted through various types of fishing methods; they’re relatively easy to get to; and—perhaps most importantly—they are surprisingly tasty.
And here we are, 18 years since snakeheads showed up in the Potomac and rolling into the time of year when the water starts to warm and the snakehead fishing in the Potomac River system in Virginia and Maryland starts to get good. Like, really good.
With that in mind, here’s a primer for fishing the once feared “frankenfish” that now inhabits thousands of miles of rivers in the Mid-Atlantic.
THE TIME IS NOW
While a whole slew of fish in the Potomac River drainage begins spawning this month, northern snakeheads aren’t one of them. Yes, they are spring spawners, but they don’t typically begin in earnest until later in April. Snakehead spawning activity hits its peak in the summer and continues into August, and snakeheads can be tough to catch when they’re on their nests.
But in the spring, northern snakeheads are venturing out to do what they do best: Eat. And by “eat,” we mean chow down on any other fish they can get in their mouths.
“Snakeheads prefer to eat fish,” says a Chesapeake Bay Program fact sheet, “but will also feed on frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles. Once a snakehead is fully mature, other fish will make up over 90 percent of their diet, such as largemouth bass and white perch.”
This means, essentially, that where there are other fish, there are snakeheads. And since most freshwater fish move into shallow water in the spring to spawn, the ravenous, fish-eating snakeheads are going to be there, too—in numbers.
The key trigger for turning on the spring feeding frenzy is temperature. Most years, water temps in many of the shallower parts of the Potomac drainage will begin to flirt with 50 degrees by mid- to late-March. The best time to start looking for snakeheads is after a 3- to 4-day stretch of warm, sunny days that heat up the water. For being a big, apex predator, snakeheads are easily spooked, and the low light of morning and evening can be used to an angler’s advantage.
WHAT TO THROW
While northern snakeheads may be exotic fish from another continent, catching them doesn’t require specialized gear. The short version: Virtually any setup you have for bass fishing is probably going to work for snakeheads.
The longer version: The list of effective snakehead baits is extensive, though you’d expect as much from a fish that will eat just about anything that swims. Spring fishing for snakeheads requires a deft balance of stealth and pizzazz. Noisy lures like chatterbaits and spinnerbaits can be effective when the water is stained. Use a rod with some backbone—a 15-pound snakehead will shred lightweight tackle.
As the water clears up, slow-rolling a paddletail swimbait through a suspected snakehead hangout is a good bet. If you really want to challenge yourself, fly-fish with big streamers that look like yellow perch or small bass. Don’t overlook live minnows, either. They can be the deadliest bait for snakeheads virtually any time of the year, but they routinely outperform all other bait options now.
If you’re on a DIY adventure for snakeheads in the spring, here’s one tip: As much as possible, try fishing near steep shoreline banks. Snakeheads prefer weedy, slow-moving water, but in the spring, they’ll be wherever their prey species are stacking up. The steep banks provide a hard edge, and they’ll be in there eating away.
WHERE TO GO
Crofton, Md., is ground zero for the northern snakehead invasion in North America. In general, the closer you are to where it all started, the more snakeheads you’re likely to find.
Crofton sits on the Patuxent River (1), and the waters downstream of Crofton are fertile snakehead grounds. Other Maryland hotspots to consider include the Severn River (2) and Magothy River (3).
If you’re looking for expert intel, consider booking a guide. Blackwater Adventures (blackwateradventuresmd.com) operates on the Blackwater River, often out of kayaks, which takes snakehead fishing to a whole different level.
In Virginia, there are populations of large snakeheads (anything over 15 pounds) in Quantico Creek (4) and Aquia Creek (5). The Rappahannock (6), York (7) and James (8) rivers all have them as well. And don’t forget Little Hunting Creek (9), the shallow little river that made headlines way back in 2004 when the OG snakehead showed up there.
The mighty Potomac (10) itself, from Great Falls downstream to Chesapeake Bay, is full of snakeheads. A guide service like Apex Predators Potomac Creek (fishapex.com) can be a good bet for getting on lots of fish in a short amount of time.
EAT ’EM UP
Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that snakeheads are great-tasting fish. Remember, the reason they likely showed up in North America is that they are highly prized as table fare and were being sold (live) in Asian markets as food. The white, flakey meat remains such a desired delicacy that some anglers even sell the meat to fish markets and restaurants throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.
When snakehead meat was available last year, for instance, the Kentmore Restaurant and Crab House in Stevensville, Md., advertised snakehead served several ways: baked with a tomato-basil-caper butter, blackened in tacos and sandwiches and in a crispy dish of fried fish and chips.
Since they’re not gamefish, there are no size or creel limits on snakeheads, and they are still such a disruptive force in the Potomac ecosystem that catch-and-release is opposed by fish and wildlife agencies.
“For those willing,” says a fact sheet put out by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “we actively encourage the targeting and harvest of every snakehead caught.”
So, anglers, you know what to do. And you might as well do it now.