Fishermen who spend time in and around the Potomac River tributaries don’t all have the same opinion about the Northern Snakehead, but rest assured, they all have an opinion. And there’s a good chance it will be a strong one. Some fall in the “they’re destroying the fishery and must be eradicated at all costs” camp, others in the “they must be protected as a sportfish before it’s too late” camp. And some, believe it or not, actually fall somewhere in between.
There are four agencies who regulate the fishery and have a great interest in gathering data on the Snakehead population: U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, DC Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). These agencies are working together to gather data about Snakehead in the Potomac tributaries, and part of that collective effort includes doing shock surveys, tagging, logging and releasing fish back into the system. Fisheries biologists at VDGIF, led by Snakehead expert John Odenkirk, generously invited myself and David Coffman, editor of VDGIF’s Outdoor Report, to come along for one such tagging survey.
Fisheries biologist Mike Isel skillfully piloted the boat into some tight spots!
Mike also operated the generator and controlled the flow of electricity to the probes that dragged through the water. Once the generator, which supplies the juice, was turned on, Mike operated a foot pedal which distributes electricity into the water.
Jarrett Talley, Fisheries Technician, manned a net on one side of the boat, while Odenkirk worked the other side. In this photo you can see the probes in the water.
It was quite interesting to watch different species of fish react differently to the electricity. Snakehead have an air bladder that, upon shocking, expels air. So they tend to sink, giving the netters just one shot at them most of the time. Here Odenkirk quickly gets the net under a snakehead.
The fish are then brought into the boat and placed in a live well. Tags are applied later to all the fish collected before they are released. For a short video showing John Odenkirk netting a Snakehead, click here.
The snakehead are often netted with samples of the vegetation and food sources they like best. The Banded Killifish, shown here, Odenkirk says are very commonly found in the places Snakehead are captured. Is it just me, or is this Snakehead eyeing that one in Odenkirk’s hand?
Once the shocking and netting is done, the fish are removed from the live well one at a time (roughly in order of their level of cooperation) and placed on a board for measurement.
This sample is about 72 centimeters, or just over 28 inches.
Out of the ten Snakehead fish netted in this survey, two of them were ‘recaptures,’ fish that already contained a tag.
All the others received tags. Here Odenkirk tags a beauty, and the tag number is logged. Previously tagged fish are logged by tag number as well, then released with the others.
The high visibility tags contain instructions for any angler who catches a tagged Snakehead. You are requested to kill the fish, then report the location to the phone number printed on the tag.
Mike Isel logs the new tags, along with date, location and length of each fish.
Odenkirk tosses a tagged fish back into Little Hunting Creek.
The bright orange tag is visible even in murky water conditions. There are probably a few Snakehead targeted by everyone from Herons to bowhunters who would prefer that the tag were a drab olive.
Isel hits the throttle as we exit Little Hunting Creek. Next to him David Coffman, and Jarrett Talley stands up front.
I can’t thank the VDGIF’s great team on Snakehead control duty enough for letting me ‘tag along’ today. Dammit, I was going to avoid that pun, but it’s late. Forgive me.
Okay I have only been able to catch one tiny little snakehead fish. But I continue to try, because they fight like hell. I really want to catch a big one on a fly rod. In fact I just purchased some new frog flies that I think are going to be very effective.
But while I’m waiting for that to happen, my friend Monica was kind enough to share some snakehead with me that is actually of the size that a person could cook and eat. The last two times I saw Monica were the last day of school in third grade, and then again a week ago when she came kayaking with us and brought me this gift of snakehead fish. I encourage you to check out her new blog, Shedding Suburbia. Monica is a great writer and I know you’ll enjoy her insightful commentary on life and the outdoors.
Okay back to the snakehead. To be honest, even though I had heard good things about them, I really didn’t know what to expect. I mean, we’re talking about a fish that is alarming in appearance and behavior. It looks ancient and wicked and completely alien. When caught it thrashes so violently if you get one to take a fly or lure in the shallows against the weeds you’d swear you had an alligator on the line. As difficult as they are to hook, they are damn near impossible to land. And once you get the powerful, slippery bastards in the net or in your kayak, you’re only about a third of the way into the battle.
So honestly, how good could something taste that is constructed entirely of muscle, slime and anger? Despite being decidedly nervous about trying new foods, I wanted to find out. I decided the safest method would be beer battered and fried, so I picked up the basics shown above. When recipes call for beer, I always like to use something flavorful and interesting. Here the Sam Adams Octoberfest seemed like a nice choice. Then I cut the fish, which was very firm, into bite sized pieces.
So far, so good. The fish had no odor to speak of, and the texture was firm. The bite-sized pieces were dipped in the batter and plunked into a skillet with some hot vegetable oil. They cooked for about four minutes, until golden brown as the package instructs, turned once for another four, then drained on a paper towel.
I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about this unless it was really good or really bad. And this fish was really good! The fish is tasty and mild, and cooks white and flaky. This was a lunchtime experiment, served with some cheddar macaroni salad and tartar sauce out of the jar from McCormick. I think next time I will maybe add a little kick to the batter, maybe a little cayenne pepper or something. And perhaps look for an interesting tartar sauce recipe. But I will gladly keep any snakehead fish I catch, and be happy to know it’s in the freezer for a quick, easy and delicious meal!
The Northern Snakehead Fish, subject of much discussion and debate among anglers and conservationists, seems here to stay. And while certainly invasive, the nightmare predicted by some who thought they would eat everything in the river doesn’t seem to be playing out. And in the middle section of the Potomac River, their numbers, size and fierce fight have attracted countless anglers. When my friend Kodi, who recently caught a 30-incher from his kayak, invited mutual friend and guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and I to join him for some kayak largemouth bass and snakehead fishing, I had to go.
We went down the Maryland side to Mallows Bay and met at sunrise. At one point in the planning process I wondered if it would be easier for me to take the shorter drive down the Virginia side and just paddle across from Quantico. This picture shows what a stupid idea that was. The Potomac is wide where I live, maybe 800 yards or so. But down here, it’s got to be at least five miles across. I couldn’t understand how all the muddy water from the Upper Potomac from recent downpours wasn’t turning the Middle section just as brown. To quote the old Saturday Night Live skit about how the National Change Bank can make a profit just offering change for various denominations, “The answer? Volume.”
This is Harold, one of the best people you’ll ever meet. I met Harold many years ago when I first started fly fishing and booked a float with him on the North Branch of the Potomac. It’s worth noting that the farthest upstream and the farthest downstream I have fished the waters of the Potomac (over 200 miles between), I fished both with Harold.
The picture above looking out past the shipwreck across to Virginia is out in the main stem of the river. Mallows Bay looks more like this, with weeds and grasses providing lots of cover for bass and snakehead. It’s tidal here, so at low tide normally the fish that seek cover in the taller weeds you see here get forced back into a position where they are more exposed and, presumably, easier to catch. But the rain pushed the water levels up a bit. For whatever reason, the fishing was extremely tough.
My very first Snakehead encounter happened in a little cove. You see Harold’s kayak in the distance, he’s at the opening of the cove there. I was paddling quietly back there in maybe twelve inches of water, the bottom eleven of which was all grass or Hydrilla or whatever it is. I heard a noise to my left and saw large, black fins weaving and splashing between the tall weeds. Snakehead. I threw the popper tight against the weeds but could not entice him out. When I had exhausted that option, I decided to paddle over and just see if I could get a closer look. I drifted silently to the weeds, peering over the edge of my kayak, looking for movement. Then the water exploded next to me in a violent burst as the Snakehead bolted to safety. Not gonna lie here, it scared the shit out of me. But I immediately knew I just had to get one of those fish on my line!
The fishing did not improve. Harold caught a decent largemouth and hooked a Snakehead but lost it. And I missed a few bass and that was it. So we left Mallows Bay and headed to a pond that Kodi knew about which held a lot of Snakehead. It was a little tricky too, as you had to cast out beyond the lily pads, which left you very little room to strip in a top water fly before you had to pick it up and recast. But I got lucky and fooled this little one right as my fly reached the lily pads. People asked me how the fight was. He was overmatched with my 7-weight Sage, and I had to basically horse him over the pads, if he went down in there I never could have gotten him out. Even a small one, though, is pretty intimidating. Slimy, more beautiful in color and more hideous in form than I expected. They look equal parts ancient, evil and angry.
It was a tiring day of not catching many fish in the hot sun, but it is always a pleasure to be among good friends, and the challenge of catching fish who don’t want to be caught is a character builder. Sometimes the fish win. Regardless, if you’re only going to catch one fish all day, let it be something new and exciting!