• David Graham

Northern Snakehead - 2 decades later


By David Graham: July 30, 2021




Nearly 2 decades ago the unassuming little town of Crofton Maryland became ground zero for a national hysteria of the 'snaky' kind.


Ground Zero -

The Northern Snakehead was first found in the Summer of 2002 in a small pond in Crofton Maryland. The pond was essentially 'nuked' by state officials fearing it could spread into the Chesapeake Bay.. it was an expendable piece of water totally wiped out in an effort to contain the fish... But 2 years later multiple Snakeheads were sampled in the nearby Potomac river system and it was determined that they were a breeding population.


"it crawls over dry land, can breathe air, and eats everything in its path!" A serpent like foreign creature with the head of a snake and an eel like body had all the right stuff for a headline that was sure to draw clicks... Sensationalism - fear - and hysteria - money in the bank for media outlets looking for the next big story and the 'Frankenfish' headlines took off.


Hysteria -

There is something about snakes that stimulates a primal fear and anxiety in people dating back to the origins of man... in which Adam and Eve were deceived by Satan in the form of a snake. There is a negative connotation prevalent today with the very name and by mere association the name Snakehead evokes a negative stigma right off the bat.


But whats in a name? The catchy headlines dominated national media in the early 2000's - A variety of corny sci-fi horror flicks exist about snakeheads akin to 'Sharknado'.


Snakehead Terror (2004)

Frankenfish (2004)

Snakehead Swamp (2014)

... Just to name a few and incase you're looking for a good laugh


Eradication efforts-

At the point that breeding populations were found in major river systems I think any hope or DREAM of eradication should've immediately gone out the window. Still, untold millions of dollars were spent in the form of chemicals, electroshocking and other means and fueled by media hysteria. Bounties, incentives and other rewards were offered some areas in the form of cash rewards or gift cards. Maryland Bass Pro Shops offered a 'Snakehead Reward Gift Card' and a 'Snakehead Wrangler' hat to boot for turning in snakeheads at specified sizes and quantities. 200 dollar bounties were put up to incentivize anglers to catch and kill as many as they could. One species - our native Bowfin - may have absorbed the brunt of the impact of such incentives just by way of misidentification. The bowfin, which is not related to the northern snakehead whatsoever, is similar enough in appearance that undoubtedly many were killed out of sheer ignorance.

Josh Dolin with a great example of a bowfin next to a snakehead (@haverods_willtravel)

Not to harp on the uncontrollable past, but looking towards the future its undeniable at this stage that the snakehead cannot and will not be eradicated despite any effort whatsoever. Atleast, not without doing so at the expense of everything else that lives alongside them.


Findings

Fast forward some two decades later - the measurable impact of the Northern Snakehead seems inconclusive at best... The Northern Snakehead, while a very opportunistic and efficient predator - will only serve as a form of 'competition' to species that occupy their same habitat. The Northern Snakehead seems very keen on remaining close to heavily vegetated-shallow flats, sometimes in 2 feet of water or less. It stands to reason then that their primary forage prey will also be fish, crustaceans, amphibians and whatever else lives on shallow weedy flats for sustenance and shelter.

virginia northern snakehead
Northern Snakehead from a tidal marsh in Virginia

Studies that have aimed to survey feeding habits of the Northern Snakehead show that they are overwhelmingly feeding on smaller, highly abundant species of fish that also live in weedy shallow flats like killifish, juvenile bluegill, and white perch. Nothing of which makes up their primary forage habits have been shown to be a limited resource by any stretch of the imagination - certainly not to the point of threatening their neighbor predators from a competitive standpoint.


Perhaps most interestingly though is the rate or frequency at which Northern Snakeheads are reproducing compared to a fish like the Largemouth Bass. In some areas it has been found that the Northern Snakehead is not spawning out congruently with Largemouth Bass - and as a result, adult Snakeheads are escorting their fry around while Largemouth Bass are not actively spawning, but actively feeding. As a result - its been observed that Largemouth Bass are adjusting in some areas to specifically target and feed on Snakehead fry. Unlike the Northern Snakehead - Largemouth Bass will travel and operate in schools... and once they pattern an opportunity to feed on Snakehead fry, there is little the adults can do to stop a blitz of hungry Largemouth from an assault on their young! Beyond Spring spawning periods - there is little overlap between Northern Snakeheads that spend basically all of their time in shallow weedy flats, and Largemouth that move into deeper water after spawn.

virginia snakehead
Northern Snakehead from a tidal marsh in Virginia

More recent studies and surveys are showing populations of Northern Snakeheads are actually stabilizing and in many cases declining where they have been surveyed the longest. It appears that they flourish upon new occupancy of an area, but eventually naturalization occurs and they stabilize or diminish where they remain for long periods. This could be indicative of native fish species adapting to (and possibly overcoming) their presence - and their increasing popularity among outdoorsman by various means of harvest. As of now - there is no concrete evidence or data to support the claim that the Northern Snakehead will cause ecological damage. Despite how gnarly the Snakehead LOOKS - they are nowhere near the apex predator that our native Largemouth Bass is.

Photo by Josh Dolin (@haverods_willtravel)

Fishing for Snakeheads-

From a strictly angling perspective... the Northern Snakehead presents a very unique opportunity to pursue a predatory fish by hook and line that is capable of and well accustomed to violently pursuing and smashing artificial lures. 20 years after their initial discovery - I think we are finally seeing a shift in the paradigm. Among anglers... especially American anglers for whatever reason, there is an institutional reluctance to accept non traditional forms of fishing or fish species, even among our own native fish. The snakehead has an uphill climb to garner acceptance in the mainstream but its undeniable sporting qualities speak for themselves.

northern snakehead
photo by Grant Alvis (@grantalvis_flyfinatic)

The Northern Snakehead simply has character... their propensity to wake on a surface lure and smash it through shallow weeds will stimulate the senses of even the most diehard bass angler... the unique physical characteristics as serpentine as they are inspire a sense of wonder curiosity, and perhaps a healthy amount of fear that is hard to ignore.


In the areas where the Northern Snakehead is known to live - anglers should seek shallow, heavily vegetated areas. In a tide affected system, low or dropping tides can push snakeheads out of their hiding areas where they may be more easily found. Here - perhaps the most popular method for fishing for snakeheads is with topwater lures. A weedless frog pattern is very effective - where sometimes you're casting through and around snags. Because the habitat fraught with snaggy obstacles, a stout rod and braided line could be necessary to quickly extract the Snakehead from weeds and brush. Keep in mind that Snakeheads have very sharp teeth... not to skip over the obvious but, bring pliers! Also, an abrasion resistant flouro leader may be of some benefit.


The snakehead spooks very easily - anglers should make long casts and move with stealth to avoid blowing out an area. Patience here is key, Snakeheads will aggressively follow a lure, but don't always make contact at the strike point... be certain the lure was properly consumed before hookset. It has been my observation that if you miss on a Northern Snakehead, you may as well continue about your business elsewhere... the same fish seldom strikes twice.

northern snakehead fishing
Photo by Josh Dolin (@haverods_willtravel)

This is generally a very mobile style of fishing that requires you to cover some ground... Snakeheads do not school up or hang out with one another - unlike bass, they are solitary. After you have captured one, continue to work down the bank or weed line... don't hang out in the same general area for long.


At this stage, fisherman should really strike while the iron is hot. The Snakehead is going nowhere... they are here to stay... and any effort to stop or deny that is 100% futile. Individuals are forming groups and clubs solely dedicated to the sport pursuit of snakeheads. Their popularity is sky rocketing right now. There should be no fear or shame in their pursuit. Contrary to popular accusation.... it is NOT illegal to pursue, or even release a Northern Snakehead so long as it is released back to where it was caught! It is absolutely positively FALSE that you are required to kill them. Encouraged and required are not one in the same. The Snakehead is excellent table fare - and its believed they were originally introduced into some ponds as a food source. Anglers who intend on keeping Snakeheads should not transport them alive. It is indeed illegal to transport a live Snakehead. At the end of the day - despite our differences, the angling community can agree upon one singular thing... that the thrill of the bite, and the scream of the drag is what draws us all to the waters edge. I can assure that the Northern Snakehead provides these things ten fold.



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