Updated: Oct 25, 2022
By David Graham - September 26, 2022
Somewhere in South Florida a Bullseye Snakehead lurks below a patch of lily pads, a hydrilla mat, or in the shadows of an overhanging branch. It may also be living in the proverbial 'shadow' of its cousin, the Northern Snakehead.
Don't get it a twisted though, Florida's Bullseye Snakehead (channa marulius) is the OG snakehead on U.S. soil. First found in the fall of 2000, the Bullseye Snakehead predates the U.S. arrival of its northern counterpart by several years... but the impact of its arrival didn't seem to garner the same hysteria or media attention.
Even as early as the year 2000, South Florida was already seeing peacock bass, various species of cichlids, tilapia, and other non-native exotic fish. Iguanas, pythons, and other exotic discarded pets were already taking hold and spreading. On top of that, Florida's snakeheads were dropped into an environment that had long since been altered by land development, levee systems, dams, and more. Dropping a snakehead here just seemed par for the course... a far cry from what looked like an alien invader in the more natural landscapes to the north.
Northern Snakeheads exploded onto the scene. Introduced into more free flowing natural rivers and tributaries, they had open range to spread quickly. The Northern Snakehead can also tolerate a wide range of temperatures between roughly 30 and 90 degrees. Native to the hot tropical jungles of Southeast Asia, the Bullseye Snakehead is restricted in where it can spread by a temperature threshold of no less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Any colder and they're as good as dead. While their status is as an invasive species - it's tough to measure the real economic or environmental impact the Bullseye Snakehead has actually had, given how altered the environment had already been prior to their arrival.
How did they get here?
The two species of snakeheads are thought to have been brought to the US for similar reasons... cultural beliefs in their native range is that they possess medicinal qualities and are excellent table-fare. They may have been intentionally released to be farmed for those qualities. Because of their elaborate coloration, unique physical characteristics, and relative ease of care - it is also possible some early releases were the product of the exotic pet/aquarium trade.
Description and Appetite
The Bullseye Snakehead is a very efficient predator. Capable of immense bursts of speed, it tracks and closes on prey items with impressive speed and accuracy. While the bulk of their prey might be small fish, crayfish, and insects - they will take the opportune shots at reptiles, amphibians, mice, ducklings and more. The bullseye snakehead grows to be several feet long - giving it a lengthy lateral line highly equipped to sense vibrations and disturbances in the water. They have large eyeballs situated at the top of their head - close to their mouths. The large eyes bulge out giving a near panoramic view of their surroundings. This gives the Bullseye Snakehead excellent vision, and makes them tremendously difficult to sneak up on.
Aside from the spawning season, the Bullseye Snakehead is also a very solitary, and territorial species of fish. During spawn the Bullseye Snakehead will use floating weeds and grass as a nursery for their eggs. The male and female will share the responsibility of guarding the nest - and will continue to guard the fry for about a month after hatching.
It is believed that the ocellus (false eye) that the Bullseye Snakehead is so aptly named for, is actually an adaptation suited to optimize their roll as guardians of their young. Having an 'eye' on both ends may ward off any potential predatory assault on a fry ball from the rear. The distinct eye spot may also give the 'fry ball' a target to stay close to as their vision and other senses develop. During this time, Bullseye Snakeheads display elaborate gold, yellow, and brown scale patterns - and bright red eyes!
While it would be irresponsible to condone the spread of Bullseye Snakeheads (or any other non-native species), they are simply here to stay... and they possess undeniable sporting characteristics that have been quickly recognized by anglers. Given that the range they now occupy in South Florida is predominantly easy access residential canal systems, there are miles of accessible shoreline that anglers on foot can enjoy fishing for Snakeheads with ease.
Corey Nowakowski owns and operates Florida Snakehead and Bass Adventure LLC. He is widely considered the most skilled snakehead angler in Florida (and maybe in the US). He is also the premiere guide, and source of angling information for this species. His reputation as such is bolstered by 8 world records for the Bullseye Snakehead dating back as early as 2012... he has since beaten that record more than a half dozen times.
"I started fishing for Bullseye Snakeheads back in 2001 after catching my first one that year"
"The current record I have is at 15 1/2 lbs which I caught last year. That fish was 41 1/2 inches long " - Corey Nowakowski
Where can they be found in Florida?
Today Bullseye Snakeheads can be found in northern Broward and southern Palm Beach counties. Freshwater canals, ponds, and small lakes with abundant vegetation are the typical holding zone for this ambush predator. Residential canals in Coral Springs and the Margate area are a major hotbed for the species, and it generally doesn't take a long stroll down the shoreline of any of these canals to happen across a snakehead or two. They prefer sluggish or stagnant water and abundant vegetation. Typically, Bullseye Snakeheads will be observed close to the water's edge.
While the first stop in looking for a Bullseye Snakehead is typically the edge of the bank, Nowakowski went in depth explaining in detail the different variables he looks for when hunting trophy Bullseye Snakeheads.
"A lot of times these fish are hanging close to the bank, but I’ve caught them in 20-30 feet of water. Culverts are snakehead magnets. A lot of times they're either hanging inside of the culvert pipe or just outside." -
" I’ve caught fish 39 1/2” inches long in less than a foot of water... so big fish will go shallow." - Corey Nowakowski
Corey stresses the importance of thoroughly working the banks making multiple casts at the same location, meticulously picking apart every inch of a good looking feature. While the Bullseye Snakehead will sometimes wake from a great distance in pursuit of a lure, other times you have to put it right on their head, according to Nowakowski.
How to catch them?
While snakeheads will take virtually any moving target in-front of them, they are especially willing to smash a topwater lure at most times of the year. Because of this, the topwater frog is the by-far the most popular method of catching the Bullseye Snakehead. Bullseye Snakeheads prefer sluggish water with abundant vegetation, overhanging limbs, and cover. Their pursuit will generally require weedless patterns.
"When the fish are hanging off ledges or drop offs I will slow roll chatterbaits and spinnerbaits, these are also great 'search baits'. I usually add a trailer to the chatterbaits like a craw bait - bullseye snakeheads love crayfish." - Corey Nowakowski
Corey, who is also an avid bass angler, stated that snakeheads will hit just about any typical bass lure on the market depending on where you're at. Nowakowski was able to breakdown different situational approaches that go far beyond the standard use of a topwater frog...
"One technique I use that most don't think about is flipping in thick cover, or pitching off ledges with creature baits or craw baits like you would for bass fishing. I caught the current world record and some of my largest snakeheads using this technique."
Applicable features to target for ambush points might include:
shade from overhanging trees, docks, boats, or other structures that create shade. Nowakowski patterns his approach and lure selection on what fish are doing on any particular body of water, but maintains the reliability of a frog year round
"I use a frog all times of the year it’s a great search bait especially the buzz style frog. If they are holding close to the banks and around thick cover that has open holes frog works well."
For hooks - Nowakowski favors a Gamakatsu EWG monster hook - size 6/0 to 7/0. In roughly two-decades of trial and error as a snakehead angler, Nowakowski has found these suitable to hold up against the powerful beating a snakehead can put on gear.
Rod and Reel Setups
Corey Nowakowski prefers using baitcasting reels with good drag systems. A recommended setup would be a Daiwa Lexa 300 or Daiwa Tatula 300. The rods are usually a heavy or extra heavy rod with length varying from 7’ to 7’11.
7’ to 7’6” is usually a topwater rod, chatterbait rod, spinnerbait rod, etc.
7’ 6” to 7’ 11” is for flipping and pitching.
Corey suggests 50 lb to 80 lb test braided line. 50-65 lb for topwater and 80 lb for flipping and pitching.
Plan A Trip
The surefire way for the boundless angler looking for that next challenge to check the Bullseye Snakehead off their list could be eliciting the help from local experts. Services provided by Corey Nowakowski's Florida Snakehead and Bass Adventures LLC will just about guarantee success. Those who like a more DIY approach should specifically target the Coral Springs, Tamarac, Margate areas. Come prepared with comfortable clothes... athletic shorts and a good pair of tennis shoes may be necessary. This style of fishing may see you crossing busy streets, yards, or public parks.... and putting in A LOT of steps. Consolidate gear efficiently into a simple pack so that fishing on the go is easy and seamless. Bring a box full of your favorite pop frogs, floating paddle tails, spinnerbaits or chatterbaits.
Consider the option of utilizing small watercraft like a canoe, kayak, or small johnboat. In the canal settings, small watercraft dramatically opens up the amount of water that can covered - and offers a great deal of stealthy maneuvering to reach the harder to find fish.
What Do You Do With Them?
Maybe the most common question asked by those curious about snakeheads... "what do you do with them?". After more than two-decades in South Florida waters, uncertainty still abounds on the topic of snakehead release. Per-FWC law - it is illegal to possess or transport a live snakehead. For the purpose of stopping any potential accidental or purposeful spread of the species, a snakehead in a livewell, bucket, cooler or any other means must be dead. Harvest of the fish is highly encouraged, however... it is perfectly legal to immediately return a snakehead to the water alive exactly where it was captured from.
For more information on this unique freshwater fish species - I highly suggest anyone reach out to Corey Nowakowski.
Personal Website: https://floridasnakeheadandbassadventures.com/