Written by: Rob Snowhite
Editor’s Note: I was talking to a friend from Washington, DC, over the weekend, and he asked me about fly-fishing for snakeheads, which reminded me of this cool post from a couple years ago.
I have wanted to catch a northern snakehead (Channa argus) since I first heard about their introduction into the Potomac river around 2004. I didn’t give much thought as how to go about catching one on a fly or even think it was possible until I saw a photo of one caught during the 2010 shad run by Trent Jones—who works at Orvis Clarendon and is a fellow member of the Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders, our local Federation of Fly Fishers club. From then on, I was dedicated to catching one of these elusive fish.
Snakeheads like to tease you. They will come up to breathe right under your rod tip, they will surface behind your popping bug and ignore it, and some of them will hang out under your feet during their spring spawn. They show no fear of you.
My goal turned out to be extremely difficult to achieve. Each shad or bass brought in during the spring run was a great fish to land, but not a snakehead. I have fished from shore, from kayaks, and from a drift boat. I even went out with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to electro shock for snakeheads. I asked anglers along the river if they had caught any snakeheads and if so on what. I will admit to having dreamed about them at night.
I spent a year showing Trent’s photo with the fish to everyone who would listen to me talk about how bad I wanted to catch one. I read as much as I could about this fish, and with all of my hard work I knew it was just a matter of time before I eventually caught one. Heck, I’ve seen guys with pitchforks and spears take them out of the river.
water after his tippet broke at the end of the fight.
I spent the next year fishing the tidal section of the river in hopes of catching a snakehead, throwing every type of fly I had in my bag to no avail.
A couple weeks ago, I had the day off from guiding and was working on the computer at home. Trent and John from Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders posted a fishing report of catching carp on the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C. I read their report, quickly tied up some rubber-legged, beadhead nymphs, and headed out to fish.
From the bridge over the basin, I saw several snakeheads swimming around. They were along the edges and out in the middle. They surfaced nonchalantly (at their size, they have no natural predator here so they appear fearless) to breathe and then slither back down. I used a foam bug as an indicator and about 5’ of 8lb mono to separate my nymph from the indicator. I landed one channel catfish and foul-hooked a carp in the tail. I moved along the flooded shores, sight-casting to cruising carp and allowing my nymph to drift in the current. Suddenly, my indicator went down and started to move. I set the hook and it was on. A huge swirl and splash and I knew I had something big.
snakeheads landed must be destroyed.
I was using my 906-4 Hydros rod and mid-arbor reel. The fish took off for the deep center of the basin, so I backed up to keep the fish from going over the flooded edge. I called over to a tourist walking by and handed him my camcorder to film the whole thing. After 2 minutes of slashing, short runs, and frothing water I got the fish to the shallows. The fish then took a second run, and my leader wrapped around my rod tip. The tension of the fish broke the line, but I was not going to lose this fish. I proceeded to bear hug the thing while it was in the water and wrestled it to shore.
The tourists were all applauding. I put the fish down on the sidewalk to start my celebration. My hands were shaking with adrenaline. We photographed and measured the fish. It was 34 inches from snout to tail. Of all the flies I had thrown to snakeheads over the past year, I never thought it would be a nymph tied on a size 10 shrimp hook with lots of rubber legs and a dubbed body.
Unfortunately for the fish, Washington D.C. requires all snakeheads caught in its waters to be terminated. I had made my past two fly fishing New Year’s resolutions to get a snakehead on the fly and it finally happened. I’ve been showing the picture of my fish to people and put Trent’s on hold.
Rob Snowhite is a guide and fly-fishing consultant in northern Virginia and Washington, DC. He has offerred to buy lunch for the first client of his who lands a snakehead on a fly.