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Despite the 90-minute drive from Annapolis and the dark roast coffee, my eyes are still bleary from the 3:30 a.m. wake-up as I drive past the visitor center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic and State Park and pull into the parking lot on Rte 335. It’s 5:30 a.m.and my group is the only one here and ready to launch. I later learned that our target species, northern snakehead (Channa argus) actually feed better during the hottest parts of the day. However, it does not hurt to spend some extra time on the water at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The brilliant pink and orange sunrise is the reward for the lack of sleep. Additionally, the early arrival improved my chances of finding and claiming a spot before other anglers arrived.
We paddle our kayaks up the river to more secluded water than the wide-open expanse by the parking area and bridge. Once we arrive at our favored cove we split up. After fruitlessly fishing several points of land jutting out into the water, I see a nice island with sunken trees, my favorite kind of water. I cast my paddle tail toward a tree trunk and let it sink. After about three or four jigs up and down I feel a short, sharp jolt. The silence around me is shattered by a thrashing snakehead as I reel up the slack and slam the hook into its bony mouth. It leaps this way and that trying to escape, but the hook is firmly in its upper lip. Having lost my net, I grab the fish just behind the gills and squeeze as hard as I can as it thrashes to try and free itself. I dispatch the fish and put it on my stringer, admiring its beautiful color pattern, excited to avoid getting skunked and to have dinner caught for the evening. On to the next spot for hopefully more action.
Snakehead, sneks, dragons, or any other name for them have become the main species to fish for at Blackwater in recent years. Why? They are plentiful. Though Blackwater holds largemouth bass, striped bass, and multiple species of catfish, perch, and other panfish, much of the habitat is tailor-made for snakehead. Snakehead become active when the water temperature rises, starting around March or April, depending on the weather. The shallow water of the Blackwater River heats up in the summer months, lowering the oxygen levels and sending many species to deeper waters. However, snakehead possess a primitive lung that allows them to gulp oxygen from the air and live in water that is more stagnant. The hotter it gets, the more active the snakehead become. Though they admit more research is necessary, many scientists feel that northern snakehead have not caused the large-scale environmental disasters initially predicted when they were introduced into this country. All debate aside, there are plenty of these hard-fighting and delicious fish swimming in Blackwater, and you can catch them with the help of these tips.
Follow your nose as you launch from Rte. 335 (see below for alternative launch points) and it will not take you long to find some prime spots for snakehead. The fish do not usually stay in one place, so if a spot is not productive, move and try other places – sunken trees, old dock pylons, points that jut out into the main channel, skinny water in between clumps of reeds, and even open water – you will find fish eventually. The water is generally shallow, with lots of potential snags, so you must fish with that in mind.
It is a good idea to bring multiple rods, each rigged with a different bait to cover different depths, types of cover, and weather conditions. Much of the same gear used for largemouth bass will also catch snakehead, though you will want to make sure you use rods and reels rated medium-heavy to extra-heavy. There is the potential of catching a fish that is 10 pounds or even bigger, and you can keep them away from the snags with stronger gear. I personally like to use braided line, no less than 15-pound test, with a fluorocarbon leader that is heavier than the braid.
Top water can be one of the most rewarding ways to fish, avoiding snags like sunken trees and other hazards, while enticing ambush predators to ferociously attack prey, often leaping out of the water to try and stun it. When fishing on top, the best baits include a Whopper Plopper, a weedless frog, Heddon Spook, or even a mouse lure. It may not be the most productive style to fish, but it is the most exciting when you do get that hit.
Fishing middle of the water column is a great way to search for fish when the wind picks up and the topwater lures cannot provide as much disturbance on the water. Lures for fishing sub-surface include chatterbaits, buzzbaits, and jerkbaits – either a weightless soft bait like a Zoom fluke or a hard bait like an X-Rap. Color is an important choice for fishing in the refuge. They don't call it Blackwater for nothing; the water is highly tannic, so baits should be highly visible or make a noise to help goad the fish into biting something that could be difficult to see. Pearl white stands out very well, as do shades of orange, or even chartreuse. You can fish wakebaits like Mann's Baby 1-Minus, however, treble hooks – even on shallow-running lures – will snag and pick up junk very easily. (Also, treble hooks plus a thrashing snakehead could equal a hospital trip, so be careful!)
The last area to make sure you cover is the bottom. Though the water is shallow, the fish may be looking for food in the muck and you do not want to leave any part of the water unfished. The key to fishing the bottom is to go weedless. My favorite bait to use for fishing the bottom is a soft-bodied paddletail with a weighted swimbait hook. I prefer hooks that screw into the nose of the bait, and can be hooked weedless through the back. It gives me the versatility to jig it slowly off the bottom, or retrieve it straight, mimicking an escaping baitfish. Other baits that provide good movement include Texas-rigged crawfish or creature baits, as well as bass jigs with a trailer and a rattle. You can go light on jigs, because the water is shallow and there is not much grass cover in the water to have to punch through.
If conditions are really tough, or you do not like fishing with lures, you can't go wrong with live minnows fished under a float. This is especially good on those colder days in early April.
Sharpen your hooks. Snakehead have very bony mouths, so it is important when you set the hook to get deep penetration. A few swipes with a hook hone will help get the hook into the fish's mouth. Along the same lines, when you feel it hit, set the hook hard (just be ready for topwater baits to come flying at you if you miss).
Bring a net. These fish are escape artists, and a net means you can control the fish when it is thrashing wildly next to and in your boat.
Bring lip grips. Those teeth mean business. A lipper also helps control the fish in the boat and keeps your fingers away from the business end. If you have a heavy Boga grip or similar tool, you can use it to dispatch the fish.
Bring a tool to dispatch the snakehead. As I mentioned earlier, snakehead are escape artists. They also have strong jaws that clamp shut, making it difficult to get them on a stringer. Though it sounds gruesome, putting the fish down quickly makes it easier to deal with, and also means it will not die slowly. This tool can be anything from a small baseball bat, gaff, knife (be very careful), or even a rock (ancient, but tried and true).
Boating is permitted April 1 to September 30. The refuge is closed to boating from October 1 to March 31 to protect migrating waterfowl. Boats may only be launched from designated county boat ramps or the refuge launch. No fishing is allowed from the refuge shoreline or Wildlife Drive. Airboat use is not permitted. Much of the water is shallow and muddy, so manually-powered boats are your best bet. Launches include the Rte. 335 causeway, Shorter's Wharf on Maple Dam Road, and Bestpitch Ferry boat ramp, which provides access to waters separate from the Blackwater River, but still within the refuge boundary.
Lastly, because snakehead are listed as invasive by Maryland DNR, there is no limit or minimum size to the fish you can keep. However, I firmly believe that we should only keep enough to eat and not be wasteful. Now go catch a dragon!
There are many species of seafood in the Chesapeake that are not doing as well as in the past, with low populations and increasingly strict regulations. Meanwhile, snakehead are plentiful and delicious. The flesh of a snakehead is similar to striped bass, in that it is firm, but flakes tenderly and has good flavor, but not so strong as to be fishy like mackerel or bluefish. Snakehead can go well with any style of cooking you like. You can cook them whole, but most people I see fillet the fish. You can then use the remains, minus the guts, to make a mild but delicious fish stock. Here are two recipes you probably haven't tried, but will make you happy and full if you do.
Crunchy Baked Fish
This recipe is a combination of recipes from multiple people. I got the idea from an old fisherman who told me a story about forgetting the breadcrumbs on a trip to his fishing camp. All he had was a bag of barbecue potato chips, so he crushed them up and coated his fish for the deep fryer. In my recipe, which takes things to another level, I place the snakehead fillets on a baking tray lined with non-stick foil or sprayed with cooking oil. Coat the fish with mayonnaise, then sprinkle the crushed chips, and bake until crispy, golden, and delicious. You can use any flavor of chips you like. I like to have a mix of finely-ground chips and some bigger crumbs to fully cover the fish and give it that extra crunch.
Faux Crab Cakes
Hate the high price of crab meat and don't want to pick through shells? Here is a cheap and delicious substitute. Cook your snakehead any way you like – sauteed, grilled, steamed, or poached – then let it cool. Then flake it so that it is the size of jumbo lump crab meat, and mix it in with your favorite crab cake mix. All you need to add is some Old Bay seasoning and maybe some tartar sauce!
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.