Fishing for Invasives in the Chesapeake

 

The National Oceanic Service defines the term invasive species as an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. The Chesapeake Bay watershed has become a home for several invasive fish species, the most prominent of which are blue and flathead catfish, and the northern snakehead. These highly adaptable species were introduced and have since spread all over the watershed, competing with native species and eating much of the available food. State agencies want these invaders out of the local ecosystems, and as a result, have allowed anglers to catch and keep as many of these fish as they like without a minimum size. With a bit of know-how and some gear, you too could enjoy catching some of these hard-fighting and delicious fish!

Here are some things Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would like anglers to remember about fishing for invasive species:

  • Catch and release of these fish is discouraged, as they are invasive top predators and pose a serious long-term threat to our native species.
  • Remove and kill any blue and flathead catfish and/or snakehead that are caught.
  • Do not transport live blue and flathead catfish and/or snakehead into another body of water; it is illegal in Maryland and anyone in violation of this can be fined up to $2,500.
  • Report illegal transport or unauthorized introductions of invasive species by contacting the Natural Resources Police at 800-628-9944.

 
Northern Snakehead

Introduced into the Chesapeake in the early 2000s, northern snakehead (Channa argus) like shallow, warm water with vegetation and submerged trees for cover. They boast a mottled pattern that looks similar to a python, and have a round head and large, prominent teeth. Much has been made of the fish’s introduction and status as an invasive species. Many scientists agree that more research will be necessary to determine any negative environmental impacts of the snakehead species introduced into the United States. Regardless, these transplants from Asia have spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed with their populations continuing to increase. They are big, aggressive, strong, and delicious, making them a prime species for sport fishing. 

Northern Snakehead, photo courtesy of Maryland DNR

How to Fish for Snakehead

Snakehead will often cohabitate in the same areas as largemouth bass (another introduced species, but with better public relations) and can be caught using similar tactics. Every angler has a different/favorite way to catch snakehead.  Though not necessarily the most productive method, fishing with topwater tactics offers some heart-stopping excitement. You will often see a large wake as a snakehead charges down a hollow-body frog lure or a whopper plopper and absolutely smashes it. I recommend bringing a pair of medium-heavy to heavy action rods, one equipped with a topwater bait and one with a swimbait. As voracious as these predators are, their main diet is surprisingly small and includes frogs and small fish like killifish and bluegill. Downsize your swimbaits from those big six-inchers you throw for bass to a four- to five-inch fluke or paddletail. The best places to find snakehead have vegetation, such as lilies, underwater grass, and downed trees. Look for ambush spots where the snakehead can surprise its prey. Generally, the hotter the water gets, the more active the snakehead feed. Seasoned fishermen have said the best time to fish is from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Be sure to bring a net – these fish are escape artists, and thrash around when you bring them in.

Where to Fish for Snakehead
Snakehead are getting into more and more rivers and creeks. The best places to catch them are at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and along the Potomac River in places like Mallows Bay and Mattawoman Creek, which you can access at Smallwood State Park. However, other areas have seen population increases over the years, including the Patuxent River and the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Catfish

This family of fish includes species that are native, non-native, and invasive to the Chesapeake. Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) and flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) are considered by state agencies to be invasive as they eat almost anything and can grow to over 100 pounds, making them invulnerable to natural predation. If left unchecked, populations of these fish could explode and have disastrous effects on native species and the ecosystem. These monsters offer incredibly strong fights on rod and reel, as well as excellent table fare when grilled, blackened, or fried. Even better, because of their status as invasive species, there are no limits to the number of fish you can take, as well as no minimum size to keep. Catfish also tend to stay in the area during the colder months, rather than migrate to warmer water like striped bass, redfish, and other gamefish species in the Chesapeake. You could go out in the dead of winter and find one or more species of catfish willing to bite.

Above: Blue catfish, below: flat-head catfish. Photos courtesy Maryland DNR

How to Fish for Catfish
For this endeavor, you will need some heavier gear. If you are fishing on land or from a dock, I recommend a heavy or extra-heavy-action spinning rod at least eight feet long, with a reel in the 4000-size and up, loaded with fishing line from 30# to 50# test. If you want to spring for a more expensive live lining reel, it helps the fish to pick up the bait without feeling the pull of the line, though it is not necessary; you can simply loosen your drag until the line pulls off easily. If you are fishing on a boat, I recommend a rod that is shorter and stouter, in the six- to seven-foot size, with the same kind of reel and line. The most popular rig for fishing for catfish is the Fish Finder rig, which features a two- to six-ounce  sliding sinker, set on your main line above a barrel swivel. Below the swivel, attach 1.5 to two feet of 50# to 80# test leader material, and a large circle hook, generally in sizes 6/0 to 8/0.

Fish finder rig, courtesy Fishing Tricks

Be sure to bring multiple kinds of bait, because these fish might like everything, but every now and then they get picky and want something specific. Flatheads generally prefer cut fish, such as bluegill, crappie, and shad. Blue catfish like a wide variety of baits, including nightcrawlers, cut menhaden (sometimes called “alewife” or “LY” locally), crab, eel, shrimp, bloodworms, chicken, and any other stinky bait you can get your hands on. One tip for getting cheap bait is to go to your local grocer and ask if they have any shrimp or chicken that they are about to throw out. If they have any, they will sell it to you at a discount.

The key to finding catfish is to find water that is generally ten to twenty feet deep. You will find this in channels, sometimes a little further out from shore than you think. Fishing for catfish is a waiting game. Cast out your lines (I recommend multiple lines to increase the scent of your bait and your chances of getting a bite) and wait. There are smaller fish that will bite lures on occasion, but the big ones like the stinky bait. When the fish picks up the bait, the slip sinker will stay on the bottom, allowing the fish to swim away without picking up the weight and dropping the bait. You will hear the drag of your reel as the fish pulls the line, but be sure to let the fish take the bait for a few seconds to be certain it has eaten it fully. Tighten your drag, reel up any slack, pull the line tight, and get ready for a battle! Even small catfish put up an immense fight. Some of the most fun I have had kayak fishing in the Chesapeake has involved taking a "sleigh ride" as a big catfish towed my boat around. A net or a pair of jaw clamps are recommended, because catfish thrash and spin, and they also have spiny dorsal and pectoral fins that can give you a nasty sting if you get jabbed, so be careful handling them.

Where to Fish for Invasive Catfish
Flathead catfish are less spread out than blue catfish, preferring places with fresher water, like the Susquehanna Flats, below the Conowingo Dam. On the other hand, blue catfish have invaded a number of the Bay's tributaries, particularly the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. There are spots throughout the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and James River State Park for you to set up a number of rods from shore and fill your cooler. The Potomac and its tributaries offer a long list of places to hook into some big blue cats. My personal favorites include Mallows Bay and Mattawoman Creek, accessible through Smallwood State Park.

Mallows Bay Park

Mallows Bay Park offers excellent outdoor recreation opportunities. Tremendous wildlife viewing areas, small boating access to the Potomac River, kayak launch, fishing and hiking trail. Paddle through the WWI Ghost Fleet, the largest ship graveyard in the Northern Hemisphere.

James River State Park

The park offers more than 1,500 acres of rolling farm meadows and three miles of river frontage. The park offers opportunities to see wildlife and explore habitat native to the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.

Smallwood State Park

Smallwood State Park, along a tributary of the Potomac River, offers a unique mix of historical significance and modern-day boating conveniences.

Susquehanna State Park (MD)

Susquehanna State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities as well as points of historical significance. The park is home to some of the most popular mountain biking trails in Maryland and the river itself beacons fishermen and boaters alike.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area

Jug Bay Natural Area offers many activities including walking through wetlands, guided boat tours, hiking and horseback riding over eight miles of trails, boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and visiting a museum.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

July 12, 2019

Main image: Stephen Badger photo, courtesy Maryland DNR
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