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It’s snakehead weather! A good day of fishing on the Potomac River (Photos)

Terry Sheppard lands a 10.5 pound snakehead on the Tidal Potomac River, May 14, 2015. (Kevin Ambrose)

I received the phone call Sunday night. “The Snakeheads are biting!” I heard Terry Sheppard announce on the other end of the line. Terry is a fisherman who focuses primarily on catching snakeheads — an invasive species — on the Potomac River.

A week earlier, I spoke to Terry about a snakehead fishing trip. He said the snakeheads were not biting in big numbers yet but he promised to give me a call when the weather warmed. Apparently, last week’s summer-like temperatures quickly warmed the river and the snakehead fishing dramatically improved.

Snakeheads are a fish native to Asia and were first found in the Potomac River in 2004 near Washington, D.C. Since 2004, they have since multiplied quickly and spread down the tidal portion of the Potomac. Snakeheads are an invasive species, and considered an environmental concern to our area. Now, some fishermen — like Terry — are targeting snakeheads instead of bass because of their fight and tasty fillets.

I told Terry that I could probably fish on Thursday. Terry responded that a cold front was supposed to move through mid-week and the fishing might slow down by Thursday. (Fishermen always know the weather forecast.) I agreed the forecast was not great for fishing on Thursday. Fishing after a cold front passage is typically not good.  But because of my work schedule I couldn’t make any other day that week.

It’s a Potomac River blow out!

“It’s not looking good,” Terry remarked as he viewed the low water level of the Potomac River Thursday morning at the boat ramp. The temperature was 47 degrees and the strong northerly winds behind the recent passage of the cold front had blown water out of the tidal Potomac River. “The water level is below low tide and there are white caps on the river,” Terry said as he prepared to launch the boat. We bundled ourselves in cold weather gear in preparation for the wind and spray.

We targeted a nearby tributary for our fishing efforts to get out of the wind and waves. It took about 20 minutes to motor through the river’s white caps before Terry turned the boat up into the calmer waters of the creek.

[Eating snakehead for the sake of the Chesapeake]

The blow out, however, had impacted the creek. The grass beds along the shoreline where Terry normally catches snakeheads were left high and dry. The muddy creek bottom was exposed along the banks and extended well out into the creek for many yards toward the channel. Thus, instead of casting our lures into the grassy shoreline we had no choice but to cast our lines at the mud flats. Despite the poor water conditions, Terry landed the first snakehead of the day within 20 minutes of our arrival in the creek.

As the day progressed, the winds subsided, and the sun warmed the air, and the water level rose. And the fish continued to bite!

“Are you setting the hook?”

I lost my third snakehead at the boat. I looked in disbelief at the water and my slack line. Terry asked, “Are you setting the hook?”  He had just successfully landed three snakeheads in a row. I was a newbie to snakehead fishing and I had just lost three fish in a row. Up to that point, Terry’s catch for the day included a couple of four pound snakeheads and a nice seven pounder.

“Yes, I’m setting the hook,” I responded, but I doubted my technique. I had never fished for the toothy-mouthed snakehead and perhaps I needed a little more muscle to bury the barb into their bony mouth? I decided to set the hook extra hard on the next strike.

[A contest to clear out the invasive species]

I continued casting my white Chatterbait with a curly worm tail at the muddy shoreline, hoping for the next strike. I really wanted to catch my first snakehead.

“Darn, it’s a Bass!”

I got the next strike and I set the hook hard, really hard. The fish fought well but not as strong as the three previous fish that I lost. It didn’t matter; I had a fish on the line.

When I pulled the fish to the surface I could see it was a largemouth bass. “Darn, it’s a bass!” I exclaimed. I love bass but I really wanted to catch a snakehead. After seeing Terry land a few wicked-looking snakeheads, the bass looked quite tame and the catch seemed a little boring.

I posed for a quick photo with the bass and I released it into the creek. It’s catch-and-release for bass, catch-and-kill for snakeheads. That’s the rule, at least for now.

“I got one!”

“I got one!” I yelled. My fifth strike was a snakehead. I could see its shape in the water as it thrashed in the shallow water. The fish hit the lure hard and fought with quick surges to the bottom. It was a powerful fish and mud boiled up to the surface under the fight!

I reeled the fish to the boat and Terry grabbed it and pulled it in. It weighed 4.25 pounds. It was far from the 10.5-pound monster that Terry had just landed a few minutes earlier, but I was happy to catch my first snakehead. I posed for a photo with the snakehead and I got my hands covered with slime. Snakeheads are a really slimy fish!

By the end of the day, we caught six snakeheads, one bass, and one catfish. Despite the morning chill and strong winds, the day turned out very nice for fishing.

As a side note, last year Terry caught a snakehead in the Potomac River that weighed over 14 pounds. That’s not too far from the world record of 17 pounds, 6 ounces caught in Aquia Creek in 2013.

Differing views on snakeheads

“Snakeheads in the Potomac have caused me to fish a lot more than I used to,” Terry told me on the boat. He continued, “Someday people will realize snakeheads are the best eating fish in our region and then the fish will be appreciated more.”

Many anglers, like Terry, are now targeting the snakehead as a game fish. Some people are also bow hunting the Snakehead.  (Bow hunting snakeheads is often done at night with spotlights on the boat.)

While many people continue to feel that the snakehead is destroying the native fish population and must be eradicated, others have embraced snakehead fishing and tell us that the other fish populations seem to be okay, at least for now. Regardless, the scary Frankenfish scenario that was first covered in the news does not seem to have materialized.

“It’s a good eating fish!”

“The snakehead is not fishy at all,” Terry stated with authority as we fished.  “It’s a good eating fish!”  He continued, “Perhaps it’s the slime that keeps the river elements from penetrating the meat.” I chuckled to myself and thought slime and meat shouldn’t be used in the same sentence when considering a good meal but, nevertheless, I was very interested to try a snakehead fillet.

[Would a new name make the snakehead more appetizing?]

As I prepared to return home from our successful fishing trip, Terry loaded a cooler with snakehead fillets for me to take home. I promised my family that I would have a snakehead cookout Friday evening if I caught fish. My wife pre-announced that she would not try a snakehead but my kids seemed game and I wanted to give it taste.

So, I’ll do the snakehead taste test soon and then file a report next week. It will most certainly turn out better than my infamous cicada taste test from 2013. All reports so far indicate that snakeheads are excellent eating. We’ll see…