(This is part 2 of It’s snakehead weather! A good day of fishing on the Potomac River)
Are snakeheads as tasty as people claim? I went snakehead fishing on the Potomac River last Thursday with the goal to catch a few of the invasive species. I wanted to give the fish a try. Can a fish that ugly really taste that good?
During my fishing trip, we caught six large snakeheads — an aggressive, air-breathing species of fish not native to the Potomac or Chesapeake — and I returned home with some nice fish fillets. Note, “fish fillets” sound much better than “snakehead fillets.” More on renaming the fish later.
I decided to host a set of snakehead taste tests with people who have never eaten the fish. Unfortunately, a few of my prospective taste testers declined the invitation when they heard that snakehead was on the menu. Just the name and reputation of the fish was enough to turn the taste testers away. But I did find a group of people who were happy to sample my catch.
I prepared the snakehead several different ways: grilled with an Italian dressing marinade, baked with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, and beer-battered then deep-fried. I also cooked three other fish for comparison: tilapia, flounder, and cod. Read below for the tasty results.
Snakehead vs. Tilapia: Grilled with Italian dressing
I grilled a snakehead fillet and a tilapia fillet side-by-side with an Italian dressing marinade. Italian dressing is one of my favorite marinades for grilling fish.
The fish fillets looked very similar coming on and off of the grill. Both had white, flaky meat. The meat of the snakehead was slightly more firm than the tilapia and both fillets had a mild flavor. The snakehead had no fishy aftertaste while the tilapia had a slight fishy aftertaste which was barely detectable.
For the grilled taste test, I assembled eight people to try the snakehead and tilapia fillets. Seven of the eight testers preferred snakehead over tilapia. The eighth tester liked the fish equally.
The snakehead was the clear winner over tilapia.
Snakehead vs. Flounder: Baked with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder
I coated a snakehead fillet and a flounder fillet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. I baked both fillets in the oven at 450 degrees for 20-25 minutes.
The flounder was lighter in color and had a softer, flakier texture compared to the snakehead. The snakehead had a more firm texture. I noticed that the flounder had a slight fishy aftertaste and the snakehead had no fishy aftertaste.
For the baked taste test, I had two taste testers, including myself. The results were split. I loved the soft texture of the flounder and how it melted in my mouth. I preferred flounder over the firmer snakehead meat for that single reason. The other taste tester preferred the snakehead, however, because it had no fishy aftertaste.
Thus, there was no winner of the taste test. It’s a texture vs. taste preference for baked snakehead and flounder.
Snakehead vs. Cod: Beer-battered and deep-fried
I saved the best for last. Beer-battered fish and chips is one of my favorites. In our test, the beer-battered fish was deep-fried in vegetable oil.
I cut the snakehead and cod fillets into large strips and deep-fried them in two different pans at the same time. I used two pans because once the fish is battered it looks exactly the same. I needed both samples to have the same cooking time and temperature for an accurate taste test.
The results were amazing! Both the snakehead and the cod were extremely good. Our taste testers, however, preferred the snakehead over the cod. The firmer meat of the snakehead held the batter coating well and the snakehead also held its shape better than the cod. But it was the taste of the snakehead that edged out the cod.
The taste-testers found the mild taste of the snakehead was a perfect complement to the beer batter and tarter sauce. The cod was extremely good but the snakehead was just a bit better. As with all of our other taste tests, the snakehead had no fishy aftertaste while the cod had a hint of a fishy flavor with a few of the bites, but not all of the bites.
Snakehead wins over cod.
As a side note, I’ve had fish and chips in London and I think snakehead is better. Perhaps we can export our Potomac River snakeheads to the U.K.
Snake bites for breakfast: Breaded and fried
For breakfast on Saturday morning, I cubed, breaded, and fried a snakehead filet. The cube dimensions were about one to two inches on all sides
The snake bites reminded me of catfish nuggets. It’s very good served with scrambled eggs. One advantage of cooking snakehead for breakfast over other types of fish is the kitchen doesn’t smell fishy when breakfast is served. Snakeheads don’t have a fishy smell or taste, even when it’s cooked.
I did not have catfish nuggets for a comparison but the snake bites were very similar. I liked the snake bites better because occasionally I get a fishy tasting catfish nugget.
Conclusions of the snakehead taste test:
In my opinion, I’d rank snakehead up with mahi-mahi and flounder as an excellent eating fish. I prefer snakehead over tilapia, salmon, cod, and catfish. If the restaurant industry in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., can figure out how to bring the fish to market in quantity, and fishermen can figure out how to supply that market, the effort might help keep the invasive snakehead population in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed under control. There is no arguing that the fish tastes good.
And if our area restaurants decide to serve snakehead, I’d recommend beer-battered snakehead with chips, although the name should probably change before it’s printed on the menu. Snakehead doesn’t sound appetizing. Let’s call it Potomac Cod or Spotted Channa.
Although, I think “snake bites” is a cool name for a pub appetizer or a food that is served at happy hour.
Snakehead fishing techniques:
If you want to catch a snakehead for your own taste test, here are a few tips.
Snakeheads move to shallow water in the tidal Potomac River and its tributaries when the water temperature warms, usually by mid-May. Try to fish in water with a depth between one and four feet. The snakehead can be caught using the same techniques as fishing for largemouth bass. Baits that work well include chatterbaits, buzz baits, and top water lures. Weedless lures are preferred because the shallow water of the Potomac River often has grass and lily pads that can foul the hook.
Snakeheads like a fast retrieve so there is a lot of casting and reeling with snakehead fishing. Rubber worms worked slowly on the bottom can catch snakeheads, but not as frequently as the top water lures.
If you catch a snakehead, it’s helpful to use tools to extract the hook. The snakehead has a mouthful of teeth.
Snakeheads guard their eggs and young
Snakeheads are unusual compared to our native fish in that they guard their young. That also makes the fish easier to catch. If you see a school of small fish between one and two inches long clustered in a dense ball about two to three feet in diameter, it could be a school of snakehead fry.Cast a lure near the school. A parent snakehead will often attack a lure near their young. That is an excellent method to catch a very large snakehead.
If you are a fisherman who catches snakeheads, please share your fishing tips in the comments section. We’d like to hear about other ways to catch the intrusive, but tasty fish.
What are your thoughts for renaming the fish? Would you eat it? Let us know in the comments.