If you are fishing on the Shenandoah River, don’t be surprised if something grabs your bait and pulls with amazing force.
And don’t be stunned to see something at the end of your line that looks like an extra in Jurassic Park — a prehistoric looking fish with huge teeth and beady eyes. It’s just a northern snakehead fish, not a monster, and they are very likely in the Shenandoah right now. As a matter of fact, just a year ago, a snakehead was caught in Lake Frederick, part of the Shenandoah River drainage.
Northern snakehead fish are native to Asia and Africa, but showed up mysteriously in the Potomac River in 2004. At first, the Game Department was highly concerned. Boats with electro-shocking gear were dispatched to catch and kill the invasive species, but to no avail. Snakeheads quickly spread throughout the Potomac and into the Rappahannock River drainage and are now known to inhabit the James River, the York River, Lake Anna, Burke Lake, Lakeview Reservoir, Lake Frederick and others.
Snakeheads were likely stocked in a pond or creek as a food source. They are considered delicacies throughout much of Asia and some think the strange looking fish have curative powers. But after the illegal stocking, the highly prolific snakeheads escaped, spread out and found conditions to be ideal in the Potomac and other bodies of water.
Game officials were initially concerned that the snakeheads would decimate bass and other gamefish populations, but that has not been the case. Sure, they eat some bass, but in turn, some bass eat them. Right now, snakeheads seem to have blended in nicely with other species and lots of anglers are now targeting these creatures.
I have friends who say these are among the best tasting fish in fresh water, including even the delicious walleye. The meat is white, firm and sweet and not overly fishy tasting. Snakeheads are also beasts at the end of a rod. A Potomac River guide told me they have the ability to power backwards when hooked. You have to really apply pressure to prevent them from finding cover and breaking off.
Snakeheads can also reach epic proportions, growing as large as 18 pounds. Imagine an 18-pound smallmouth and double that power. That’s what you would be up against.
You’ll know if you happen to catch one. They are generally tan in color with mottled sides. Their bodies are elongated, similar to a bowfin, but they have teeth like Br’er Wolf. You would definitely not want to put a hand or finger in that mouth.
Snakeheads also have several unique characteristics. First, they have an air bladder that works like a primitive lung, a trait not found in any other fish. If kept wet, they can live out of the water for several days. They are able to hibernate in substrate cracks and crevices and can burrow in mud and go dormant during droughts.
If you catch a snakehead, the Game Department asks that you report it by calling their hotline at 804-367-2925. You do not have to kill the fish, but it is illegal to transport them, even in a live well, unless you have first killed them. If you like to eat fish, by all means, take them home and enjoy a rare treat,
Assuming snakeheads are in the Shenandoah, if you catch one it will likely be in slow, sluggish water with lots of vegetation. One of their favorite meals is a frog, so maybe toss out a weed-less frog lure and if you get a bite, hold on for dear life.