The New Kid in Town:Fly Fishing for Northern Snakehead
Well, I guess northern snakehead aren’t exactly brand spanking new. They’ve been mucking around the mid-Atlantic, in some capacity, for over twenty years now. Native to Asia, these predatory fish have become increasingly popular among anglers, mainly because they get big, fight like hell, and taste delicious. Wherever they are, you can bet there’s a Motley crew of top-water enthusiasts, soft-plastic missionaries, and minnow danglers ready to try their hand. What is relatively new, however, is targeting snakehead on the fly. Perhaps, in large measure, fly anglers arrived a little late to the party. Nevertheless, in recent years there’s been a considerable uptick in interest. It’s still a fairly niche endeavor, but now more than ever, feathers and foam have made their way onto the menu.
Fly fishing for these invasive predators presents a unique set of challenges. For starters, let’s consider their habitat. Snakehead live in some of the dankest, snag-prone waters available to anglers. Underwater grasses, surface vegetation, algae, downed trees, or some combination of these, are common occurrences and to be expected. Snakes prefer shallow, low current, freshwater environments, and due to the aforementioned obstacles, casting accurately is paramount. The ability to place the fly along a weed-edge, tight to the bank, or neatly in that one small pockets of open water thirty feet to your left, could be the difference between a formidable foe or a conglomerate of saturated greens on the end of your line. Sure, weedless flies can help - but at the end of the day, in these environments, there’s no substitute for a well-placed cast.
Let’s say you nail the cast. Turns out, you’re a full on sommelier of graphite and nylon. Fair enough, but once that fly hits the mark, what’s next? Well, you better be prepared for a jolt. “Explosive” is the most commonly used adjective to describe that oh-so-addicting snakehead strike. And I must admit, the usage is spot on. When it comes to grabbing grub, these things don’t play nice – and neither should you.
If there’s one tip you glean from this article, I hope it’s this: strip-set, and strip-set hard! Lifting your rod, as you would for trout, won’t work here. Instead, grab the line with your stripping hand, and pull it towards, then past, your body in a fast, smooth motion with considerable power. Snakehead have hard, bony mouths, which don’t pair well with half-assed hooksets. If you think the first attempt might not have done the trick, do it again, and again if needed. Hell, I’ll strip-set multiple times on the same fish to ensure I’m in the money. Better safe than sorry.
Along with that forceful yank, you’ll need a rod that can bear it, one with some backbone. A nine foot 8wt is the perfect tool for the job. It’s stout enough to handle the torment of a ten-pounder, but light enough that up-and-comers still provide some enjoyment. As for the reel, the Cheeky Limitless 425 handles all of my northern snakehead induced debauchery with flying colors. Rest assured, if you come tight to a monster, it has you covered. Any weight-forward floating line paired with 20-30lb backing should do. When it comes to leader, I keep it simple – four to six feet of straight 30lb fluorocarbon is all it takes. You can tie a tapered leader if you so desire, but I’ve never felt the need. Northern snakehead have some impressive dental work, though, so be sure to check your leader for frays periodically.
Now that we’ve covered the outfit, I guess we ought to discuss the thing that actually interacts with the fish – the fly. Each of us have our own preconceived notions, deep-rooted opinions, and even sentimental attachments to certain designs. But in this game, there’s room for plenty of preferences. Snakehead are opportunistic feeders, and they’ll eat a wide variety of flies, given they’re not fouled with vegetation and they’re presented half-decently. Generally, I’m a weedless foam popper or articulated Deceiver kind of guy. I know folks who use mouse patterns, Clouser Minnows, and Gamechangers, too. The snake-curious fly angler has a lot stacked against them, but in my opinion, this is where we have the advantage. Snakehead have been pressured by conventional anglers throwing topwater frogs, chatter baits, and soft plastics for years. Chances are the fish in your sights has never seen the fly you’re wielding. Make that first impression count.
When it’s all said and done, snakeheading is a grind, but it’s one I’ve come to love. They’re a reason to explore water you otherwise wouldn’t, a new puzzle in familiar waters, and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to see the good in a questionable situation. The ecological effects of northern snakehead have been covered ad nauseam, but the truth is, we still don’t fully understand their impact. The data sets are growing, but they are far from extensive, and on top of that, each system reacts to their presence uniquely. There are two ways of looking at it, I suppose. You can get all worked up and curse their very existence, or you can take to the water and make the most of a hometown accident. I’ll see you out there.
Meet the Author: Kirk Marks
Outdoor creative, freelancer, whatever you want to call him - at the end of the day, Kirk Marks is a storyteller. He’s a lifelong angler, freelance photographer and writer, and the culinary editor at Flylords. Over the years, Kirk has authored many stories pushing a conservation-first narrative, encouraging a deep-rooted connection to food, and advocating for some good old-fashioned tomfoolery.
All photographs taken by Kirk Marks and Dylan Taillie.