UPDATE (April 2012): This is a personal weblog post about trying to catch a snakehead with a fly, not an endorsement of snakeheads. They are an invasive species that should not be in the waters of South Florida. That said, they are in the waters of South Florida, the same waters where I like to chase peacock bass and largemouth bass. My understanding is that you are supposed to kill a snakehead if you catch it, and that the FWC is promoting their edibility in hopes people will cull them for eating. Here is what the FWC says about what to do with a snakehead or any other non-native species you catch.
And here is one more FWC link, describing the habits and edibility of the snakehead. Everything else below is just a personal account from a few years ago.
For close to two years now, whenever work has taken me to South Florida, I have been on a quest to catch a snakehead on fly. I’m not sure why I had to do this, but the seed germinated while researching an article on Dr. Martin Arostegui, possessor of more IGFA fishing records than anyone else alive. (I had no interest in setting a record, I just decided trying to catch one on a fly would be an interesting pursuit.)
I bring a six-weight with me every time I fly to Florida. I’m usually driving on back roads in a rental car and will stop at certain spots to fish for peacock bass, largemouth bass, crappie, chichlids, and anything else that swims in the South Florida drainage system. I still prefer saltwater fishing when possible, but I also enjoy exploring these unseemly backwaters.
Yesterday proved no different. I jumped in my rental car and started criss-crossing local roads far removed from the ocean, picking my way through the ever-westward suburban sprawl that really should still be part of the Everglades. Arostegui clued me in to a few choice places two years ago, and I try to make those my starting and ending points as I fan out in search of snakehead water.
These fish have proved elusive for me. For one, they are extremely wary, not nearly the aggressive Frankenfish the media has made them out to be. The live along the banks of these shallow, narrow canals and are highly sensitive to noise made onshore or splashes rendered by clumsy casts. They spook like trout.
I honed my techniques to make short, precise presentations with minimal false casting. I’d make two or three casts and retrieves through a stretch of water and move on. But the end results consisted of a few curious follows, swirls, and missed strikes.
Yesterday afternoon I pulled into the parking lot of a Baptist Church, looking to explore a new canal that held promise. I made a few steps toward the bank and startled several iguanas sunning themselves on the bank. They jumped in the water and splashed away, temporarily ruining a large swath of the canal.
I made my way toward the road to cast into the still water of a bridge culvert, and stumbled upon a dead snakehead on the bank. Confirmation of their presence.
But I kept catching bass. Everywhere I went, that’s all that took my offerings. I drove to several other spots and changed flies many times, only to catch bass and plastic bags.
As the sun started drawing down, I pulled off the road next to a small, trash laden canal known as the “Snake Pit.” Its shoreline is an obstacle course of plastic bottles, coffee cups, an old shopping cart, rotting palm fronds. The water is warm, shallow and stagnant with a lot of vegetation, likely a perfect breeding ground for those amoebae of death. It’s about as far away from the idyllic origins of fly fishing as possible.
I tied a size 2 olive and white half-and-half onto my 15-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet. I made a cast along the far bank and watched a v wake form behind the fly as I retrieved it. An ominous brown shape appeared and made a grab. It immediately started thrashing and I noticed the broad fanlike tail of what I thought to be a snakehead. I took it to the reel and tried to play it away from the canal banks. It used that broad tail to exert a slow but powerful pull against the drag. Then it did something I did not expect–it jumped. Again and again. I didn’t know that was part of the snakehead repertoire. I finally brought it to the bank and grabbed its lip with an Econo Grip–it registered six pounds. I took a photo and sent it to Dr. Arostegui. Maybe snakeheads don’t jump. His son, an expert on snakeheads and mudfish, carefully studied my photos. He says it’s a mudfish (amia calva) or bowfin, and not a snakehead, though the two look similar. Awesome fish, to be sure, but I’m still drawing a blank on the snakes.