My Journey to Catch the Frankenfish

13138_5d3f6117a7ad7.jpg
By Frederick

The "Frankenfish!" Chances are you have heard this name on your local news channel or on some overdramatized fishing show. The snakehead has received a lot of sensationalism by the media over the years with a lot of it misleading or greatly exaggerated. The snakehead is just a fish. They can’t walk on land to eat your pets and they don’t spawn five times a year. Just recently, John Odenkirk, the leading biologist on the Northern snakehead's impact on the Potomac with over 15 years of research has recently stated that he does not see the Northern snakehead as an invasive species anymore.

For a fish species to be considered invasive, it has to cause economic or environmental harm. To date, there is no scientific evidence to show that this fish is causing harm to the economy or existing fish populations. If anything the snakehead has boosted sales in fishing licenses and equipment in the area they're inhabiting. They are a blast to catch with spectacular topwater strikes and they are great table fare which makes them attractive to many anglers.

Since hearing that this fish was found in Meadow Lake in 2004 I was intrigued about this so-called devil fish. So, like any angler, I wanted to catch one. I took to the internet to do my homework and gather all the information I could to help me catch these fish on the fly. What I found was very limited: a few guys claiming to be experts but only had two or three fish caught in a period of several years. To me, catching three fish of a certain species hardly makes you an expert and the experts shared no info on what techniques to use other than they had flies for sale that would catch snakeheads.

After a disappointing search for fly fishing-related information, I turned my search towards what techniques conventional fisherman were using to catch this fish. I lucked out and found a YouTube channel called Noobangler On this channel, there was a group of guys that called themselves the Snakeheads Stalkers. They were based out of Pa and NJ that were targeting snakeheads in my area. After studying their videos, I had to find a way to translate what these guys were doing into fly fishing. Northern snakeheads don’t have great eyesight so they hunt mainly by sensing vibrations in the water. They also spend the majority of their time in aquatic vegetation, so I needed to find a fly that pushes a lot of water and is weedless. I took to the internet again to find something that fits my criteria for the fly that’s going to get one of these devilfish out of hiding to hit my fly.

My search was disappointing. There were weedless flies, but they didn’t push enough water, and flies that pushed a lot of water, but they were far from weedless. With my search coming up a dud, I needed to create my own snakehead catcher - one that is weedless but also pushes water. After a lot of wasted money spent on tying materials, at least ten or more prototypes, I had a fly that could do what I needed it to do. So how to fish the fly? Snakeheads like to hit lures that are moving with little to no pauses. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want to be stripping my fly in like crazy all day to keep it moving at a pace that will get a snakehead's attention. Before I decided to catch a snakehead on the fly, I was known to hit the surf from time to time with the fly rod so I was very familiar with making my fly move fast using a two-handed retrieve where you tuck the fly rod under your arm so both hands are free, then you proceed to retrieve the line hand over hand. This makes for a lot faster retrieve and it is also less taxing than a typical single hand retrieves.

So, I have the fly and retrieve; it’s time to go catch my Frankenfish. It took me more than ten outings before I finally caught one. There were naysayers. Those people drove me to continue my efforts to get one of these fish to hand. I don’t think I will ever forget that day when I finally caught one. I ran right home after work and grabbed my kayak and my fishing gear and headed to one of my local snakehead holes.

It was hot and very humid out that day. I was paddling along the pads and in the distance, I noticed some nervous water in front of me. Nervous water can only mean one thing in water with snakeheads: there was a fry ball. A fry ball is a school of snakehead fry. Snakeheads breath air so the area where the babies are is always roiled because the fry are consistently surfacing for air. Snakeheads are great parents, both the male and the female guard their young on average for about four weeks. This is one of the easiest times to catch a snakehead they will hit almost anything that they believe is a threat to their young. Running a fly through the fry ball will anger the parents and BAM! - fish on. Once in a while, you will find some smart parents that won’t hit your fly, but if you get a few casts in the fry ball it usually ends in a bent rod.

Well, it was my lucky day. The first fry ball I paddled over, I made sure I didn’t get too close to it to scare the parents off. I dropped anchor to make sure I didn’t drift into the fry ball from the wind. After I made sure I wasn’t going anywhere, I just sat there and watched the fry and parent interacting to plan how I was going to get one of the patents to hit my fly. After some thought, I decided to cast a foot or two out of the fry ball and just strip my fly through the fry ball. I grabbed my rod and made about a forty-foot cast. My fly landed about three feet over the fry ball. I let it sit for a few seconds then I start to make my retrieve. I am at the edge of my seat the whole time. While my fly starts to go over the fry ball some fry scatter away then a huge deep pop noise with a splash. It took me a second to process what had just happened because I was still in shock from what I just witnessed. One of the parents annihilated my fly. My adrenalin was pumping so much I almost forgot to set the hook. I raised my rod up hard while simultaneously doing a strip strike FISH ON!!!!!! The fish immediately went for the weeds so I gave it the full strength of the butt section on my Sage Largemouth rod. After three attempts to go in the weeds and some water thrashing head shakes, I got the fish in my net and on the deck of the kayak. After some hand to hand combat with the fish to get the hook out, the fish stood still just enough for me to snap a quick pic. Right after that the fish flopped out of my yak and spit the hook out in the process. It was from that moment, that I knew I had to catch more of these mysterious, hard fighting fish that have taken residence in my back yard.

Follow Fred on his Instagram and Facebook accounts.
 
Fish Sticks
13138_5d3f6117a7ad7.jpg
By Frederick

The "Frankenfish!" Chances are you have heard this name on your local news channel or on some overdramatized fishing show. The snakehead has received a lot of sensationalism by the media over the years with a lot of it misleading or greatly exaggerated. The snakehead is just a fish. They can’t walk on land to eat your pets and they don’t spawn five times a year. Just recently, John Odenkirk, the leading biologist on the Northern snakehead's impact on the Potomac with over 15 years of research has recently stated that he does not see the Northern snakehead as an invasive species anymore.

For a fish species to be considered invasive, it has to cause economic or environmental harm. To date, there is no scientific evidence to show that this fish is causing harm to the economy or existing fish populations. If anything the snakehead has boosted sales in fishing licenses and equipment in the area they're inhabiting. They are a blast to catch with spectacular topwater strikes and they are great table fare which makes them attractive to many anglers.

Since hearing that this fish was found in Meadow Lake in 2004 I was intrigued about this so-called devil fish. So, like any angler, I wanted to catch one. I took to the internet to do my homework and gather all the information I could to help me catch these fish on the fly. What I found was very limited: a few guys claiming to be experts but only had two or three fish caught in a period of several years. To me, catching three fish of a certain species hardly makes you an expert and the experts shared no info on what techniques to use other than they had flies for sale that would catch snakeheads.

After a disappointing search for fly fishing-related information, I turned my search towards what techniques conventional fisherman were using to catch this fish. I lucked out and found a YouTube channel called Noobangler On this channel, there was a group of guys that called themselves the Snakeheads Stalkers. They were based out of Pa and NJ that were targeting snakeheads in my area. After studying their videos, I had to find a way to translate what these guys were doing into fly fishing. Northern snakeheads don’t have great eyesight so they hunt mainly by sensing vibrations in the water. They also spend the majority of their time in aquatic vegetation, so I needed to find a fly that pushes a lot of water and is weedless. I took to the internet again to find something that fits my criteria for the fly that’s going to get one of these devilfish out of hiding to hit my fly.

My search was disappointing. There were weedless flies, but they didn’t push enough water, and flies that pushed a lot of water, but they were far from weedless. With my search coming up a dud, I needed to create my own snakehead catcher - one that is weedless but also pushes water. After a lot of wasted money spent on tying materials, at least ten or more prototypes, I had a fly that could do what I needed it to do. So how to fish the fly? Snakeheads like to hit lures that are moving with little to no pauses. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want to be stripping my fly in like crazy all day to keep it moving at a pace that will get a snakehead's attention. Before I decided to catch a snakehead on the fly, I was known to hit the surf from time to time with the fly rod so I was very familiar with making my fly move fast using a two-handed retrieve where you tuck the fly rod under your arm so both hands are free, then you proceed to retrieve the line hand over hand. This makes for a lot faster retrieve and it is also less taxing than a typical single hand retrieves.

So, I have the fly and retrieve; it’s time to go catch my Frankenfish. It took me more than ten outings before I finally caught one. There were naysayers. Those people drove me to continue my efforts to get one of these fish to hand. I don’t think I will ever forget that day when I finally caught one. I ran right home after work and grabbed my kayak and my fishing gear and headed to one of my local snakehead holes.

It was hot and very humid out that day. I was paddling along the pads and in the distance, I noticed some nervous water in front of me. Nervous water can only mean one thing in water with snakeheads: there was a fry ball. A fry ball is a school of snakehead fry. Snakeheads breath air so the area where the babies are is always roiled because the fry are consistently surfacing for air. Snakeheads are great parents, both the male and the female guard their young on average for about four weeks. This is one of the easiest times to catch a snakehead they will hit almost anything that they believe is a threat to their young. Running a fly through the fry ball will anger the parents and BAM! - fish on. Once in a while, you will find some smart parents that won’t hit your fly, but if you get a few casts in the fry ball it usually ends in a bent rod.

Well, it was my lucky day. The first fry ball I paddled over, I made sure I didn’t get too close to it to scare the parents off. I dropped anchor to make sure I didn’t drift into the fry ball from the wind. After I made sure I wasn’t going anywhere, I just sat there and watched the fry and parent interacting to plan how I was going to get one of the patents to hit my fly. After some thought, I decided to cast a foot or two out of the fry ball and just strip my fly through the fry ball. I grabbed my rod and made about a forty-foot cast. My fly landed about three feet over the fry ball. I let it sit for a few seconds then I start to make my retrieve. I am at the edge of my seat the whole time. While my fly starts to go over the fry ball some fry scatter away then a huge deep pop noise with a splash. It took me a second to process what had just happened because I was still in shock from what I just witnessed. One of the parents annihilated my fly. My adrenalin was pumping so much I almost forgot to set the hook. I raised my rod up hard while simultaneously doing a strip strike FISH ON!!!!!! The fish immediately went for the weeds so I gave it the full strength of the butt section on my Sage Largemouth rod. After three attempts to go in the weeds and some water thrashing head shakes, I got the fish in my net and on the deck of the kayak. After some hand to hand combat with the fish to get the hook out, the fish stood still just enough for me to snap a quick pic. Right after that the fish flopped out of my yak and spit the hook out in the process. It was from that moment, that I knew I had to catch more of these mysterious, hard fighting fish that have taken residence in my back yard.

Follow Fred on his Instagram and Facebook accounts.
That Is not the first time I have heard attempts at re-characterization away from invasive for the snakehead. Blane Chocklette had an article in fly fisherman magazine saying something to the same effect. He may have even mentioned Odenkirk at the time i forget he referenced someone in fisheries.

Only issue is that there was no mention that there is well documented negative impact of northern snakehead on fish communities in the Potomac watershed as demonstrated in this below article(link below). I don’t know if John Odenkirk is aware of this article yet when he said that? I have to think he would be based on your described title for him. However, as you mentioned the definition of invasive species is binary(yes/no) based on non native + deleterious to native ecosystem= yes when evaluating different species. So for snake heads this article points significantly towards invasive. As many people on here know I favor looking at the literature published by subject matter experts and I didn’t hear Odenkirks statement directly so I am not going to claim anything adamantly myself. I guess I just would definitely need an explanation at some point for the large shifts/drop in biomass observed post introduction in the upper Potomac in this paper that showed serious damage to the other fish populations.


This is a review article on northern snakeheads as an invasive species and Odenkirk is actually cited in the research that establishes snake heads as an invasive species which seems odd given his reported statements.


Is it possible who ever in the angling community spoke with Odenkirk heard what they wanted to hear about a huge aggressive sport fish that crushes floating flies? I can’t answer that and maybe it is written/quoted somewhere instead. Either way I think theres a decent amount of data showing negative effects to ecosystem and we know its non-native. Of that is his opinion it definitely seems overwhelmingly a minority one.

However, Dave you have put together some really excellent entertaining webinars/presentations for everyone on the site to enjoy. Scientists are trying to do more science communication to the public these days, potentially some of the people cited in that review article (including Odenkirk) might be interested in a presentation on PA fly Fish to further educate us all?
 
DaveKile
That Is not the first time I have heard attempts at re-characterization away from invasive for the snakehead. Blane Chocklette had an article in fly fisherman magazine saying something to the same effect. He may have even mentioned Odenkirk at the time i forget he referenced someone in fisheries.

Only issue is that there was no mention that there is well documented negative impact of northern snakehead on fish communities in the Potomac watershed as demonstrated in this below article(link below). I don’t know if John Odenkirk is aware of this article yet when he said that? I have to think he would be based on your described title for him. However, as you mentioned the definition of invasive species is binary(yes/no) based on non native + deleterious to native ecosystem= yes when evaluating different species. So for snake heads this article points significantly towards invasive. As many people on here know I favor looking at the literature published by subject matter experts and I didn’t hear Odenkirks statement directly so I am not going to claim anything adamantly myself. I guess I just would definitely need an explanation at some point for the large shifts/drop in biomass observed post introduction in the upper Potomac in this paper that showed serious damage to the other fish populations.


This is a review article on northern snakeheads as an invasive species and Odenkirk is actually cited in the research that establishes snake heads as an invasive species which seems odd given his reported statements.


Is it possible who ever in the angling community spoke with Odenkirk heard what they wanted to hear about a huge aggressive sport fish that crushes floating flies? I can’t answer that and maybe it is written/quoted somewhere instead. Either way I think theres a decent amount of data showing negative effects to ecosystem and we know its non-native. Of that is his opinion it definitely seems overwhelmingly a minority one.

However, Dave you have put together some really excellent entertaining webinars/presentations for everyone on the site to enjoy. Scientists are trying to do more science communication to the public these days, potentially some of the people cited in that review article (including Odenkirk) might be interested in a presentation on PA fly Fish to further educate us all?
I like the idea and would of course want to talk with @Fredrick about it.
 
pcray1231
Is it possible who ever in the angling community spoke with Odenkirk heard what they wanted to hear about a huge aggressive sport fish that crushes floating flies?
There's some of that I'm sure. There is also the fact that the article you link states time and time again that snakeheads have not actually had a negative impact on the ecosystem, but they have the "potential to", are "predicted to", "likely to", etc.

As you said, Mr. Odenkirk was cited. Here's his statement from the paper.

"The northern snakehead has not been connected to any declines in native fish species, but possess a high potential to cause negative effects on native species through predation (Odenkirk and Owens 2007, Landis et al. 2011)."

Guy made his statement in 2007. It's 2022 now. It's certainly seems likely the dire predictions of 10-15 years ago haven't materialized, ad thus minds are changing. Fred stated that Mr. Odenkirk RECENTLY stated that he doesn't see them as an invasive species ANYMORE, which seems to acknowledge that he once did.

Personally, I see the issue as, the potential doomsday fearmongering hasn't played out. Not going to take a stand on whether they are negative to the native ecosystem, I don't know, and the jury may still be out. But it's clear these things aren't as disastrous as once feared. We certainly should not spread them to new waters. But where they are, they have established themselves. Keep studying, and go fishing in the meantime.
 
Fredrick
That Is not the first time I have heard attempts at re-characterization away from invasive for the snakehead. Blane Chocklette had an article in fly fisherman magazine saying something to the same effect. He may have even mentioned Odenkirk at the time i forget he referenced someone in fisheries.

Only issue is that there was no mention that there is well documented negative impact of northern snakehead on fish communities in the Potomac watershed as demonstrated in this below article(link below). I don’t know if John Odenkirk is aware of this article yet when he said that? I have to think he would be based on your described title for him. However, as you mentioned the definition of invasive species is binary(yes/no) based on non native + deleterious to native ecosystem= yes when evaluating different species. So for snake heads this article points significantly towards invasive. As many people on here know I favor looking at the literature published by subject matter experts and I didn’t hear Odenkirks statement directly so I am not going to claim anything adamantly myself. I guess I just would definitely need an explanation at some point for the large shifts/drop in biomass observed post introduction in the upper Potomac in this paper that showed serious damage to the other fish populations.


This is a review article on northern snakeheads as an invasive species and Odenkirk is actually cited in the research that establishes snake heads as an invasive species which seems odd given his reported statements.


Is it possible who ever in the angling community spoke with Odenkirk heard what they wanted to hear about a huge aggressive sport fish that crushes floating flies? I can’t answer that and maybe it is written/quoted somewhere instead. Either way I think theres a decent amount of data showing negative effects to ecosystem and we know its non-native. Of that is his opinion it definitely seems overwhelmingly a minority one.

However, Dave you have put together some really excellent entertaining webinars/presentations for everyone on the site to enjoy. Scientists are trying to do more science communication to the public these days, potentially some of the people cited in that review article (including Odenkirk) might be interested in a presentation on PA fly Fish to further educate us all?
The study by Joseph Love and Joshua Newhard is being touted as proof that snakeheads are the reason for declining species in the Blackwater Wildlife refuge.

It contradicts the findings by John Odenkirk on the Potomac River that concludes that snakeheads have had no negative impact on that fishery.




What stands out are the big declines in many species in Blackwater BEFORE snakeheads ever showed up there due to saltwater intrusion. That's why the studies were conducted in 06 and 07

Northern Snakeheads were first reported from the Blackwater River drainage in 2012 and may have shown up as early as 2010.

A few notable species that declined before snakeheads arrived in that area are as follows

Banded Killifish 2006: 169 2007: 3
Black Crappie 2006: 3329 2007: 2665
Bluegill 2006: 2127 2007: 1955
Brown Bullhead 2006: 4365 2007: 3776
Pumpkinseed 2006: 3227 2007: 1310
White Perch 2006: 11,538 2007: 4548

Fisheries are complex systems and the factors that impact them are many. It looks like the trend of declining fish populations was set in motion before snakeheads ever showed up there. I believe snakeheads are being used as a scapegoat to what may be deeper problems in Blackwater.
 

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Fish Sticks
10-15 years is a very short amount of time with regard to how long other invasive species introductions play out . It will be interesting to see what future research shows and if changes in other variables (temp, prey base, dispersal) allow them to become more successful. Lake trout were present for a while in lake pend oreillie without much perceived negative effect, then mysis shrimp were introduced and all of a sudden invasive lake trout had the prey base they needed to expand and predate on juvenille kokanee salmon and crashed the population. It would interesting to drop in on the next snake head symposium via zoom or alot of time they put out oresentations after these things with the slides used. Thanks for the video with Odenkirk explaining the study fredrick.
 
M
Very nice post, Fred. "Snakes" are now part of the ecosystem, like it or not. Might as well make the most of it.
 
Fish Sticks
Yea they are for now, smallmouth were the new non native on the block in the susky theres a whole industry built on them now. Then…..enter the invasive flathead, here come the Blues too. Its unclear what smallmouths prospects are in the river now for those who made the most of them then made a living on them. long as you don’t get attached to any one species knowing that the non native/invasive game fish you like is only safe until the next larger one gets dropped in it works from a fishing perspective i guess. Don’t know if the wells catfish will hit a popper like a snakehead maybe it will hit a popper that looks like a snakehead. We are just destined to see booms and busts in the susky as preybases and predators chnage constantly faster than any coherant evolutionary/genetic adaptive process can take place. It never ends with non natives.

Millions of years of evolution allowed each niche in the river to be occupied by native species and introducing a new game fish every 15 years causes unbelievable instability in the exosystem and trophic cascades. I know that no one on this thread is in favor of introductions and your just saying its fun to fish for em. Heck i’ll probably try it too. Im just saying I hope that snakeheads don’t get a lobby for them that stands in opposition of what ever future research finds/recommends in regard to their management like almost every other invasive game fish in Pa does.
 
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