Monday, June 25, 2012

Snakeheads on Mattawoman...Good Gracious.

Probably no fish here.
Mattawoman Creek is an oddity.  Just a few dozen miles from Washington DC, it still exists as probably the most productive tidal freshwater fishery in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.   Bass tournaments are held here.  Anglers come here to catch the elusive 8lb citation largemouth.  The American shad migration is stronger than anywhere else in the Upper Bay.  Thousands of parents bring their kids here every year to catch their first bass.

How? The watershed is largely protected from development, sewage, and runoff, primarily thanks to government regulations and local watershed activists.  And while it's true, we could never truly destroy an actual river - meaning, the water and the sediment (and probably gizzard shad!) - many attempts have been made to destroy this river's integrity - its value to people - by loosening regulations on surrounding land use and headwater protections.  In the case of the Mattawoman, those attempts have failed. So far.  And all that, despite the occasional Huckleberry screaming, "You can't kill a river! And what about my constitutional rights to build condos on swamp land below sea level!"

Unfortunately, the Mattawoman does have a problem.  Its notoriety as an amazing habitat for largemouth bass apparently opened a gigantic welcome sign for the always-migrating Northern Snakehead, an apex predator of Southeast Asian freshwater aquatic beds that was introduced into Maryland between 1997-2001 by someone who should be shot, at least in the knee.  I wrote about that introduction here.  

Now, the creek has become an absolute destination for anglers seeking these ridiculously toothy, mouthy and totally explosive fish, who - it seems - are quite content to just eat mature frogs and largemouth bass.   With that in mind, Nick from Brookfield Angler gave me a ring when he was in town, looking to get on some snakeheads.  A few other guys joined us out on the Mattawoman that evening.  What we saw was surreal - both for the habitat and the invader. 

Seconds after I took this picture, a 30"+ snakehead swam by with its head out of the water, looking at me. Yup. 

We tried a huge variety of lures, from jerkbaits to plastics, both of us finally having success with the Koppers Live Target frog.  Now, I'll have to define "success."  Out of four anglers on the creek that night - after a day-long rain storm and in cool temperatures - one snakehead was landed (scroll down), and one largemouth was landed (by Nick).  What we did have were gigantic blow-ups on the surface, next to the pads and other vegetation...some really heart stopping stuff, like your fishing buddy throw an M-80 in the water next to you without telling you.  I saw one gigantic bass under an old steel beam (he lipped a soft plastic frog and then stared at me, and then spit it out), and surely many of our "blow ups" were bass.

But then we started to see the Snakeheads. They were everywhere.  Just....everywhere.  Unlike the largemouth, who were hanging out on the edge of submerged grass beds and tucking in beside them, the snakeheads would run up and down vertically through the middle of the beds, making them difficult to spot and almost impossible to catch on sight.

Now, you may be thinking, "these beds don't look that big.  Who couldn't find a fish in here? How big could it possibly be?" Well, I offer this:

Others of you are thinking, "What you boys need is a bass boat!" To which I don't disagree in theory (because your plane of vision from the kayak is awfully poor for this kind of fishing).  But again, I ask you to think about how much you paid for your outboard, or even your trolling motor, and then take a peek at this, "in the channel".....

So here it is.  After many hooked fish, dozens more "blow ups" after our LiveTarget frogs, and about four hours paddling, one of the four anglers caught this gigantic, scary ass snakehead.  From the shore.  As we were loading up the boats. Ugh.  At least I got my picture taken with it. 

We'll be back to chase these things on a day when they are hungry.  That I can promise you.  I can also honestly tell you that this is the scariest freshwater fish I have ever handled.  It is a mean, nasty thing.  The skull continues all the way back to the fins.  It's like Captain Hook's freaking hook arm.  Just....mean. 

I've heard that these things are delicious, and I love me some fried fish.  But after seeing these mean ass things in the marsh, and handling a decent size one, I think they are made of Kevlar and chewed up bullets.  My instructions to fillet would start with, "Take a sharpened axe, lightly buttered........"

I don't know what we'll do differently next time.  This is technical fishing.  No error fishing.  Not really my specialty.  I mean, what do you do with a fish who picks his head up out of the water to look at you before you even get within casting range?   But we'll make it work.   I have some thoughts about this beautiful marsh  that I'm looking forward to sharing with you.  But I had to cleanse my mind of this Snakehead business first.

Sure, the rivers will always be here.  They will outlast us, despite how much pollution we dump in them, or how many foreign species we introduce to their shorelines.  The waters, indeed, will still physically persist, long after  we dirty enough of them to kill off our species - and one day they will heal, without us.  That doesn't sound like a really intelligent ideal or objective, but then again, I'm the guy posing for a picture with a live snakehead.

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