And then Elijah sent me an email...
"My friend had the good fortune of getting some bonus miles on her frequent flyer account, and we are thinking about visiting Virginia for the weekend sometime in the next few weeks."
"I know your budget and time are very limited right now, but it would be pretty awesome if you joined us. Although our time is limited to just the weekend, maybe you could take some extra time and hop on that deep drop trip out of Virginia that we've been talking about?"
With an invite like that, how can I resist?
Well, the deep drop was out of the question since it would zap too much time away for Eli's lifer hunt. Together with my friend Pat who lives in Virginia, we came up with a pretty good itinerary for 4 days of lifer hunting. Funny thing is that by chance we picked the perfect weekend for many of the target that Eli was after. I don't think we could have picked a better weekend for Northern Snakehead fishing, which was Eli's target number one.
My budget was pretty limited so I decided to bus down to Washington DC on the Friday night. I hopped on the bus at 19:45 and arrived in DC at 11:30. It was a very long journey...I could have flown to China in that time LOL.
Elijah had already arrived Saturday morning at 07:30. Instead of waiting for me to arrive, I suggested that he should spend the morning going after some micro lifers. So before I even arrives, Eli had already caught 4 new lifers:
1) Satinfin Shiner
2) Swallowtail Shiner
3) Redbreast Sunfish
From Union Station, I took the Metro to a station close to Pat's apartment. Before even grabbing lunch or unpacking, Pat asked if I was ready for some fishing. And just like that, I was digging out gear from my luggage on a neighbourhood street and changing into swim short in the somewhat privacy of a rental car.
While Eli's friend Ella returned to Pat's apartment for some lunch and rest, Eli and I proceeded to cross a little creek during low tide. It's not so bad at low tide when the water is only knee to waist deep. We do have to keep an eye on the tide for the return trip.
While we were walking over the rocky shoreline, Eli said "You know, I'm at #386 now. How cool would it be to tie your 387 species with a Northern Snakehead?" Indeed, it would be fantastic! Some people think I go about this lifelist business a bit too seriously and they think I'm really competitive and aggressive. Those who know me well know that I am in fact the complete opposite. I like to form a network of lifelisters that are mutually respectful and beneficial to each other. Sharing information, whether success or failure, is the only way in my opinion to foster our pursue. Life is short, resources are limited and there are simply too many species to pursue! Eli and I often joked about how "jealous" we are of each other's new lifer catches, and how we are quickly besting each other on the lifer count. However, it is simply camaraderie rather than vicious competition. In fact, I see him as a brother. There is nothing more I would like than to help him accomplish #387 with a Northern Snakehead. I just hoped I could deliver.
Pat had a certain confidence on my snakehead fishing skills...but I was feeling some immense pressure. Sure, I know where to take Eli to find them. However, I had yet to hook and land one from this location during the two times I've fished here in the past. In fact, the last time I was there we didn't even see one snakehead. Thus, I was quite apprehensive about it all. But Eli probably didn't see all that concern as I try to be calm and collected LOL.
We finally arrived at this little culvert. The spot did not look like much at all. The bottom was mostly mud and silt. There was no aquatic plant growing in the area. The best cover available was a bed of bottom debris consisting of mostly rotten leaves. Needless to say, this urban stream was a highly disturbed habitat that had been severely altered by human activities. Oh, did I mention we were fishing underneath a freeway?
Initially, I couldn't spot anything aside from Largemouth Bass and some Common Carp...and I was extremely worry. I moved to higher ground where I can have a better vantage point while Eli remained down low to avoid detection. With a better view, I started to see a long shape coming out from deeper water onto the shallow debris bed. And then another. As the incoming tide flooded in more and more snakehead came into the area.
I started pointing out all the fish to Eli and we coordinated to put his lure presentation in the best interception course. Often, I would tell him to speed up or slow down based on the fish reaction. Sometimes the fish would move off and a new cast was needed. But after 30 minutes, we were still looking for a solid follow or a strike.
Since Eli's subsurface lure was not getting much attention on the steady retrieve, he and I wondered if my topwater frog would fair better. The surface presentation certainly garnered some attention, but most follows were quickly dropped. From my high spotting position, I was also quite visible to the fish. They are extremely wary when they could spot us.
Finally, I slowed down my presentation and slowly twitched the frog lure. This slower presentation drew the attention of a snakehead. In order to keep it interested, I had to inch the lure away every time the fish advanced. With every twitch, the fish charged forward a few inches but stopping just shy of the lure. Often times, the tip of its snout was just barely nudging the skirt of the frog. This cat-and-mouse game lasted for a distance of 30 feet until the fish was directly below me. By this time, I was crouching as low as possible and I used some grass to break up my outline. I felt like a lion stalking prey on the Serengeti Plain. As I was running out of line to work the lure, I gave it one final aggressive tug. This tug ignited the snakehead and the mouth finally opened! It grabbed the lure underwater but unfortunately the hooks did not set. From my angle, the line was completely vertical to the fish. It was very difficult to get a decent hookset. It also appeared that the fish merely bit the skirt of the lure to pull it under, which is a common habit of snakehead to pull a frog under by its leg before the finishing lunge at the frog while it was underwater.
Although we didn't hook the fish, it did gave us a glimmer of hope that perhaps we could crack the snakehead code.
Eli and I repositioned to the opposite side of the culvert. While Eli progressively worked down the shoreline by blind casting, I was proceeding at a much slower pace. Eli and I noticed that the snakeheads were slowly moving into water just deep enough to cover their backs. In fact, if you were not careful, you often spook these fish before even getting a chance at them. All you would see is the muddied water that they leave behind as the fish retreated back into the safety of deeper water.
With that in mind, I backed away from the waters edge and resumed my stalking position. Soon, I was able to present lures at a few fish. However, the fish were ignoring, or even disturbed, by the steady retrieve of our subsurface lures. Realizing that our last successful bite came on a slow twitching cadence, I attempted the same presentation with the subsurface lure. With such a retrieve, the lure imitated a frog scurrying about on to bottom.
As I was looking for the next fish to target, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. About 10 feet from the water edge was a decent size snakehead slowly creeping up toward me. It was moving parallel to shore and it had a certain intent in its movement. Since it was not spooked, I assumed it had not spotted me yet. I sent the cast about 15 feet beyond the fish, then quickly worked it into the intercepting course. I let the lure fall to bottom, sat for a couple of seconds, then hopped it forward a few inches. The snakehead immediately took notice and turned its head toward the lure. Similar to the last snakehead, this fish would advance toward the lure every time it moved and dropped to bottom, but stopping just shy of the lure when it sat in place. It followed the lure closer and closer to shore, with its back and dorsal fin now just barely covered by water. As the fish came so shallow, I had to waddle back even further away and crouched even lower to avoid detection. By this time, I was literally on knees and elbows.
I had worked the lure into a bit of a situation when two shallow rocks was blocking the lures path. For me, it was a do or die moment - either hopped it over the rocks and risked losing interest from the fish, or let the lure fall between the two rocks and risked a potential snag. If the lure were to hop over the rock it didn't appear there was enough water for the snakehead to swim over. But as a last resort, I decided to hop the lure over the rocks. There was just 4 inches of water as the lure came over the rock. The snakehead, seeing its prey fleeing to freedom toward shore, lunged forward with mouth wide open. In a matter of second, the fish pounced on the lure and turned back toward deeper water. I felt the weight of the fish on the rod and set hard.
The fish immediately flew out of the water, jumping 2-3 feet high in just a few inches of water. The head shook violently as it landed, and it charged toward the safety of the depths. Although snakeheads are strong fighter, the limited depth prevented this fish from doing much. It charged side to side often, but it was the aerial acrobatics that threatened a thrown hook or a snapped line. Finally, I had the fish under control and yelled down to Eli to notify him about my catch. Eli arrived just as I slid the fish up the muddy bank.
With a set of very strong jaws, it took one of us to hold the jaw open with hemostat while the other person unhooked the fish. My fish was not as terrible to unhook since it was hooked just at the tip of the upper jaw. I felt quite terrible to have caught the fish before Eli had hooked on. It was a pretty nice fish too. I would estimate the fish to weight around 8lbs.
After hearing about my slower but effective presentation, Eli immediate adopted this method on his next cast. He hopped the lure slowly on bottom and immediately had a hit. On the next cast, there was a second hit. Snakeheads usually do not strike twice. Often, you have one and only one shot at each fish. Perhaps there was a pair of fish...or maybe this snakehead didn't ready the Snakehead Bible. Eli made one more cast in the same area. As he hopped the lure off bottom, he saw a flash of white under the lure and felt the weight of the fish on the rod. Fish ON!
This smaller fish gave a spirited fight also, but we were able to quickly bring it to shore. I made sure to get into the water to prevent the fish from "walking" back into the water during the landing process. No...they do not walk on land...they can barely even squirm with any sense of direction on mud. This fish had a beautiful lavender side, an olive back and some very distinct dark snake-like markings all over. The belly was especially marked with really cool blotches. It was a phenomenal specimen.
#387 for Elijah - Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) - so happy for your accomplishment, brother!
It was quite a handful since it had swallowed the lure deeper and the hook penetrated the cartilage between the gill arches. Again, it took one of us to hold the jaw open with hemostat while the other tried to free the 6/0 hook from its hold. When we finally had the lure freed, the fish bled profusely. Despite attempts to revive it for 20 minutes, this fish finally bled out. We decided that rather than wasting the fish, we would take it back to Pat's for dinner.
Since the tide was quickly rising, we decided to give it just a little more time before we needed to head back. If the tide rose too much, I would literally need to swim to cross the creek. Luckily, we made it back relatively dry. I did tip-toed across one deep hole to prevent my gear from getting wet...and they were already held over my head. I could have gone snorkeling.
I did not tell Eli this story. The very first time I fished this creek, I was quite apprehensive about crossing the creek on the flooding tide. This creek flows into the Potomac River, the Potomac River flows into Chesapeake Bay, and the Chesapeake Bay opens into the Atlantic Ocean. Even this far up river, it experiences tidal influences. Certainly the water is a bit brackish. When I was chest deep on tippy-toes, I asked Pat if I had to worry about Bull Sharks in the Potomac. He said he never heard of any, but I guess it could always be a remote possibility. So Eli...I didn't want to freak you out...but I was watching out for that dorsal fin!
On our way back, we got a little lost so Ella had to come pick us up. She was fascinated by the snakehead and was quite interested in tasting it. While Eli and Ella returned to their hotel for a shower and a short nap, I cleaned a snakehead for the very first time.
This snakehead was a pre-spawned female. It had a decent size egg sack but nothing that was out of proportion compared to other fish. In fact, the Steelhead I caught a few weeks ago had a larger egg sack in relative proportion than this snakehead. What was amazingly fascinating was the rib cage of a snakehead. While most fish's rib cage ends at the anus, the Northern Snakehead's rib cage continued onto the rear edge of the anal fin! Much of that body cavity was empty with no discernible organs beyond the anus. The egg sack in this spawning fish did not surpass the anus either. It was quite puzzling why there was so much empty cavity in the anatomy of snakeheads. Perhaps, when the fish is alive, the air bladder could occupy this space? Since snakeheads are obligated air breathers, I guess this is conceivable. I'll have to look into it some more.
Anyways, we pan fried the wonderfully white fillets of snakehead with some butter, red onions and cilantro and made some fish tacos. Although the flesh is white, it was not at all very flaky. The flesh held together very well. It is not surprising that Asians like to use this fish in curry and soup dishes for that reason.
Snakehead fish tacos!