A fun time getting ‘snake bit’ on the Potomac

In June 2002, a fisherman discovered a northern snakehead in a pond near Crofton, Maryland. The northern snakehead is a large, predatory freshwater fish native to China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea and is also regarded as an important food fish in those places.

Maryland officials, however, rightly considered snakeheads a threat to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and drained the pond, finding two adult and more than 100 juvenile snakeheads. A man later admitted releasing into the pond two adult snakeheads that he purchased in a New York fish market. Unfortunately, that effort didn’t stop the snakehead invasion.

During 2004, 19 snakeheads were captured in the lower Potomac River, where it was confirmed that the species had already established a breeding population. Any non-native species has the potential to become invasive if introduced into a new environment, and that proved to be especially true of snakeheads in the Potomac. These fish are prolific breeders that reach sexual maturity at age two or three, and a single female can produce as many as 100,000 eggs a year. With that kind of reproductive capacity, a population of snakeheads can double its numbers in as little as 15 months, so sadly, it wasn’t long before these Asian invaders were present throughout the tidal Potomac River and its many tributary creeks.

As predators, snakeheads feed primarily on baitfish as well as frogs and crayfish, much the same diet as largemouth bass. For that reason, bass fishermen on the Potomac began catching snakeheads five pounds or more on a variety of lures while targeting largemouths. My friend and longtime Potomac fishing guide Ken Penrod was one of them.

I have fished with Ken for many years when he moves his base of operations to Duncannon for six weeks each spring to pursue Susquehanna River smallmouths. When Ken returned to his home waters on the Potomac each season, I continued to follow his weekly fishing reports on the Internet, which began to include more pictures and accounts of snakehead encounters. And I knew I wanted to fish for those exotic critters but never seemed to find a spot in my schedule to do so.

Last winter, however, my brother and I went to the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg to book a trip with Ken for Susquehanna smallmouths. During that visit, we also began a conversation with his son, Kenny Penrod, about snakehead fishing on the Potomac. Kenny retired five years ago after a 27-year career as a homicide detective for the Montgomery County, Maryland, police department and joined his dad in the guiding business. I had also followed Kenny’s fishing reports for the past several years and knew he had acquired considerable experience targeting snakeheads, both on guide trips and in his personal fishing.

Kenny caught his first snakehead from the Potomac in 2005 on a plastic worm while fishing for bass in front of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Since making the transition from a police detective to a fishing detective, he now spends about 110 days a year on the water.

For the past two seasons, he brought his snakehead knowledge to his business and began offering guided trips for snakeheads during the summer and early fall. His personal best snakehead topped the scales at 18 pounds.

Kenny’s snakehead strategy is simple and enjoyable: fish topwater lures at the edges of dense weed beds in shallow back bays and creek mouths. His lure of choice for this work is a black, hollow-body popping frog. He fishes the frogs tied directly to 20- to 40-pound braided line on medium-heavy baitcasting gear in order to haul these stubborn fish from their weedy hiding places once hooked. We couldn’t resist that opportunity and booked a snakehead trip with Kenny for the end of June, which we completed last week.

When we arrived at the launch ramp at sunrise, Kenny already had his 21-foot Ranger tied to the dock. A short boat ride later, we were set up to cast to a good-looking weed bed. Almost immediately we saw small swirls and other telltale signs of snakeheads patrolling the edges for breakfast prey. Despite their aggressive, predatory nature, snakeheads can be quite spooky and would bolt if the lure landed on top of them. It wasn’t long, however, until we had action.

The first two snakeheads that struck our frogs didn’t result in a hookup. Unlike bass, snakeheads have small mouths for their body size and take a surface lure more deliberately. On the next take, Kenny connected with a 6-pounder and promptly put the fish in the boat. Maryland law requires any snakeheads caught to be immediately released or killed to prevent the transportation of live snakeheads to other waterways. Having heard snakeheads were good eating, I wanted to keep some to try, so after some photos, we dispatched the fish.

We boated three more snakeheads that morning and hooked and lost two or three more. I had two snakehead strikes but failed to hook either of them. I didn’t go fishless, however, as I caught a 5-pound largemouth on a topwater, which was a thrill.

Overall, it was a wonderful day on the water with a great guide, I’m planning for a rematch later this summer or early fall. If you are interested in making a trek to the Potomac for snakeheads, contact Kenny Penrod at 240-478-9055, or check out hi Facebook page at Kenny Penrod III.

As exciting as it can be to fish for snakeheads, they are, after all, an invasive species. To persuade anglers who fish with him to keep the snakeheads they catch, Kenny offers $10 off the price of his guide trips for every snakehead caught and kept. And if you like fish, I would encourage you to try eating snakeheads if you have the chance.

The meat is white and flaky with a mild, clean flavor and can be prepared in just about any manner you prefer. They are not difficult to fillet and have few bones. Just be sure to use a sharp, stout knife because their hide is tougher than any other freshwater fish I have filleted.

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