How to Catch Snakeheads
Snakeheads are one of the best freshwater game fish. Here's how to catch them
Snakeheads are the ideal warm water game fish: They reliably eat topwater baits with explosive bites. You don’t need a ton of specialized gear or electronics to catch them. They are excellent table fare.
Plus, their home range is expanding. In 2002 there was a relatively isolated population of northern snakehead (which are non-native in U.S. waters) in Crofton, Maryland, and that range has since expanded so widely that they are now regularly caught in eight states. Most notably, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Those states are also full of anglers who have adopted snakeheads as their new favorite game fish.
If these fish now swim in your home waters and you want to experience their topwater blowups, here’s how to catch snakeheads.
What Anglers Need to Know About Snakeheads
Snakeheads are a species native to east-Asia, but have been introduced to countries around the world through the pet trade and illegal aquaculture. Introducing a non-native species is never a good thing for a natural ecosystem, and wildlife agencies have tough penalties for anyone caught spreading snakeheads to new water. Bucket biologists can face a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail for illegally stocking snakeheads in Virginia. But, people continue to move these fish into new waters despite the urging of biologists. And no, they aren’t walking on land to new bodies of water. While snakeheads can survive out of water for short periods of time, they cannot walk on land.
The Potomac River has had a snakehead population for over 20 years, and according to, Virginia DWR biologist, John Odenkirk, snakeheads haven’t negatively affected game fish populations. But, that’s the Potomac River. It’s a large and diverse waterway, which is a far cry from the small lakes and streams where snakeheads have recently been found. The long-term impact they would have on a smaller body of water is unknown, which is why biologists urge all of us to not introduce them to new water.
What we do know is that we aren’t getting rid of snakeheads in bodies of water that have an established population. We might as well embrace them in those fisheries and enjoy the new resource. There’s no need to kill every snakehead or throw them up on the banks in the name of saving bass. Harvest them if you want to eat the meat or release them if you don’t.
Despite what you might hear on Facebook, you can legally release snakeheads. Read your state laws carefully, but in my home state of Virginia, the law states you must kill a snakehead if you move it from one location to another. So, if you’re keeping a fish for the table you can’t keep it alive. This is to prevent spreading the fish into new bodies of water. But if you catch a fish and don’t want to eat it, you can snap a photo and release it in the same spot you caught it.
Where to Find Snakeheads
State game agencies have information on bodies of water that hold snakeheads. Starting your snakehead hunt is as easy as finding that info online and choosing a body of water you want to target.
Once you select a water, you’ll need to narrow your search to snakehead habitat. In a tidal river, like the Potomac, you won’t find many snakeheads in the main river stem. Instead, focus your efforts on the creeks that feed into the main river. Snakeheads are typically found in shallow water that doesn’t have fast current, but does have plenty of cover. In lakes, search out shallow bays with pad fields or grass. The backs of creeks that feed into the lake are also great places to prospect for snakes. While snakeheads are typically found in vegetation like pads, hydrilla, and grass, they also use wood cover and docks when there isn’t much vegetation.
Tactics for Catching Snakeheads
Picking Apart Cover
When you look at a massive pad field or grass bed it can feel overwhelming. You won’t be able to cover it all, but you don’t have to. Snakeheads are ambush feeders, similar to largemouth bass. So look for likely spots a snakehead would set up to ambush its prey. Edges, points, potholes, and anything that’s just a little different than the surrounding cover will draw fish.
While a lot of snakehead fishing involves blind casting and covering water efficiently, you can also sight cast them. In shallow water, their dorsal fin will be above the water, and their tell-tale S-shaped wake is easy to spot. They also breathe air and will come to the surface to breathe. When they suck in air, they make a distinct popping noise.
Another instance when it’s easy to sight fish is when snakeheads are guarding their fry ball. Fry are orange, and the fry ball looks like tiny raindrops hitting the surface. You’ll often see them in very shallow water. The parents will be nearby and will readily attack anything they think are trying to eat their fry.
In tidal waters, the tides play a big role in fish location and feeding patterns. A falling tide is usually your best bet for finding fish that are actively feeding, but the best tide for catching snakeheads can vary from one creek to the next. If you visit a creek on a tide and strikeout, don’t be afraid to try it again on a different tide cycle.
Weather and Time of Year
Snakeheads don’t hibernate, but they do become much less active in the winter and feed infrequently. The prime time to catch them is as soon as the water warms up in the spring, usually when the bass start spawning, until the water temps drop in the fall.
Just like other predatory fish, snakeheads will feed ahead of a big weather event. The evening before a storm hits can be extremely productive, so it’s worth it to sneak out of work early on these days if you can. Snakeheads are like bass in that they are more willing to hit topwater baits during low light conditions and when it’s overcast.
Snakehead Fishing Tips
People think snakeheads are aggressive, ravenous fish that will eat anything that swims, but in reality they can be extremely finicky and hard to catch. Here are some techniques for flipping the odds in your favor.
Cover Water Efficiently
Once you’re in a fishy area, the goal is to efficiently cover water to find a fish that’s ready to eat. I’ll usually start by working the edges of the cover with a search bait like a Teckel Sprinker or a chatterbait. Then I’ll use a walking or popping frog to hit specific spots that look like they’ll hold fish. If I’m fishing clear water and spot a fish, I’ll toss a fluke to it. A fluke is also an ideal follow-up bait (after a missed strike) and a great bait for pressured fish.
Sticking a Snake
A blow up, swing, and a miss is a common experience for snakehead anglers. That’s because these fish have hard, small mouths and anglers often set the hook too soon. Instead of swinging for the fence as soon as the fish grabs the frog, let it eat the frog, crank down, and then hit it hard with a hookset.
Catch Snakeheads on a Follow-up Bait
If you miss a fish or the fish misses the bait, throw back into that same area with a different lure. A fluke is ideal for following up on a missed fish, but anything that has a different profile or action can work too.
Avoid Spawning Snakeheads
When snakeheads are spawning, you can throw every lure you have at them, and they won’t eat it. They have one thing on their mind, and it isn’t food. The best thing to do if you find a bunch of snakes spawning is to try a different creek or part of the lake where a new body of fish might be in pre or post-spawn.
Target Unpressured Water
Snakeheads are one of the most sensitive fish when it comes to pressure, so if you want to catch them consistently, it pays to find water that other people aren’t fishing. But, that doesn’t mean you need private access or a super secret spot. I often fish Aquia Creek, one of the most well-known and heavily fished snakehead creeks, and catch fish by hitting areas that are overlooked or hard to reach.
Landing a Snake
If you’ve hooked a fish and got it to the boat, the fight isn’t over. You’re about to land one of the slipperiest and most difficult-to-handle fish. Even when they’re in the net, they’ve been known to leap out and disappear back into the hydrilla. The key to landing a snakehead is to get them in the net and attach lip grippers. Once you have the lip grippers secure, you’ll be able to hang onto the fish through the headshakes and spirals it’ll throw at you.
If you think taking a photo with lip grippers is a googan move, I would normally agree with you, except for with snakeheads. A gripper is the best way to make sure you don’t have a fish flop instead of a great grip and grin.
Snakehead Fishing Gear
Kayaks and Skiffs
You don’t need a dozen rods and Plano boxes full of lures to catch snakeheads. You also don’t need a decked-out bass boat with thousands of dollars in electronics. You just need a vessel that can stealthy fish skinny water and can glide through a jungle of pads and hydrilla. That’s why a kayak is one of the best ways to target snakeheads. Another great option is a small skiff that can be poled rather than using the trolling motor, which can spook snakeheads in shallow water and will get bogged down by vegetation.
Rods, Reel, Line
You can get by with just one rod for snakehead fishing, but a three-rod system will allow you to efficiently fish the three main categories of lures. Here are the three types of rods I bring on every trip.
Any of the best frog rods will work for snakeheads, but my go-to frogging rod is a Shimano Expride 7-foot, 6-inch extra heavy. It has the backbone needed to drive a frog hook into a snakehead’s boney mouth and then haul them out of cover. I pair that with a Shimano Curado DC XG because it casts frogs a mile and the 8:5:1 retrieve ratio quickly picks up slack that snakeheads often knock in the line. I spool my frogging reel with 80-pound PowerPro Maxcuatro.
For chatterbaits, I use a Dobyns Fury 7-foot, 3-inch heavy, fast rod, which is heavier than most anglers would use when throwing chatterbaits for bass, but I find the extra power is needed for hooking snakes. I use a Daiwa Tatula reel with a 7:3:1 gear ratio spooled with 50-pound J-Braid.
When snakeheads follow a frog or miss a frog, I fire back into the same spot with a fluke, and it usually results in a landed fish. That’s why it’s so important to have a rod rigged with a fluke that’s ready to cast. A 7- to 7-foot, 3-inch medium heavy casting rod with a fast action is ideal for throwing a fluke. Pair it with a quality baitcasting reel and 20-pound braid and you’ll be ready to go. You can also use a spinning rod with similar specs to throw a fluke.
There are a lot of lures that will catch snakeheads, but these baits have been reliable producers for me (my favorite technique is targeting snakeheads with the best frog lures). When it comes to selecting colors for these baits, I suggest keeping it simple with white or black. If that’s too boring for you, you can go with a bluegill or perch color—both are common forage for snakeheads.
- Beast Coast Workingman’s Compact Swim Jig
- Dirty Jigs Finesse Swim Jig
- Dirty Jigs California Swim Jig
Soft Plastic Jerkbaits
- Picasso All-Terrain Weedless Inline Spinner Jig
Bait Fishing for Snakeheads
One of the most effective techniques for catching snakeheads is to fish a live minnow under a bobber. A heavier wire hook is the only necessary modification to a standard minnow rig.
Net, Pliers, and Lip Grippers
Snakeheads are famous for fighting for a few seconds, going limp, and then the second you get them to the boat, they go ballistic. That’s where a good net can prevent a boat-side escape. You’ll need a large net because snakeheads are bigger than bass—20- to 24-inch fish are common, and large fish over 28 inches aren’t rare.
Snakeheads are toothy fish, so you won’t be lipping them. You’ll need a good pair of pliers for removing hooks. They also have a lot of fight in them once landed and are difficult fish to hold onto. So another key piece of gear are the best lip grippers.
If you plan on keeping a snakehead, most states require that you kill the fish immediately—no putting it on a stringer or in a live well. The best way to do that is to cut the gills, which bleeds the fish, and then put it directly into a cooler with ice.
When you’re learning how to catch snakeheads, there’s no substitute for time on the water. But if you put your time into learning your water and finding overlooked areas, you’ll be rewarded when suddenly the water under your frog explodes. That eat will get under your skin, and it’s why snakehead anglers keep coming back to the swamps searching for more.