Aim for a Bullseye

By Richard Hart

Tips for catching the cagey South Florida snakeheads.

Keeping low, author delivers a fly to a bullseye snakehead.

The cobra or bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius) lives in hot climates, primarily the jungles and swamps of Southeast Asia. The prior International Game Fish Association world record was held for many years by my friend Jean Francois Helias—a guide and holder of over 240 IGFA records. I have fished across the globe for some of the over 30 species of snakehead, and can attest that these are great targets for fly anglers.

As a Florida invasive, bullseye snakeheads began in Tamarac, and have spread throughout most of the neighborhoods above Ft. Lauderdale and below Palm Beach. Any body of water in these areas on any given day can hold snakeheads. Considering the current IGFA All Tackle record of 12.8 pounds was caught last year in Coral Springs, and in early 2013 FWC officials electro-shocked a 14.3-pound specimen, it shows how well they are adapting.

Bullseyes are longer than most others in the snakehead family, with an extended lateral line which is very sensitive. Eyes on the top of their heads give these fish great range of sight—they can easily spot a fly fishermen making false casts. The other element of difficulty is that South Florida canals are often crystal clear and shallow and do not connect to navigable boat ways. Fishing involves stalking along steep banks, often covered in trees, bushes, fences and gardens. Getting barked at by dogs is commonplace. Some spots have little or no back cast room, requiring a fly fisherman to fling out a line without even a reverse cast. A roll cast doesn’t cut it—any line on the water, or false casting overhead, and the fish get spooked. It’s not easy.

Your day can be long, hot and tiring, but if you’re game for it, a good place to start is any of the freshwater canals around Coral Springs. Walk the bank where you can find safe and legal access. Despite their wariness, snakeheads are aggressive feeders—with the right presentation, you can get them to strike a variety of poppers, bass bugs, weighted baitfish flies and tarpon toads. Choose a fly that imitates a local baitfish, such as the Enrico Puglisi rattling bluegill fly. They will ambush frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, rodents and any fish. Choose a fly with a strong hook.

The preferred scenario is fishing between the weed cover and the opposite bank, where the fish are facing away from you. Kneel or crouch, with a bush or other cover to give you background. Now here’s a little trick for making a cast without false-casting and spooking the fish. First, cast a WF9F line behind you on the shore, allowing it to run out as far as you can. Now use the weight of the line to load the rod for your forward cast and delivery. As the fly lands, strip it into the shallow water inside the weed bed edge. Make a quick jerk, a short strip and then stop. Be ready, as snakeheads pounce quicker than you can react. If you don’t get a strike right away, mix up your stripping pattern—one or two short strips, then a jerk and stop.

Make it common practice to cover the tippet in mud to mask human presence. Use as light a tippet as you dare; best I’ve found is 20-pound-test Rio. If a snakehead’s teeth don’t bite clean through the tippet first, then the many weeds in these canals are going to test the breaking strength. The first thing the snakehead will do is dive for its nearest underwater hidden snag, and then jump out of the water like a tarpon, to try and shake the hook loose. Next, it will “alligator roll” until it tires out. You need every edge if you’re going to land a decent size snakehead on the fly. Every link in your terminal tackle has to be solid, or it’s going to break. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman June 2013