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In late July, I set out with my good friend Shawn to execute a 24 hour snakehead fishin’ mission. Our goal was to leave Black Hall Outfitters in Westbrook, Connecticut on a Wednesday night, Old Town kayaks strapped to the roof, drive to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, fish for Northern snakeheads Thursday morning, and finally return to Connecticut on Thursday night. Wait- you haven’t heard of Northern Snakeheads? Well, let’s get you acquainted. They are native to Russia, China, and Southeast Asia, and ended up in a pond in Maryland in the early 2000’s, likely via the illegal aquarium trade. Now, they are densely populated in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania, and spreading rapidly due to their vigorous reproductive cycle. There are also another species, Bullseye Snakeheads, in Florida ponds and canals.
Snakeheads have a long dorsal fin, sharp teeth, and boa constrictor-style patterning on their sides. They are predatory, eating mostly anything in the fresh and brackish waters they call home. Thus, they’ve been designated invasive species due to fears they will decimate bass populations and other species such as frogs and crayfish. However, the kicker here is that snakeheads are incredibly fun to catch, epic fighters, and taste delicious. They’ve got the best topwater blowups of any freshwater fish I’ve ever heard of or encountered. So, while science works to determine the exact ramifications of their presence here in the States, anglers can do their part and have a blast targeting them in their swampy, shallow, weedy homes with bass gear such as topwater frogs, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and swimbaits. Oh, and did I mention they get big? The author’s personal best snakehead went 33 inches long and weighed 14 pounds. Picture that exploding out of lily pads at a hollow-body frog and you can likely begin to piece together the reason these fish have become so popular and notorious.
Shawn and I would be targeting these fish using our Old Town Sportsman PDL kayaks, a Sportsman 120 PDL and a BigWater 132 PDL. I had never used a pedal drive in these ultra-skinny water conditions, and was very curious about whether the application would fit. Not to spoil the rest of this story, but they were awesome. The reasons why can be summed up simply- standing to fish, and covering water to get away from areas that have become steadily more pressured as the lore of the Northern Snakehead has spread all over the East Coast.
In order to understand why the PDLs were so effective, you need to picture snakeheads in their natural environment- shallow, stagnant, heavily weeded waters. If you’ve ever flipped or punched brush or weed mats for largemouth bass, you can understand that the easier part is getting the bite, and the harder part is actually fighting these fish out of their tangled dens while they go absolutely insane on the end of your line. Here is where the stability of the Old Town kayaks was crucial.
Leverage and power go a long way towards helping to get snakeheads into your kayak, and the Sportsman line provided both. I’ve fished every boat in the Sportsman line, and they all give you the ability to stand and fish with confidence. Whether you are digging a snakehead out of some heavy spatterdock or setting the hook into a 45” striper, the ability to stand up and fish is unquantifiable. Often, snakeheads sit on the edges of weed beds, much like bass, waiting to ambush passing bait. However, they also go back, way back, to the far reaches of these weed beds, sometimes in 6” of water or less. In order to cast accurately, set the hook, and wrestle a big snakehead out of that environment, you need the leverage and power that standing up in the kayak provides.
This is also a great time to mention the importance of the auto-reverse on the PDL drives in Old Town kayaks. Once the hook is set, the last thing you want is to be dragged back into the weeds, increasing the chance that you lose the fish and very likely spooking any other snakeheads lurking there. The stability of the kayak means you can grab a seat, set your feet on those pedals, and start to play your part in the man vs. snakehead tug of war. With the 10 to 1 gear ratio on the PDL drives, there’s a very good chance you have the upper hand here. No other kayak has such a low-maintenance, multi-faceted drive, and it played a huge part in the success of our trip.
The second big reason the PDLs were so important has to with the popularity of the Northern Snakehead. Initially, a small band of anglers and bow-fisherman began targeting the snakehead, but as word, and snakeheads, spread throughout the region, they caught on like wildfire. This is especially true because the Chesapeake Bay gets very warm during summer, and the most popular gamefish of the region, striped bass, have a high release mortality rate in those conditions. Enter the Northern Snakehead as an alternative gamefish. They live in the same regions (though not the same waters), are readily accessible, and can be caught on gear that most bass anglers already have from shore, canoe, or kayak. It’s a simple formula: Accessibility + excitement = snakeheads becoming the preeminent freshwater gamefish in the region. However, the combination of their popularity and the proliferation of information on how to catch them brought people, lots of them. Places like Blackwater Wildlife Refuge became inundated with anglers hoping to tie in to one of these serpentine beauties. With only a couple true soft launches on the Refuge, it became necessary to get away from the more pressured waters close to the easily accessible parts of the snakehead’s waters, and to explore other river systems in hopes of finding a snakehead hole not yet on the public’s radar. Here’s where you need that PDL!
If other anglers are all fishing within a quarter mile of the launch, the best way to find more snakeheads was to travel as far back into the swamps as possible. This adds to the adventure of it all, and if you’ve got a PDL, you can do this in a fraction of the time that paddling takes. On our trip, Shawn, myself and our buddies all had pedal drive kayaks, and we were able to cover a wide expanse of this river system that others may not have reached. Getting into the skinny water was no issue either, as the PDL drives work in water as shallow as 1.5 feet!
Pedal drives to get you there, stability to stand and fish the far reaches of weed beds, and the power to pull these snakes out of their hiding places and to your kayak: the Old Town Sportsman PDL kayaks are perfect snakehead-catching machines. It’s easy to see why these fish have caught on like wildfire, and why the Old Town Sportsman PDL line was key to finding and catching them.