Fletcher's Cove, Washington, DC, September 11, 2010
I watched the line from my cast collapse into an ugly pile in the slow-moving Potomac River about 35 feet in front of me. "Don't force the cast, it's one smooth motion," said spey casting instructor John Bilotta. "And don't choke the rod. You're holding it way too tight."

On a beautiful Saturday morning in the District I attended a special spey day gathering at Fletcher's Cove sponsored by the
Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders (TPFF). The event featured spey casting demonstrations and instruction by Dan Davala, founder of TPFF and fishing department manager of the Arlington, Virginia, Orvis store and Bilotta, a professional guide and vice president of TPFF. Both Davala and Bilotta are Federation of Fly Fishers certified casting instructors. There were numerous rods and lines available for casting and a crowd of around 35 people showed up for the event.

Davala demonstrated several basic spey-type casts and discussed the mechanics of using a long rod and special lines to fish at great distances. He made it look so simple, so easy, so effortless. It was like watching Tiger Woods (Version 1.0.1) step up to the tee and smack that ball into the hole without breaking a sweat. Great swing. Look at that ball go. Yeah, I could do that. Until you stepped up and TRIED to do it. After the casting demonstrations and question and answer time, we grabbed our rods, or picked one out of the pile of loaners, and spread out in waist deep water along the shoreline and began to practice.

My first cast looked pretty good but I quickly followed that up with several duds. Bilotta walked over and gave me a couple of tips. Throw less line.
D-loop is too small. You're gripping the rod too tight. Pull the lower grip in toward you on the forward cast. Stop the rod higher. The casting got a bit easier but I could tell this would take a bit of practicing to smooth everything out.

Another TPFF member, Todd, stepped in and gave me a bunch of tips and helped me work on my casting. Basically, I shouldn't force the cast. I need to really slow things down and keep the cast flowing in a fluid motion. I would have liked to continue casting for the rest of the morning but the second phase of the meeting was about to begin and I didn't want to miss it.
John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, was presenting a short lecture and fish fry featuring the Northern Snakehead (Channa argus).
The Northern Snakehead is native to China and first appeared in a pond in Crofton, Maryland in 2002. The fish was considered such a menace that Maryland officials poisoned the entire pond, killing everything in it, to prevent the possible spread of the snakehead to other bodies of water. But it was a wasted effort. Snakeheads soon began appearing in other locations and DNA data indicated that these fish had no link to those in the Crofton pond. I remember fishing at Dogue Creek near Ft. Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, a few years ago when we came across Odenkirk and his crew conducting an electro-shocking survey for snakeheads. In one small section they pulled up over 300 juvenile snakeheads. At this point I knew the efforts to stop the spread of this fish was useless. The fish had established a beachhead and they were rapidly spreading up and down the Potomac.
Odenkirk discussed the brief history of the snakehead in our region and the current research being conducted on this predator to gauge its impact on the Potomac fisheries. He said the snakehead has moved up the Potomac River to Chain Bridge, where the waterfall has stopped their spread but the department is unsure if the fish has established a presence in the C&O Canal because funding is tight and nobody has really investigated the area thoroughly.

A surprise to everyone has been the ability of the Northern Snakehead to adapt to water that is up to about 50 percent saline. Investigators first thought that the salinity of the Potomac River in its lower reaches near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay would be a physical barrier, containing the spread of the fish. But researches have raised juvenile snakehead in brackish water and although they don't thrive as well as they do when they're in fresh water, they do survive. Odenkirk said one snakehead was found, dead, on the dock near the boat launch ramp in
Cornfield Harbor near Point Lookout State Park in Maryland. "There was nobody around and the fish was just lying on the dock, dead," said Odenkirk. "We don't know if an angler caught the fish or if it came up in a crab trap and was dumped there. But the water in that area is very salty and if the fish was caught in this area then they've spread a lot farther that we first thought."

According to Odenkirk the snakeheads' primary diet is the
Banded Killifish, a baitfish often found in shallow inlets and slow water--places that snakeheads also inhabit. Other species such as shad, bass, frogs, snakes and other fish have been found in snakehead bellies, but the Killifish is the preferred meal and Odenkirk recommended tying up some flies that look like the Killifish if you're going to target snakeheads. However he recommends putting your plans on hold for now because the grass is just too thick to successfully fish for them in many places. He said to wait until late April then hit them hard into mid-June, fishing on the high tide so you can push into the far inlets and slow, still water of small creeks. Anglers should fish really shallow water before the grasses get too thick, using a fast retrieve to get the fish's attention. Other anglers at the event said they hooked up using frog patterns or baitfish lures, sight fishing to snakeheads sucking air in shallow water.
Then the cooking segment began. After a few questions Odenkirk pulled out a fresh electro-shocked snakehead and began to clean and filet the fish as he pointed out various anatomical features. A woman in the crowd, who has eaten snakehead before, said it was like a crab. It looks ugly on the outside but it's really tasty on the inside.
One conclusion every angler came to after looking into its mouth--you DO NOT want to bass-lip this fish when you land it. Odenkirk recommends grabbing it behind the head while another angler recommended liberal use of a 2X4 first before grabbing. Odenkirk opened up the head, where we saw a set of primitive lungs that were near the gills. Popular myth says the fish can walk on land, but this is not true. WIGGLE maybe, but not walk. However Odenkirk said if you keep the fish moist, it will remain alive out of the water for several days. He recommends killing the snakehead outright if you intend to eat it because if you're caught by federal wildlife officials with a live snakehead, and if you caught the snakehead in DC and went over the bridge into Virginia or Maryland, you just violated the Lacey Act and they can slap you with a $50,000 fine and 5 years in jail.
Odenkirk removes the filets carefully. The body cavity runs almost to the tail so you need to cut around the tunnel of support bones that protects the innards. He also skins the filets before cooking. The flesh is light pink in color, odor free and firm. We had the fish prepared three ways--grilled with no spices, marinated in olive oil and spices and breaded and deep fried. I liked the deep fried filets a lot. Put that between bread with a slaw topping and it would be a killer fish sandwich. The outside was hot and crunchy while the flesh inside was light and flakey with no hint of a fishy aftertaste.