Kayak Fishing for Snakehead

Looking for an edge when chasing the most notorious invasive that swims in the east? Here’s how to choose the right boat and the proper gear to become a full-fledged swamp rat.

It’s not the fight. Be wary of anyone who tells you that a northern snakehead treated him to a drag-searing run because I’ve never seen it happen. The moments that turn an angler into a snakehead addict are the take and the swing. More than anything else in fresh water, the game mirrors muskie fishing because it’s rarely the battle with a giant Esox that you talk about later. It’s the split second when you see that big, white mouth open and inhale a lure, then the violent shake and resistance when you ram those hooks home. Snakehead stalks can range from a subtle ripple behind your frog to what looks like the push of a fire extinguisher underwater as it closes the distance in a blink, but these fish usually give themselves away. Fishing for snakeheads is visual. It quickens the pulse, and when you set, the response rivals a mortar round hitting the water. 

Ryan Lilly works on getting a ‘yak-side snakehead under control.

Since these invasive predators first showed up on the East Coast more than 20 years, their fan club has steadily grown. And as pressure on them has increased—including where I fish in New Jersey—success seems more contingent upon getting to where fewer anglers venture season over season. This has made a kayak a critical part of my snakeheading program. These fish are, at least in my view, made for kayak anglers. But, before you shove off into the swamp, here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned switching from boots on the ground to pedal and paddle power for my snake missions. 

Native to China, Russia, and Korea, northern snakehead were first discovered in the U.S. in 2002.

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Vital Signs Stable

It wasn’t until approximately 2012 that I first started hearing a serious buzz about New Jersey snakeheads. There had been rumors and whispers about a handful here and a few there, but around that time, it seemed their population had established well enough that they became viable targets instead of something more like ghosts. The fish themselves didn’t intrigue me as much as the opportunity to figure out an entirely new game. Love or hate them, it’s not often that a brand-new fishery emerges on your local scene. Suddenly, instead of fishing the same lakes and rivers I had since I was a kid, snakeheads gave me a reason to scour Google Maps for swamps, side channels, weed-choked shallow lakes, mucky tidal freshwater tributaries, and other areas that held little fishing appeal prior to the arrival of these invaders.  

The issue with those types of places is that solid ground to stand on and fish from is often in short supply. Fast-forward to 2023, and I could rattle off at least a half-dozen spots that historically treated me well where I haven’t caught a snakehead in years, and it’s not because they no longer exist in these locations. These fish aren’t dumb, and I believe as more folks caught the snakehead bug, the fish simply learned where not to swim—or at least not to eat anything when they’re passing through high-traffic areas. For a long time, I resisted a kayak, but as someone who is fully obsessed with fishing for snakeheads, it was inevitable that I’d eventually invest. When I finally did so, nothing was more important to me than stability when standing.  

kayak fishing for snakeheads
Kayaks give anglers access to swampy backwaters where unpressured snakehead live.

My vessel of choice is Old Town’s Sportsman BigWater PDL 132, and it’s a beast. At 13 feet long, it’s easy to say it’s not ideal for skinny backwater pursuits, but I have a different opinion.

Fishing for snakeheads is very much a sight-fishing game. During the peak of the summer season, particularly when the fish are guarding their fry balls, I am frequently casting to fish I spot. Factor in that I’m combing through fields of lily pads trying to peer into the gaps and see air-gulping or cruising fish in areas thick with milfoil matts, and my eyes become a critical part of success. Elevation is an advantage, and with me being a pretty big lad, it was important that I could see as far as possible without worrying that I would roll my kayak. Yes, it takes a bit more effort to launch in some snaky areas, but it’s worth it because the stability while standing not only helps me see more fish, it also helps me land more fish.

Swing State

No matter what lure you’re casting, or where you’re casting from when fishing for snakeheads, you should be spooled with at least 30-pound braided line. The rod should be fast, stout, and capable of taking some heat. Your drag should be locked down so it can’t slip. There’s no need for leader in this game, just tie directly to the braid. My go-to snakehead outfit is a 6-foot, 8-inch heavy-action St. Croix Mojo Bass rod matched with a 13 Fishing Concept C reel. If you prefer spinning gear, any outfit you’d use for schoolie striped bass is perfect. This tackle “beefing” isn’t necessary to combat the fighting ability of the fish, but more so their anatomy and environment. 

No leader is necessary when targeting snakehead—just tied the lure directly to the braid.

A snakehead’s jaw is rock-hard, and you’re also trying to penetrate through rows of sharp teeth. Regardless of the lure, when it gets smacked, put everything you have into the hookset. If you’re comfortable standing on your kayak and trust its stability while fishing for snakeheads, you’ll plant the hooks more firmly if you swing from an upright position. Even after the stick and the fish’s initial thrashing, jumping reaction, muscle it in as quickly as possible, giving it zero slack so those hooks don’t come loose.

kayak fishing for snakeheads
Stiff rods and a locked-down drag are necessary, not because of the size or strength of snakehead, but to set the hook in their bony mouths and drag them out of dense vegetation.

If you pin a big snakehead in the middle of a lily cluster or over a heavy weed mat, it can take some oomph to get it out, and sure footing on your kayak makes the process safer and easier. On a lesser note, if I rolled my kayak in most of the places I target snakes, I’d be digging duckweed out of my ears and sludge from under my nails for days. It’s not like falling into the Caribbean, so, regardless of the kayak you choose, make sure you’re confident in its stability. Beyond a kayak and a rod and reel outfit that will handle these fish, there are a few other necessary accoutrements critical for success.

kayak fishing for snakeheads
Snakehead jaws are rock-hard with rows of teeth, forcing anglers to swing for the fences to drive the hook home.

Control Freak

What I love most about kayak fishing for snakeheads is that it allows me to be minimalistic. I’m usually in such shallow water that electronics offer no benefit. Lure genres for these fish are few compared to striped bass or largemouth, and since I’m tying directly to heavy braid, I don’t lose very many baits. When I hit the swamp, I take two rods and one box of lures. My main stick has a hollow-body frog tied on, and the second is ready with a Zoom Super Fluke rigged weedless on a sturdy wide-gap hook. I can easily switch between surface and subsurface presentations or quickly toss a sinking option at a fish that tracked the topwater but didn’t commit. 

Serpentine Slayers

The author’s must-have baits for kayak snakehead missions.

BOOYAH Pad Crasher

You can’t go snakeheading without an all-black frog. This one slips through the gnarliest pads, wakes nicely, and is significantly more affordable than similar hollow-body frogs.

High Octane Popzilla

Ideal in open-water areas, these frogs make a ton of noise, feature extra-tough hooks and hardware, and come in bright, loud colors that seem to make snakeheads mad.

Zoom Super Fluke

Killer in white and chartreuse, these soft plastics slide through vegetation when rigged weedless on a wide-gap hook. They can be fished anywhere in the water column.

Weedless Chatterbait

Built with strong components and a stiff, bristly weed guard protecting the hook, a high-vibration bait like Z-Man’s Project Z Weedless Chatterbait shines in stained water and deeper areas like creek channels cutting through mud flats.

Being free of electronics also leaves more room for a net, which I find critical whether I plan to release or harvest a fish for the table (something I highly recommend trying because they’re delicious). A snakehead is going to go ballistic three times: once when you set the hook, again when it’s right next to the boat, and again when you drop it in your lap. Oh, they may seem like they’re out of gas, but remember that these fish can breathe air. Poke around on social media and you’ll find plenty of videos of anglers fumbling to set up a photo or looking for their pliers when what was a docile fish lying in the boat thrashes the interior and goes right back in the drink.

Having the ability to control these incredibly strong fish is key, not only so you don’t lose your meal or photo op, but because a snakehead with hooks still in its mouth going berserk in close quarters can be dangerous. Likewise, their sudden movements might force you to make involuntary sudden movements that throw you off balance. Yak Attack’s Leverage Landing Net is my weapon of choice for boatside control because it folds up neatly for storage but deploys in a flash with only one hand. It also has a nice, deep bag, so a hooked fish can get a lot of its energy out next to my kayak. 

Before I bring the fish in to the boat to remove the hooks, I use a fish gripper to grab it by the lower jaw. In my opinion, this tool is even more critical than the net. It’s not expensive, but clamps on tight and features an elastic lanyard that secures to your wrist. If your landed snakehead decides to violently twist—and believe me, it will—a gripper provides the best control. If, like me, however, you don’t dig the way a gripper-held fish looks in a photo, between the net and the grippers controlling the catch, I can take the time to secure loose hooks, rods, unnecessary gear on deck, and set up my camera.

kayak fishing for snakeheads
Snakeheads twist and thrash violently when landed, making a fish lip-gripper an essential piece of equipment for securing the catch to unhook and hold for pictures.

Because snakeheads are so tough and capable of breathing out of the water, you can afford a minute or two to let one simmer down enough to get a shot without the plastic insurance policy in its mouth. Just remember that they’re very slimy, wily, cunning fish. One hard flip in your bare, wet hands, and it will be gone, so if you really want to capture the memory, leave the grippers locked in place. 

Stay Power

Snakeheading in New Jersey generally fires up in mid-April when the water temperate ticks above 60 degrees. This time of year, it’s predominantly a subsurface bite until the May sun warms the water and the aquatic vegetation fully returns. Flukes, Chatterbaits, and soft-plastic swimbaits are all great early-season choices until the topwater eruptions start and keep going through September. Regardless of time of year, though, you’ll catch more fish if you can hold your kayak firmly in place—which can be easier said than done. 

The author holds a big bycatch from a springtime snakehead mission.

Covering water is a huge part of winning in the swamps and backwaters, but where you find one snakehead, you’ll often find more. In the early part of the year, this can happen because an area with dark bottom is a few degrees warmer than the main body of water. As spring progresses, snakeheads pair up to spawn and breeding fish will stay with their fry until they’re big enough to fend for themselves in mid- to late summer.

After growing frustrated with wind and current sweeping me out of position while trying to get a frog into a specific pad pocket or while trying to cover a cove of matted weeds in water too shallow to rely on my pedal drive, I began using a garden stake as an anchor. These plastic-coated rods are available at any hardware store, and I simply cut one down to 3 feet long, drilled a hole through one end, attached a loop of paracord, and finished with a cheap carabiner. Given the shallow, soft-bottom environments where snakeheads thrive, it does a fine job of keeping me rooted with minimal swing when staked off in the center of the kayak. Keep in mind, though, that it’s never wise to anchor a kayak at midships in strong current, but in the skinny, placid backwaters that snakes love, this isn’t much of a safety concern. 

If there’s one constant in snakeheading—at least based on my own experiences—it’s that the farther you’re willing to go, the better your chances of success, especially with big fish. Distance, of course, is relative. Even in smaller lakes and ponds, using a kayak to reach the far bank that lacks foot access will increase the odds of a payout.

kayak fishing for snakeheads
Fishing for snakeheads from a kayak allows you to sight fish in less-pressured waters, which increases your odds of tying into a much larger specimen.

In many areas, particularly if you decide to road-trip south to Virginia or Maryland, backwater systems chockful of snakeheads are vast. In this regard, snakeheading offers a bit more of an “adventure” than other local fisheries because it takes you to areas well off the beaten path. But, don’t forget that in many of these swamp networks, if you get in trouble, it may not be feasible for a boat to get there and help you out. 

When fishing for snakeheads in tidal water, especially, timing is everything. If I’m ranging long and don’t have a buddy to roll with, I always let someone know where I’m going and what time I plan to be back. Conquering these fish is incredibly fun and rewarding, but getting stuck out in a snake den until the water comes back is not. 

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3 on “Kayak Fishing for Snakehead

  1. akhilash

    kayak fishing for snakeheads seems like an exciting and challenging activity. The author highlights the unique aspects of kayak fishing for snakeheads, including the specific gear and techniques required. It seems like the author is passionate about this type of fishing and enjoys the challenge of catching these fish.

  2. Squig5150

    A couple of things. First in late March and April Sneks will hit topwater. The they are not just subsurface in Spring not accurate. Any Chinese frog lure works better than any common frog lure at dicks. The best lures are Frog Kings from American Snakehead Customs. Subsurface any large in-line spinner or large chatter bait works. Buy from ASC or the MD snakehead companies those lures are way better than any common bass lures mentioned here. I find snakeheads hit the more colorful lures they seem to like pink, yellow and white. Also not accurate is Snakheads don’t just hand in the shallows if you know how to read the water you can get a lot in open water when they are on a feed. Other lures they absolutely love is any whopper plopper and chaterbaits. Dark colored senko wacky rigged use in late September. They go on one more feed right before striper surf season starts.

  3. Michael

    Isn’t it illegal to release snakeheads back in the water after catching them?

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