HOOKING A SNAKEHEAD
HOOKING A SNAKEHEAD
By; Dr. Aamir Bhavnagri
Snakehead, a fresh water fish from the family Channidae, is a common fish found throughout the Indian peninsula. There are almost 35 subspecies of this fish found throughout the world, mainly in Asia and Africa and out of these thirteen varieties are found in India. The various sub species in India differ greatly in size and from the dwarf Snakehead (Channa gachua), which grows up to only 10 inches; one can find the Great snakehead (Channa marulius) growing to a mammoth size of more than one meter. These fish are mainly ambush predators and feed on small fish, amphibians like frogs and some mammals like rodents. There is very less data available on the status of these fish but some of them are threatened due to habitat destruction, pollution and unregulated fishing. The Rainbow snakehead (Channa bleheri) and Malabar Snakehead (Channa diplogramma) are listed in the red list of IUCN as Near Threatened (NT) and Vulnerable (VU) respectively.
Though not known to give a tough fight, these fish are very popular amongst Indian Anglers due to their explosive strike on surface baits and lures. The methods adopted by Indian anglers to catch these fish is live baiting and spinning with spinners or soft surface baits such as scum frogs. This fish has a special liking for frogs and its explosive take of a Scum Frog is a treat to experience.
Snakeheads like to bask in the sun near the surface and perambulate at times near fringes or weed beds in search of food, instead of waiting stationary behind a rock or structures. Many a times, they lie hidden and perfectly motionless behind weeds or under a bank, waiting for any unsuspecting prey to come within striking distance. I have seen them live in cracks in the concrete lining of canals in a few centimetre of water. One can target these fish from near or under the bank, from weed beds, submerged trees and bushes. They are rarely found in midstream as they prefer still or slow moving water.
A Typical Murrel habitat
The best time to target these fish is in early morning or evening when they patrol the banks and weed beds in search of food. One can also sight fish for them in the day time, when they are basking near surface. Stealth and quiet, while approaching the target from behind, is important during sight fishing for these fish and once within the casting range, retrieving a scum frog from close to the basking fish is sure way to produce a strike. The eyes of the fish are evolved in such a way that they can see up and thus, using surface lures is a better way of targeting this fish instead of bringing the bait through deeper water. Even a fish lying on the very bottom can see the activity on surface and rise up to investigate and strike.
Adults Snakeheads can also breathe air through their mouth (Through Suprabranchial organs) in addition to breathing through gills and unlike many other fish, can survive for prolonged period out of water. They may be seen coming up to the surface occasionally, exhaling a bubble and taking in a mouthful of fresh air. The ability to breathe from air gives this fish a distinct advantage as it can survive in waters where dissolved oxygen is too less. They are known to survive in mud or even on land. They are known to bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of drying rivers and ponds, aestivating there through the drought till the next rains release them. They have been dug alive out of sunburnt mud from depths of 6 feet.
Snakeheads, unlike most fish exhibit paternal affection towards their young, keeping them together in a shoal and swimming under them and attacking anything that comes near them. This it does till they are about 3 inches long, when it turns on and eats them itself, if they do not disperse. The fry too have to come up for air and they can be easily detected when you see a section of water surface boiling with them and you can be sure that the parent is not far away. It is unethical to catch them in this condition but if one wants to have a little fun at that time, using a hook less lure and watching the angry parents attacking it can be a joy.
Spinning for Snakeheads:
The best way to enjoy fishing while targeting these fish is to use a light tackle and use surface lures specially designed for this fish. One of the most successful lure for this fish is scum frog but one can also catch them by using Poppers or noisy surface lures. The retrieve should match a skipping frog on surface. Skipping and pause and then skipping again produce maximum strike. Invariably the strikes happen on pause. One can also use spinners to target these fish while they are at bottom or lurking at depths. Bringing the spinner from above them is the best way to go about. Though the light tackle is recommended, one should upgrade his tackle if he intends to target the fish from weeds, bushes of difficult structures. It is also important to carry few weed less lures to explore weedy surface as such kind of places are known to hold some specimen fish.
Spinners and spoons:
As everyone knows spinners are very versatile lures. You can catch almost any predator that swims using a spinner. I use MEPPS AGLIA no. 3, no. 4, MEPPS TROPHY Spinner no. 5 and MEPPS long cast for Snakeheads.
Tried and Tested Lures For Snakeheads
The basic colours, like silver, copper and gold work for almost every situation and every light condition. The basic rule of thumb is to use bigger and shinier blades for coloured and low light conditions whereas use dull colours like copper in bright light and clear water. A slow retrieve works very well for Snakeheads. Retrieve the spinner along margins and near structure. I have found LILCLEO spoons give very good results as well as homemade spoons made from cutlery.
These are very effective lures for Snakeheads abut are very rarely used in India. Spinner bait does not look like anything in nature when it is hanging from the end of your line. Yet when this lure is in motion it looks startlingly real. The blades flash like fleeing bait fish. The lure has a natural flowing motion, like a fish swimming along. Plus you don’t have to see a spinner bait to know its working; you can feel it right through your rod tip.
Snakeheads can feel vibrations through their lateral lines. No wonder spinner baits are the deadliest of all lures in low visibility conditions and to top it all it is almost weed lees. I have retrieved this lure right through the weeds many times without snagging. I use spinner baits of BOOYAH Company. While retrieving, always keep the spinner in the ‘TWILIGHT ZONE’. Water clarity and light conditions will determine where the twilight zone is on any given day. Twilight zone can be described as the depth at which you can barely see the blades of the spinner flashing. The maximum strikes are obtained from this zone.
As Snakeheads always attack movement, all kinds of lures like plugs, poppers, jigs, tube jigs, soft plastics, soft jerk baits, spinners, spinner baits, frogs, top water lures like buzz baits and prop baits will work for Snakeheads. I have also seen one old man catching Snakeheads on a large treble hook covered with a deflated balloon by dragging it along the bottom. One is only restricted by one’s imagination. So experimentation is the key.
One way to fish for Snakehead is to use a live frog. The common little brown frog (rana cyanophlyctis) is the one they like. Be prepared with a few live frogs in a covered earthen pot. Bait one by passing a hook in and out through a little bit of skin near the head than the centre of the back. The way in which a frog sits naturally in the water is not on the flat of its stomach but with its eyes out and the hind legs well under water. By inserting the hook a little bit forward off the centre of the back, you not only give the frog its natural stance, you also relieve it of the inconvenience by letting its weight be borne by the water and the hook does not pull it down. The skin of the frog is loose so rigging it is not difficult. Many Indian anglers rig the frog through the leg also and that too works fine.
Dead bait (Frog or fish) is generally used with a float setup. The dead bait is presented in such a way that about 6 inches below the surface.
Another way to use bait is to attach a float on your line so that the dead bait (fish or frog) will rest about 6 inches below the surface. Cast it into the water gently where the fish last broke the surface. They can also be caught on earthworms but from what I have observed is that an artificial bait like a spoon, spinner, or frog are more effective for this fish than live or dead bait. One covers more water with artificial bait than he would with live or dead bait. Secondly, Snakeheads attack movement and that is why they can be caught on almost any artificial lure.
Some Advance Tips:
- To increase the hooking efficiency of Artificial frog, bend the hook outwards gently.
- One can make the frog lure more interesting by inserting some small split shots in its body which increases the casting distance and also produce a bit of sound, which attracts the fish.
- Using a tandem rig, using a frog or spinner, tide three feet apart give some good result and if the fish miss first strike, it get caught on the lure trailing behind.
- At dusk time, skipping a frog on the fringes, by using a long pole and sweeping it by arms and then pausing produce good strikes.
- In case of live baiting a frog, putting it in openings in weedy bed is a sure way of hooking a good Snakehead.
- Using a Toad Frog for live baiting is also a good idea as this frog tries to swim in water very frantically and sends distress signal to this predatory fish. If nothing is working, try this but avoid holding the Toad by bare hand as the poison from its skin can give you a bad itch.
QUEST FOR THE MONSTER MURRAL:
There are many factors which makes targeting Snakeheads very interesting, one of them being the quest for a fish bigger than 9.5 Kg. Mostly Snakeheads will plateau at around 4-6 kg. It is very rare to encounter a mural more than this weight range but where ever you go, you hear story of some monster fish, visible only to locals. For instance, there is a very secluded place near my home where the farmer swears to have seen a ‘dhok’ (mural) as big as his 10 year old son and the son standing nearby nods vehemently and points to the location that the fish visits every few days in the evening just before dark. Well, it’s not just us anglers who love to spin tales or so it seems till I met one brute myself.
I have spent many a Sunday standing on a French well, some three storeys over the Sabarmati River, waiting and watching for this fish. I find this a very good place to sit and watch the Snakeheads going about their daily routine and observing their behaviour without disturbing them. It is from here that I have witnessed a fish coming out of the water on the bank while chasing a frog. It was a warm Sunday afternoon when I noticed this huge shadow in the water cruising like a submarine. The first thought that came to mind was “what is a crocodile doing here?” Soon the shadow grew larger, surfaced and took a huge gulp of air and went down again. That was the largest mural I have ever seen and must be 15kgs + +. It gave me many a sleepless night. So this elusive monster does exist and may remain elusive ever after.