The Prize Is in the Eating

The best prize you can win for catching a snakehead is the fish itself. That’s Chef Chad Wells’ take on Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ much-ballyhooed snakehead fishing competition, opening a second season as warmer waters bring the toothy invasive into catching range.
    Wells, chef at Alewife in Baltimore, is an avid snakehead fisherman, which is how he came to be Maryland’s first chef to serve the fish commercially.
    “I’m all for these things needing to be out of water, but I’m not a fan of killing for no reason or of discarding,” says Wells. “I urge everybody to eat snakehead.”
    Fortunately, the unwelcome fish is so palatable it’s catching on as a delicacy in restaurants, like Alewife, that make big things of local ingredients. It may next invade home kitchens.
    In the year since Chef Wells first served snakehead, catching, cooking and eating it has, he says, “blown up into a cool thing.”
    Snakeheads, an invasive alien species introduced illegally to the Potomac River, are a nuisance that also happens to be a great fighting fish.

How to Prepare Your Snakehead

    Between catching and cooking your snakehead comes killing it — on the spot. Chef Wells says either cut live fish from tip to tip along its underside or cut out the gill plates. Wells uses tin snips.
    “It’s messy either way,” he says. “They’re covered in dense slime.”
    The slime works to your advantage in freezing your snakehead to cook another day. “Gut it and freeze it whole still covered in slime, which protects the flesh from freezer burn,” Wells says.
    Next comes cleaning. Washing the fish only makes the slime cling all the more, Wells warns. He recommends wrapping the fish in a terry cloth towel and pulling it out slowly, wiping off the slime.
    You’ll want the fish dry when filleting it so your knife doesn’t slip. After cutting slits around the head, Wells sets the fish belly-down on its flattish bottom, then runs his knife along the top fin and down both sides. Skin the fish, then, with the skin-side down, use forceps to remove the rib bones.
    “For cooking, the fish stands up well to anything,” Wells says. Deep fry or blacken it. Or use Wells’ favorite at-home method: Light up the grill and throw on the thick fillets with nothing more than cracked black pepper, sea salt and lemon.
    If you’re hungry for snakehead but can’t catch your own, follow Chef Wells on Twitter to learn when a fresh catch is being served at Alewife: @chefchadwells.

    DNR is pushing the fishery, urging anglers to catch the Asian invader into extinction. Adaptable top predators, snakeheads now prowl the Potomac River and many of its tributaries from Great Falls to as far away as the Rhode and Nanticoke rivers.
    “We do not want snakeheads in our waters,” says DNR Inland Fisheries Director Don Cosden. “This initiative is a way to remind anglers that it is important to catch and remove this invasive species of fish.”
    Prizes fuel the hunt. Top prize is a $200 gift card from Bass Pro Shops. Other prizes bring free and discounted fishing opportunities.
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also rewards anglers who report tagged snakeheads with an embroidered Snakehead Control ball cap: 800-448-8322.
    Eradicating snakeheads is a challenge sporting groups have bit on.
    Whackfactor Outdoors, an organization of bow hunters, has expanded into bow fishing to catch the wily snakehead. Chef Wells is one of the bow-fishers.
    “They’re hard to catch on hook and line except by accident,” Wells told Bay Weekly. “You don’t get a hit and lose it when you’re bow fishing.”
    The sport not only gets its fish; it’s also exciting.
    “It’s a sport that’s largely died and is now unique,” Wells says. It’s typically practiced at night in a boat with halogen lights to illuminate the water.
    Water that, Wells says, will be full of snakeheads any day now.
    Which means water filled with fighting fish that are as good to eat as they are sporting to catch. The fish, popular in Asian cuisine, were likely released from an aquarium where they were being held before dinner.
    To lure more fishermen to the tasty sport, Chef Wells’ restaurant is helping with “a really cool tournament.”
    On June 2 and 3 at Smallwood State Park in Charles County, a weigh-in party with cash prizes is planned for snakeheads caught throughout the Potomac River system.
    “It will be cool to see,” says Wells, “plus we’ll have food with several chefs preparing snakehead.” Last year Wells served snakehead in Vietnamese-style spring rolls.
    There’ll also be locally brewed beer, as cosponsors are Flying Dog Brewery plus Whackfactor Outdoors and ProFish seafood distributors. Watch for registration info at potomac
    Anglers needn’t wait till then, and snakehead certainly won’t.
    To enter DNR’s year-round competition, submit catch details and a photo of your dead snakehead through the DNR Angler’s log at
fisheries/fishingreport/log.asp. Three lucky anglers win from a random drawing on November 30.