The Protective Snakehead Parent

Spawning snakeheads have a fascinating behavior pattern. The adults guard the balls of blood red fry and push them, at intervals, to the surface to breath air. Spotting a ball of surfacing fry, following, and then casting to them can be an exciting contest. Of course we are not trying to catch fry. We are trying to catch the guards.

Once we are within casting distance, the cry begins, “Tee, tee, tee!” (“Cast, cast, cast!”). We begin tossing our top water lures over the fry ball. The purpose is to aggravate the guarding adults into attacking. The action is fast and furious. Total sight fishing. There is really nothing else that compares to it. It can be exerting. A ball of fry could be worked for over an hour in sweltering heat. It is truly a team effort. Spotting, chasing, positioning. It all comes together with an explosive strike and a solid hook-set.

The “luk krok” (Thai name for the ball of fry) varies in size from about 0.5 to 1.5 square meters…

A DEAD SNAKEHEAD IS THOUSANDS OF THEM LESS IN THE WATER

Angling for the Giant Snakehead when the unique opportunity of the fish’s parental behavior while protecting it’s young presents itself is far above any other kind of fishing the most exciting of all. That is the topic I am going to talk to you about today. At the very moment I am writing those lines, I can see in my mind the whole scenario of a snakehead striking at a lure on top water. Bang! What a sublime visual treat is that all of a sudden explosion coming out of nowhere, that shotgun kind of sound going with it! There is absolutely nothing to be compared to that few seconds instant of a Giant Snakehead’s strike. It is the snakehead in its all splendor as a unique true warrior of the deep, as a “go for the kill” hitman who doesn’t know the meaning of fear. That strike is my ultimate kick, my brain orgasm, everything making my life worth living as an angler. The fight that will follow is secondary; it has almost no importance to me. The size of the fish, big or small, doesn’t matter either. To make it bite and to experience its attack is only what matters. The most difficult the challenge, the better!

To hook up a mother snakehead escorting her ball of baby fry might sounds kind of cruel for non-angling people who call themselves animal lovers. Too often animal lovers don’t have a single clue about the true reality and the cruelty of the water world and its inhabitants. The giant snakehead is a predator fish that maims or kills anything crossing its territory. It is a behavior deep down in its genes unlike any other predator fish species.

I’m a true snakehead lover and I see a benefit in hooking a parent snakehead as long as the fish is released safely next to its young. In fact in the particular context of Thailand where catch and release is just starting to be practiced by by local anglers, I feel I am almost saving a fish’s life each time I hook one of them. The fish learned a lesson about it. Once released, more cautious and prudent, it won’t bite again that easily for a while. The next local angler who will find that snakehead with its ball of fry will have to be very skilful to make it bite again. An almost certain death then is avoided…

A parent snakehead caught and kept by a fellow local angler for food is in fact what really breaks my heart. Is that so difficult to some to understand the fact that a parent snakehead caught but returned to the water means some of its thousands babies will stay alive and growing up later will became adults perpetuating the species and our good fishing at the same time? A single dead parent snakehead means thousands less fish in a reservoir in the following years. It is so evident. Mother Nature could be compared to a bank account. It works in a similar way. If you withdraw too often and too much from it, sooner or later you won’t have much left; some of these days maybe almost nothing left at all. Our waters are a bank account that all of us anglers are sharing together. It is mine. It is yours. Catching but releasing is like borrowing money and returning it next so later others can use some too.

The value of the angling knowledge about snakehead fishing that I collected on the water through years of practice has no price. Any angler has to pay his own dues before reaching whatever is his level of expertise. He can either keep it selfishly for himself or pass it to others. I choose the second for the purpose of giving to present novice anglers and future coming lure anglers the burning desire to experience by themselves that unique feeling of a snakehead’s strike on top water. The very same feeling I’m so addicted to. But I see a risk in it. By offering them my coming angling tips for the purpose of helping to get better chances to catch Giant Snakehead escorting their young, some might succeed later by catching more fish, more often. I can only hope they won’t forget what I just wrote above about the vital necessity of releasing all of their parent snakehead catches. That would be the most generous way to thank me for those tips.
MATING AND SPAWNING

After spawning, both the male and female parents can be found escorting and protecting their balls of fry, “luk krok” as they are called in the Thai language. That ball of fry will continue to remain in a tight school for several months before separating and becoming totally self-sufficient. When first born, the baby snakeheads are black in color, they then turn bright red and become more visible. The shimmering, darting mass of baby fish appears as an underwater shadow, changing shape and direction while guided by the parents. The “luk krok” (Thai name for the ball of fry) varies in size from about 0.5 to 1.5 square meters and moves vertically and horizontally. Occasionally, when sensing danger, the parents will split the ball apart and then reform. They eventually rise to the surface in what appears to be a sudden, very isolated rainstorm hitting the water. This periodic revelation of presence sets the stage for some exciting action.
TECHNIQUE AND LURE SELECTION

The technique is simple. Find the fry and cast your top water lure to entice a strike by the parent. Hunting, as much as fishing. Execution however, is the key to success and this becomes a bit more sophisticated. Like the technique, lure selection is very basic. I use three different types, a lure with two sets of treble hooks for open water (my favorite being the Thai handmade T.Surf), a frog imitation with a single set of double barbed hooks (Thai handmade Addy Lure) in heavy cover and a Rapala for both perimeter and open water areas. The first two are fished on the surface and the Rapala is a floater/diver.

When fishing open water, where no snags, submerged brush or thick aquatic weeds are present, I use the minnow shaped body, large propeller and two sets of treble hooks that offer a good strike to hook-up ratio. At night the parents and the fry hide and rest in the underwater bushes. In early morning, they start traveling from one location to another in search of food and areas of safety. As they spend the day moving about from place to place they can be spotted and cast to with this loud churning surface bait.

The frog imitation with a single set of double barbed hooks is most productive when the fry are resting close to or in heavy cover such as weeds or submerged bushes. There is no way that two treble hooks can make it though the obstacles without hanging up and disturbing the fish. The parents will flee and the fry will just move deeper into the cover. A second cast would be useless. The frog imitation two hook points are positioned up-ward, allowing the lure to be fished through weeds, grass and brush without hanging up or causing undue alarm to the fish. The lure is effectively weed-less and works perfectly in this situation.

The frog lure hook-up ratio is somewhat less than the lure with two sets of treble hooks The trade off, of course, is soliciting a strike in the first place. The double barbs are located at the tail of the frog. If the fish strikes from behind, a good hook set is a near certainty. A strike from the side or from underneath, quite often results in a miss. At best the chances are 50/50. If the fish bites the front part of the frog lure, hooking odds are reduced.

Experience has taught me that one of the parents always sticks close to the fry. The other patrols around a few meters away and is ready to bite anything that could be a potential danger to the babies. This danger is often a hungry jungle perch (Hampala barb). Usually it is the female sticking close to the fry while the male conducts the patrol. The female is often the larger of the two. It is not unusual to see a 6.0 Kg. mother snakehead with a 3.0 Kg. mate. It goes without saying that I am more attracted to the females. (This applies to snakeheads as well). Most often, it is the male that attacks your lure! When a female does strike first, it is generally because she is alone. Quite often, the male has already been caught, and sadly, was not released. You may have a better chance of sticking the bigger fish with the bigger mouth, but that is just the beginning of the battle!

The Rapala can be considered to be a “follow-up” bait. Used primarily in the open water scenario, I will throw it after making several casts with the surface lures, producing only slight interest, or no interest at all. This sometimes occurs because the fish was recently hooked, or because the fish simply feels the danger, and is more wary. The diving lure may pass through the submerged ball of fry or between the babies and the parent. In any event, it is used when the surface action slows. Picking the right time and place to use the Rapala will be discussed in another section of this article.

READING THE CONDITIONS AND MAKING THE PRESENTATION

When parents and fry are found in open water, the pattern is always the same. When disturbed, they will flee in the direction of the nearest submerged bushes or weeds to escape and hide. If they are found far away from immediate cover, there will be more opportunities to cast. This improves your chances. It is now decision time! Do I continue to cast with the top-water T. Surf, or am I going to go underwater with a diving Rapala? I have to make the choice. I have to read the conditions.

The behavior of the fish, at that very moment will dictate the strategy. There can be two kinds of behavior. The first is when neither the father nor mother reacts at all. They don’t care. We know the fish are there. We know that they are with their babies. They simply don’t display any kind of aggression or protective attitude. I won’t spend a lot of time making repeated casts in this situation.

The second pattern of behavior is good news to the angler. The fish are already seriously annoyed. Something is moving and making noise too close to the babies. This triggers a reaction that in the Thai language is called “lai glua”.

“Lai glua” is characterized by three distinct forms of aggression. The first is when the fish suddenly decides to pursue the lure, tries to bite it, and misses. In this case you can see a few bubbles rising to the surface. Something Thai snakehead anglers call “foam”. This half-hearted effort to eat the bait may or may not recur as you continue to cast.

The second behavior is when the agitated fish chases the lure with its mouth closed. It has no intention of eating the intruder. It just wants to send a very impressive message. In this unique situation, the snakehead will bat the lure with the top or side of its head. It is like a cat playing with a small mouse. It’s quite similar to a player using his head in a football game. I have seen lures knocked a meter or more above the water surface by this action.

The third pattern of behavior is when the fish will rise from the depths towards the lure, make a sudden U-turn that produces a huge water boil at the surface, and then heads straight back to the fry. It did not make contact. I have seen snakeheads do this 15 times in a row.

My advice now is to be extremely focused. The actual strike can happen at any time. In fact, when you least expect it! Often no strike will occur after all of that crazy attacking and boiling. But just as often, out of nowhere, the snake will hit your lure with the speed and power of a Thai kick-boxer with fins. You had better be ready! Keep in mind that there are quite possibly two parents with the luk krok. They may each have a different attitude.

The minnow shaped body lure and to a lesser degree, the frog lure are used it this situation. Cast the lure behind where you think the parent is and in front of the moving school of fry. Or make your cast to hit into the school just before they come to the surface. Try to become the intruder between the adult and the babies. Make as much lure noise as possible. Do not let the lure sink. Begin reeling as soon as it hits the water. Cast rapid fire, as quickly as you can. When the surface action by the fish abates, stop! Wait patiently for the fish to appear again, and then resume the frenzied attack.

As the ball of fry migrates from one location to another I keep tossing the surface lures that match the water conditions and cover. As long as I witness some level of interest by the parent, I will continue to present my offerings on the surface of the water. If the surface action becomes consistently quiet, and the underwater conditions are relatively free of obstacles, the Rapala is pressed into service. Judging from the last surface observation and the general direction that “luk krok” had been moving, I begin probing the depths with the diving lure.

Another condition that must be considered is the time of day. As with many fish species, giant snakeheads are usually most aggressive early in the morning and to an even greater degree, just before nightfall. It is always difficult to make a snakehead bite between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm. But with a bit of obstinate persistence and angling skill, it is often possible to goad the snake into losing control and striking the lure. Personally, as long as I can see the fry and can to cast to them, I will continue the pursuit for at least an hour.

An example of this obstinate persistence is when I caught my 7.50 Kg. IGFA world record. It was April, two o’clock in the afternoon and hot. It was during the dry season and temperature hovered around 38 degrees. My trusted friend Sanghop and my guest, Captain John Pierce from Phuket and I were chasing the luk krok. The cat and mouse game was on. The female snake was leading her young congregation around the lake. This went on for over an hour. We tried every top water lure in our boxes. Not a strike. Finally, we all switched to different colored Rapala magnum Shad Raps. This didn’t seem to be any better. We persisted. We weren’t giving up. We continued to cast, on and on until the big female finally got so upset she hit John’s underwater retrieve a couple of times. At then, she hit my lure, no bump and run, no slight nudging out of the way. She hit with the full force of a runaway freight train. Obstinate persistence pays! I have experienced this all too often. It’s a common occurrence.

After an hour or so of continual casting and no results I will quit. No big deal. That was a good challenge but the fish bested me. I lost fair and square. “Congratulations Mr. Shado, you’re too good today!”

OBSERVATIONS AND EXPERIENCES

As important as strategy and technique are, every decision is based on lessons previously learned. Even finding and following the “luk krok” requires levels of expertise and experience. Let’s say that we located a ball of fry. Neither of the parents would strike and they are heading towards cover. You are in hot pursuit and they know it. They don’t know that you are some guy with a fishing rod, but they are aware of a threat and are beating a hasty retreat. The female doesn’t push the babies to the surface for oxygen as often now. And when they do come up, it is for a shorter period of time. Only a second or two and then gone again. How can we judge what will happen next? How long must we wait between the rises?

One way to know is by observing the size of the fry. Newly hatched fish, say a week or two old may have to surface every minute or so. Older fish may be able to stay submerged for as much as 5 minutes. Obviously, the older fish are capable of resurfacing a greater distance away than the younger ones, often behind your back. This is one reason why it is so important to judge the general direction that the ball in moving in. How often I have seen the fish surface after a prolonged wait, only to find that they are out of casting distance. You cannot afford to miss many casting opportunities.

On rare occasions, but frequently enough, the “luk krok” just disappears for good. I have not determined why this happens. Like a ghost, they appear and then are gone. Even the experienced local boatmen cannot explain this occurrence. The fish must come to the surface to breathe and they don’t just escape from your sight, there are too many sharp eyes watching. I have long wondered how they are able to disappear. It is still a mystery.

The local boatmen, as well as the experienced snakehead angler, have developed sharp eyes and are continually watching for the telltale signs of the “luk krok”. The boatmen especially, are invaluable in this pursuit. They are successful in all kinds of conditions. Even windy weather, waves and rain can’t totally obscure the quarry from their watchful eyes. First time “luk krok” fishermen are often frustrated when they can’t spot the ball of fry that the guide has pointed out to them. It is a skill that requires total concentration. Think about locating these little balls of fry, sometimes less than a square meter in diameter, on a body of water that may be 75 kilometers long. And think about doing this while the boat is moving. Many times the “luk krok” will be spotted in the brush 50 meters away from the boat. Before the newborn fish turn from their original black to tomato red, they are even harder to spot.

Occasionally, the mother snakehead will split the school of fry in two. The momma snake is instinctually smart and although she doesn’t recognize the angler or the lure as a specific predator, she senses danger and reacts to protect the brood. The two schools of fry may be separated by several meters distance. Each ball continues to surface and dive but does not move far from where she left them. She then moves as much as 10 meters away from both schools. When this happens, just stop and wait. It’s a matter of time, but the two parts will eventually reunite and she will move back in to lead them. Don’t resume casting too soon. Wait until the ball starts moving. Better yet, wait for the mother to surface. Your previous casts did not attract her so try something different. She also needs oxygen. Sometimes the male and female will surface together to take a gulp of air. Patiently wait until the very second that she shows her head and then make a perfect cast, one meter past her. Then begin reeling like hell. I call this the “caught by surprise” cast. At the very same moment that she is diving slowly back to the deep, she notices the lure directly above her and this may cause her to lose control. She rushes back to the surface in a split second and hammers the bait. She hadn’t seen nor heard that stranger (your lure) for more than twenty minutes. The danger was gone, and now, all of a sudden, here the damn thing is, back again! She can’t stand it any more ………..and bang!

Needless to say, the experienced boatman and expert snakehead angler have the edge in this kind of fishing. With time, most any dedicated angler can learn these skills. As one gains experience, he can predict which direction the fish are taking underwater. He can see the black shadow of the fry moving towards the surface and can anticipate where the cast should be made. The coinciding arrival of the lure and the “luk krok” at the surface can trigger an explosive strike.

The expert casts his lures fast and accurately. He will make reflex casts, putting his top water lure from a half meter to one and a half meters in front, or to the side, of the moving ball. He will then reel at top speed to have his surface lure hit the fry at the very moment that the babies are surfacing. This is the ultimate condition, as one of the two adults has to be near by, pushing the babies up, making them breathe. Momma or daddy snakehead is thinking: “What are you doing to my babies, you ugly bastard”. Baaam!!! Maternal instinct and predator reflex takes over. The snake has lost its control and is finally hooked.

The average angler, accustomed to normal fishing conditions, doesn’t feel, anticipate, or predict where to make his next cast during the “luk krok” period. He must re-learn some of his own fishing behavior. He will wait, look all around the boat, scan the water surface and not see what is about to happen. He will ask me. “Where is it?” “Where is it?” “Where did they go?” I’ll point to the underwater shadow and say, “there, see there, they are rising”. He won’t see a thing. He will cast to the surfacing fish as they twinkle briefly in the sunlight and will almost always reel back empty. The fish are on their way back down by the time that his accurate cast hit the water. Timing is critical. Obviously, some anglers learn more quickly than others, and quite frankly, this kind of fishing isn’t for everyone. But once a basic understanding of the process is gained, the hunt is nearly as enjoyable as actually catching the fish.
EXAMPLES AND INFORMATION

Now that you know a little about the how, when, where and why of luk krok fishing, let’s elaborate a bit on some actual experiences. As previously discussed, the snakehead’s behavior, at that particular time, will dictate my lure selection. The level of aggressiveness, the degree of agitation, and the “lai glua” behavior, are all factors to be considered. Following my usual pattern, I start with the surface lures and then as conditions dictate, I move on the subsurface diving baits. This is when I reach for Mr. Joker. This would be a magnum, floating/diving Rapala or Shad Rap. As long as it’s big enough and my favorite color, which happens to be fire-tiger, it works for me. A #9, #11 or #14 usually fits the task.

Using diving lures is not exactly my cup of tea. Something deep inside of me finds it a bit annoying to have to resort to a Rapala to finalize a potential catch. ‘Cause that Rapala guy is a killer! No mercy. I figure that when using this lure, I will finally hook one of the parents about 70% of the time. I don’t consider this to be the most gentlemanly way to close the deal. In a way, it lacks fairness. I have always preferred to challenge my adversary on top-water. It’s a personal preference, but I find nothing else quite so beautiful as the savage attack by an angry snakehead as he or she closes in to slam a lure moving rapidly across the water. The shotgun explosion is heart stopping. But, I have been accused of being something less than a gentleman a time or two, and to maintain that distinction, I will, on occasion, lower myself to go deep.

Often, being unable to entice a surface bite, I would just let it be that way. I accept it as a 50% failure, a failure that is of no importance at all to my pride or ego. But being the predator that I am, and always the challenger, I can’t always turn my back to that fish and say to him as I leave, “Okay Mr. Snakehead! Congratulations! I did my best to catch you and was outsmarted. You’re good amigo!” No, all too often I must give in to my competitive instincts and go the distance. The Thai have an expression that suits me well. “May yom pey” (refusing to lose). So I simply cannot resist. “Hey hey! So, you don’t want to bite ‘eh, Mr. Shado? Wait a minute, my friend, I got something for ya!”

I remember once finding a “luk krok” in a hidden bay on Khao Laem reservoir. One of the parents, I don’t know which, most likely the male, put on such a fantastic display of aggression that I will never forget it. It was a young fish, not big, maybe 3.0 kilos. But that fellow was one brave, crazy mean sucker. Even with plenty of escape routes, he meant to stand his ground. It was as if he was saying, “I’m here, this is my territory, my water and no matter who you are, I ain’t goin’ nowhere”. The fry were stationary, diving and surfacing, but not moving. And each time that I would cast, that brave little snake would tease me by chasing the top-water lure. He would boil under the bait and then return to the fry. We played this tune 20 times. Wanchai, my young boatman, was urging me to hook that rascal for good. “Switch to the Rapala Uncle Fang,” he said. (Uncle Fang being the Thai nickname younger people gave to me long ago.)

I just couldn’t. I knew that the first or second cast would nail him. He was so agitated that he’d hit the first thing that moved underwater. No, he deserved better. No point in hooking one more fish. I had built a respect for that brave little guy. After a couple more good-by surface casts, I asked Wanchai to start the outboard and move away. His two dark, round eyes stared at me in confusion, saying, “Tamai Lung Fang may dai tee Rapala?” (Why Uncle Fang doesn’t cast a Rapala.?) I looked at him and responded with a pure Thai answer. “Fang kikiek!” (Francois is lazy). I’m pretty sure that Wanchai wondered for quite a while afterwards why I let that easy catch go. I loved it.

When following a ball of fry, if you haven’t hooked either of the parents after repeated casts with surface or subsurface lures, it’s a pretty sure bet that they and the fry have reached the cover of submerged bushes. Tired from the chase, they will usually rest a bit. They begin to feel safe and secure. Wrong! I often hook fish in this situation, even if they wouldn’t hit in the open. You have to be fast. Put on the Addy frog imitation that has the very noisy front propeller. Depending on the how thick the cover is, you may be able to get in two or three final casts with the weed-less lure. You won’t have much time, as after a cast or two they will be on the move again. If luck is with you, they may even move back out into open water. It happens. The cat and mouse game can now resume. Just as often, they will move along the bank. Another few casting chances perhaps. But more often than not, they go deeper inside of the cover to hide. That chase is over, time to resume the hunt for more subsurface shadows.

Lure color is very important under “normal snakehead conditions”. It’s not so important when fishing “luk krok”. During the baby fry period, lure noise is the key. I fish mostly fire-tiger and red head / white body lures because, as they say in Thai, they are “tchat tchat”, (easily seen) on top, by the fish. Most any color will work. To punctuate that statement, I have caught numerous fish on terribly mangled lures. Hardly any paint left on them. No color at all. They looked more like a piece of wood than a lure.

The noise is entirely another matter. It makes all of the difference! During the luk krok period I use specially designed propellers, different from standard lures. As the prop blade turns it strikes a carefully positioned plastic “pearl” that is fitted to the lure using rigid wire. This produces a loud “klak, klak, klak, klak” sound that seems to be unbearable to the snakeheads. I once asked a friend to retrieve this lure across the water surface while I submerged myself and listened. No doubt about, it must be very irritating to a fish, a completely alien sound. I’m sure that humans and fish perceive sound differently. But I certainly didn’t like it and I have been accused of sometimes thinking like a fish. On top of the water however, it is music to my ears! This lure modification has been productive for me through the years. Regular big props work also, but the “pearl thing” seems to produce better. I’ve shared a boat with guys who were fishing standard props and were not getting any action. I asked them to let me try with the pearl prop and “BAM”, Mr. Shado met the landing net. It works great!
ITEMS OF INTEREST

If I land the female first, I am already satisfied with the catch. She is often the bigger of the two and there is no need to stress the second fish. However, if I catch the male first and I am certain that the female is still out there, it becomes another story. We still have a challenge. I’ll safely keep the male in the boat. Then I’ll resume casting for momma. Sometimes I will catch both of them. Both mommy and daddy are then released near the fry. If mom doesn’t cooperate, then I just find the ball of fry and drop off dad.

I hear many interesting stories from the locals. One has to do with snakehead cannibalism. I cannot relate this as a truth in fact, but I like the story. It sounds good. I’ve been told that if both parents are caught (never released by the locals) then another snakehead will adopt the fry. The new parent, step-fish, I guess it would be, will protect and care for the babies, keeping them from jungle perch and other predators. The stepparent will escort them until they grow bigger and then, as they become tasty morsels, will begin eating them one by one. Sort of farming your own food. I’ve not read anything on the subject and it sounds (excuse the pun) a bit fishy, but the locals live on the water and maybe they know. Guess that it could be true……….
Jean-Francois Helias

The Protective Snakehead Parent

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