It may require a connoisseur’s eye to appreciate the physical attributes of northern snakehead, but just about anyone can get onboard with the taste. These predatory fish are native to Asia, but they’ve been thriving throughout parts of the United States for twenty years now. Their explosive strike, brute force, and delicious meat have made them a popular target among anglers. On top of that, they’re an invasive species that could be causing some sort of ecological harm. Although discussions on this tend to generate more heat than light, the truth is, we still don’t fully understand their impact. For the time being, it appears snakehead are here to stay. So let’s grab an 8wt, a handful of flies, and give some of those struggling native species a day off.
Snakehead will test you. They’ll test your gear, your patience, and your stamina. They live in some of the most vegetated and algae-ridden waters around. One day you’ll be scratching your head, miles from the launch, wondering; “why do I do this?” And the next, you’ll get a ten pound reminder. Their inconsistent nature is one of the reasons why targeting them is so addicting. Without years of historical knowledge at our disposal, we’re still paving the way forward, learning their patterns and behavior with each trip. Sometimes you don’t need to travel internationally to target some new, exotic species. Every once in a while, you can make the best of hometown accident.
Firm, flakey, mild; these adjectives are commonly thrown around when describing snakehead. In reality, their flesh resembles saltwater fish more closely than it does freshwater fish. It doesn’t fall apart or become mushy when cooked, and it contains little to no fishy flavor. It’s the perfect fish for baking, and in this recipe we’re doing just that.
Psari Plaki is a Greek dish made by baking fish in the oven with onions and tomatoes. Traditionally, the protein would have been a fish native to the Mediterranean Sea, but we’re substituting snakehead because it exhibits the right characteristics from a texture and flavor standpoint. This recipe is a great way to utilize frozen fish, as the rich Mediterranean flavors overpower most off-flavors. Of course, it works beautifully with fresh fish too.
Field Care: Make sure to bleed snakehead by slicing the gills with a knife or scissors. The benefit is twofold; (1) it decreases the amount of blood in the fillets, resulting in a cleaner taste, and (2) it kills the fish quickly, which is especially important when dealing with snakehead as it is illegal to transport them alive.
Filleting: Snakehead are real slimy. Place the fish on a towel to prevent it from sliding around your work station. Fillet just like any other fish. Make an incision behind the gill plate, follow the spine down to the tail, cut the meat away from the center of the fish, and then remove the skin from the fillets. Snakehead have one short row of pin-bones; remove these with needle nose pliers or cut around them. Rinse the fillets in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. You can freeze the fillets for later use or go straight into the recipe. If freezing, dry the fillets as much as possible, then vacuum seal.
Until next time, enjoy and good luck out there!
Psari Plaki (Greek-Style Snakehead) Recipe:
2lb snakehead fillets, pin-bones & skin removed
1 large white onion, sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
8 Kalamata olives, sliced & pitted
0.5 lemon, juiced
15oz diced tomatoes
15oz tomato sauce
0.25 cup olive oil
Fresh basil, chopped for topping
Fresh parsley, chopped for topping
0.5 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried dill
0.5 teaspoon sugar
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Combine onion slices and olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the onion is translucent, add minced garlic, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, dried oregano, dried dill, crushed red pepper flakes, sugar, and salt & pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes.
While sauce is simmering, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Season fish fillets with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
Pour half of the sauce in a baking dish. Place the fish fillets on top, then add the rest of the sauce. Top with Kalamata olives.
Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.
Top with freshly chopped basil and parsley.
Serve over al dente pasta or bread. Pair with your favorite pale ale or white wine.
Article by Flylords Food Editor Kirk Marks, an angler, photographer, and culinary aficionado based in Kent Island, Maryland. Give him a follow at @kirkymarks.
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