From the early 1970s till the early 90s, Dr. Lloyd Wruble fished the remote waters of the Everglades back country twice weekly with a mentor who’d been roaming the region well before it became a …
Rolling Snakeheads in Fort Lauderdale
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
A beautiful fish with a very ugly face. Slippery and slimy but tasty to eat. A feisty sport fish but a nuisance exotic. This is the paradox of the snakehead– an invader native to Asia introduced about 15 years ago and now firmly established in Fort Lauderdale-area canals.
“We sure wish they weren’t here,” says Kelly Gestring, a non-native fish and wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “We are definitely encouraging people to practice catch, keep and eat.”
Like the 33 other non-native fish reproducing in South Florida waterways, the snakehead competes with the locals such as black bass and bream and the deliberately-stocked peacock bass for food and space. Generalist feeders, they will eat “anything that comes across their mouths”, according to Gestring– including a wide variety of fish; crayfish; bufo toads; Muscovy duck eggs, or whatever.
With “crazy Martian eyes”– (as one angler put it) –and orange eye spots on a dark body, snakeheads are both beautiful and ugly. When hooked, they splash and jump better than a largemouth, inspiring a group of Broward County anglers to form a small tournament series targeting them. They make excellent butterflied baits for daytime swordfishing, and their flavor when cooked is mild and likened by many to tilapia– a ubiquitous, farm-raised staple in grocery stores and restaurants. The largest one caught so far weighed 15 pounds– taken by angler Corey Nowakowski last May in Deerfield Beach.
Fort Lauderdale five-star chef Anthony Hunt– fresh from being “Chopped” on the Food Network–decided to whack a few snakeheads with his son Marlei, 9, earlier this month in the canals of North Broward. Hunt, 39, is embarking on a career as a professional bass tournament competitor; his son has won two local fishing contests. Armed with their favorite Live Target hollow-bodied frog lures, father and son aimed to catch enough for a meal before heading out on their weekend round of chores.
“People are very curious about them. Their popularity is increasing,” Hunt said as he cast his frog into a shallow, grass-lined drainage canal. “I’ve never eaten one before, so it’s the first time for me.”
Hunt caught a small snakehead right away and lost three more–plus one of his Live Targets– in the same canal before deciding to relocate to an apartment complex pond a few blocks to the north. Marlei got a few hits but didn’t land any.
“It’s fun. You never know what you’re gonna catch,” Marlei said, undeterred.
“Get it on that bank, okay? And bring it off,” Hunt directed his son as the boy cast his frog.
In a shady, stagnant section of the pond, Hunt caught a second snakehead estimated at a couple of pounds. Not long afterward, he got a third one about five pounds. The haul would be enough for the chef to make fish tacos for his family (see recipe below). He also caught and released a two-pound bass in the same spot.
Gestring is very supportive of the snakehead angling efforts of Hunt, Marlei and others.
“The fishing part is a great way for the public to assist us in controlling their numbers,” the biologist said. “We just can’t get them all.”
Ingredients: 2 lbs. snakehead fillets cut into 5″ x 1″ pieces; 1 cup buttermilk; 2 cups flour; 1 cup fine cornmeal; 6 flour tortillas (either homemade or top-shelf store-bought); salt and pepper to taste.
Salad slaw mixture:
1 red bell pepper thinly sliced; Napa cabbage thinly sliced; 2 oz. fresh corn; 2 oz. black beans; 1/2 oz. cilantro; 1/2 oz. parsley; 1/4 red pickled onion; 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper; 3 tbsp. olive oil; sriracha sauce as garnish to top tacos.
Directions: Preheat 16 oz. vegetable oil in small sauce pot on medium heat. Toss the salad ingredients together in a mixing bowl and set aside. Pour buttermilk on top of fish fillets and mix well. Remove fish and add to a bowl containing flour, corn meal and salt/pepper. Toss thoroughly; shake off excess flour and set aside. Make sure not to stack the fish fillets on top of each other.
Deep-fry fillets in oil until golden-brown, then place on sheets of paper towels to drain off excess oil.
Place tortillas in a skillet on medium heat and sear lightly for 30 seconds on each side. Remove from heat. Assemble tacos and EAT!
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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