Fly Fishing for Snakeheads in Japan

Steve B Howard
SnakeheadPhoto bySteve Howard 2023

I've always kind of liked fly fishing for unusual fish. Or at least fish that normally aren't targeted by most fly fishers. I’ve been living in Japan for a while now. After my third year here I decided to bring my fly fishing gear to Japan. Since then I have fly fished in several different places including Aichi, Gifu, Nagano, Shizuoka, Miyagi, and Hokaido prefectures.

I’ve mainly fly fished for Rainbow Trout. But I have also fly fished for wild carp, sea bass, black bass, flounder, and possibly the strangest so far, snakeheads known as raigyo in Japan.

Snakeheads are native to China, but they were introduced to Kyushu the southern island of Japan in the early 20th century as a food source. Since then they have spread as far north as Tokyo. They are very odd fish that can live out of water for fairly long periods of time which allows them to slither (they are very eel-like) from ponds or small creeks that dry up to new rivers or lakes. Thanks to their amazing adaptability they have been able spread far north of the original rivers and lakes they were introduced to in southern Japan.

They aren’t considered a food fish now though because they often have a very high mercury content.
As a result, almost no one fishes for them now. Many of them grow up to twenty pounds or more and they are often 36 inches long.

They are a warm water species, to they are most active from the late spring in May through late October most years depending on where you are fishing for them and how warm the water is. When the water temps get much below 60 F Snakeheads will often burrow into mud and hibernate until Spring time.

In Japan many of the trout rivers require you to buy a day license which can cost up to $50 a day for a mile section of the river to fish. And many of the small trout ponds are pay to fish as well. Not only that, they are almost always very crowded.

On the other hand, fly fishing for what are considered invasive species or trash fish like Snakeheads, Black Bass, and wild Carp is completely free and not really regulated at all. Technically, you are supposed to kill both Black Bass and Snakeheads whenever you catch them. Wild Carp are rarely considered a game fish in Japan, so as far as I know there aren’t any specific rules regarding them.

I generally fish catch and release though. Most of the lower parts of the rivers in Japan have high levels of lead and mercury so eating the fish from these rivers isn’t a good idea.

Snakeheads like warm water as I mentioned so Spring through mid-Fall are the best time to fly fish for them with the end of July and August being some of the best times. Snakeheads aren’t afraid of bright sunlight or shallow water, so in the hot and humid summers here in Japan if the river, lake, or pond has any clarity to it you can usually find them pretty easy.

Fly Rods:

For Snakeheads I would bring at least a six weight and possibly up to a 10 weight. The Black Bass generally aren’t too large in Japan in most places, but if you hang into a large Snakehead or a monster Carp you will be happy you brought a stout rod I think. Both Snakeheads and Carp are very strong fish who will make long runs. I’ve seen Snakeheads that were nearly three feet long and Carp that close to forty pounds or more.

Fly Lines: For Snakeheads you will mostly be sight fishing in shallow water, so a floating line is all you will need in almost every situation. Snakeheads often hang out in shallow and still water to ambush frogs, fish, bugs, birds, mice and other things. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard that they will actually crawl up on top of lily pads and ambush frogs and dragon flies. They are not what you would call picky eaters at all.

Snakeheads have some serious teet, think Pike or Tiger Muskies. You will also need some sort of a bite tip. I’ve had then chew through 12 pound test leaders with no problem at all. Also, a good pair of pliers to safely remove your flies is a good idea.

Flies: I would bring mostly poppers in various colors, a few Deer Hair Mice patterns in different sizes, some grasshopper patterns, and some streamers in various sizes and colors. A range of Wooley Buggers in lots of sizes and colors would be a good idea as well. Use flies you don’t care about because they will get destroyed pretty quickly by Snakeheads.

They are an invasive species in the United States, but they are there in a few places. I’ve seen a few articles about people who fly fish for them. I think if you have experience fly fishing for Pike, Tiger Muskies, Aligator Gar, etc with a fly rod you can probably catch Snakeheads as well.

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I mainly write about fly fishing in Washington State, Classic Muscle Cars, and Stand Up Comedy.

Seattle, WA

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