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Searching for the Snakeheads of Sangkhlaburi

On a fruitless quest for the feisty snakeheads of Thailand, John McMahon finds magical bridges, underwater temples, and rural Thai charm.

With a pre-dawn chill in the air, the chug of our two-stroke motor reverberates through the still early morning as our boat cuts a wake across the glassy surface of the Khao Laem reservoir in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand. Boat owner and impromptu fishing guide Khun Wichu has assured me that to find our prey it’s essential to be on the water at first light. The traditional longtail boat we’re in is a handmade wooden craft with a shallow draw that enables access to the weedy, muddy areas where giant snakehead dwell, whether we can find and hook one of these aquatic, apex predators though is another question. The giant snakehead is not an easy quarry.

ABOVE: The famed Mon Bridge of Sangkhlaburi at sunset.

Sangkhlaburi at the northern edge of the 125,000-square-kilometer Khao Leam reservoir in Kanchanaburi province is a remote, mountainous, ethnically diverse town on the country’s western border where you’re as likely to hear Karen, Mon, or Burmese spoken as Thai. Long known as a weekend getaway to Bangkokians who crave the outdoors, this unspoiled destination is a favorite for anglers after big, freshwater trophy fish like jungle perch, gar, and the legendary giant snakehead.

Known in Thai as pla shado, the giant snakehead (Channa micropeltes) can be compared in size and strength to the European pike. Considered an aggressive even savage fish, the snakeheads protect their fry (spawn) with a vengeance and will eat almost anything they can get their outsized mouth around, including ducks and small mammals. Even humans don’t intimidate a big snakehead that can potentially grow to two meters and weigh as much as 15 kilos; they are known to go after swimmers who get too close to their brood.

ABOVE: Locals on the Khao Leam reservoir drinking whiskey and angling for dinner.

These fantastical characteristics created a kind of mania in the United States over a decade ago when the species was found to have been introduced into waters throughout the East Coast. Stories began to emerge of a monster fish from Asia: coated in slime, able to walk on land, breathe air, and so fearless it would attack dogs and even children. While much of that is sensationalist nonsense, some of it is rooted in truth. The ‘Frankenfish’ as it was dubbed at the time can move short distance across the ground and has specialized sacks around it’s gills that it fills with air on the water’s surface which allows it to live out of the water for up two days, evolved for the low oxygen, muddy waters where it ambushes its prey. As far as the slime goes, yes the fish secretes a full coating of body mucus.

Accommodation in Sangklaburi has grown to meet increased tourism demands created by media coverage of the the famous Mon Bridge (the second longest free standing wooden bridge in the world, which experienced a notable collapse in 2013), marked by the emergence of boutique hotels and cute hostels with attached cafes to appease the selfie-conscious. For me though, the of old teak guest houses that hug the rim of the reservoir are still the most fitting places to stay. The dark wood and exposed stone wall buildings festooned with animal skulls, large stark rooms, and wide vistas of the water, town, bridge, and mountains that ring the area from tiered balconies are part and parcel to the rustic town that has proudly embraced the reputation of being Thailand’s wild west.

As my guide Wachi forewarned me the snakehead is hard to catch. They occupy densely vegetated and shallow areas with a lot of flotsam, so we headed out to the sunken temple to start the day. During the end of dry season Wat Sarasob is actually above water but the temple has been submerged for most of each year since the completion of the Vijalongkorn Dam in the early 1980’s created the Khao Leam reservoir. In the few weeks that the temple emerges from the depths the penitent come to pray while local children sell live fish, eels, and turtles for visitors to release back to the waters in order to make merit.

We fished through the morning with no luck casting surface lures that replicated the movement of small frogs hopping across water hyacinth that floats on the surface of the water. Wachi indicates when a giant snakehead strikes. It strikes hard and fast and if the hook isn’t set deep the fish will tear it from its mouth in the struggle. He warns me that many fishermen have lost their rods and reels to the powerful strike of the snakehead, so once the hook is set the move is to hold on tight and let the line play out, reeling in when the fish relaxes.

ABOVE: The “Sunken Temple” of Sangkhlaburi.

Through the heat of the afternoon when the snakehead are inactive, Wichai and I took to a raft house where a group of anglers from Bangkok were spending the day drinking whisky and casting for anything. Within in minutes they landed a whopper that they added to a string of four or five hung from the side of the raft but none had seen a snakehead that day.

In the end, we came up empty in our search for giant snakehead, sated somewhat by the cultural and architectural wonders of Sangkhlaburi. Catching the fish you’re after isn’t the best part of fishing, as any angler will tell you.

Though we came up empty handed this didn’t mean we couldn’t feast on the fish we failed to catch. Snakehead in fact are widely farmed by families who live on raft houses across the expanse of the Khao Laem reservoir and the local market is stocked with them as well as a rich variety of fruit and veg from both sides of the border.

Snakehead is prized across Asia for its taste and also for its purported healing properties and is widely available in restaurants throughout Thailand. We ordered a dinner that included Pla Nueng Mano, which combines the meat of the fish with lime juice, chili’s, garlic, and other Thai herbs. A rustic, curried snakehead dish called Ngohp Pla Chawn is kept moist by being wrapped in banana leaves so that it nearly melts in the mouth, and not to be left hungry one whole grilled 4 kilo fish that was eaten through to the tail by our table of five.

We hoped binging on snakehead the night before would bring their brethren out for some payback the next day but there was still no hope. It may have been the overcast skies and cool weather. It might have been the season or my poor casting skills, though we caught various fish including a jungle perch, the snakehead eluded us. Still, a few days spent away from the city in the gentle attitude of Sangkhlaburi, floating in a wooden boat on a vast lake in one of the most scenic spots in the country with a fine four hour ride home through the mountains to look forward to is time well spent. Fishing tales can always be embellished ashore.