Chad Wells: Snakehead Fishing His Way To Success

By Rich Armstrong

Chef Chad Wells turns the invasive snakehead fish into an appetizing meal.

Chef Chad WellsChef Chad Wells.

Chad Wells loved to fish long before he ever owned a boat. Other than occasionally chasing rockfish with his uncle, this Maryland native spent countless hours casting into rivers, lakes, and ponds.

"I've always been a bass guy," says the 35-year-old BoatUS member, who's now a sought-after chef in his home state. So it's logical that fish — and food — got him his boat. An admitted rudderless teenager who then had dreams of a career in punk rock and skateboarding, Wells says his father's ultimatum to "get a job" led him to the kitchen, "which was more accepting of people like me."

He started at the bottom, along with a good friend who also seemed drawn to cooking. With a little income, Wells kept his eye on a boat, starting with a kayak, then a jon boat. When not in the kitchen, he was on the water chasing bass. He finally had some direction. It wasn't until his friend unexpectedly died that he came to a crossroads in life.

"He was so passionate about cooking, which I admired, and when he was gone, I thought I had to find the passion that he had for myself. It turns out that was cooking," he explains. "From there, cooking went from just a job to a career. This is what I love."

Today he holds the title of corporate chef, handling culinary operations for the Victoria Restaurant Group, which owns restaurants outside of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He has developed a reputation for creating mouthwatering menus with real flair. As an angler and hunter, he's famous for his fish and game meats, but it wasn't until he went way outside of the box that he drew national attention.

He fishes more days than not, so he was well aware of the invasive snakehead fish thriving in his home waters. How these elongated predators, native to Africa and Asia, got into U.S. waters is up for speculation, but "Frankenfish," as the media has dubbed them, are proliferating nationwide.

That's when Wells and a friend from the state Department of Natural Resources, which continues to battle the invasive species, brainstormed a novel idea.

"From my experience, the best way to disrupt anything in an ecosystem is to get humans involved," says Wells, a passionate advocate for environmental awareness. "So I thought, if I can create a demand for it, we can make a dent in the population. Nobody was fishing for snakehead commercially because there was no market."

So he set out to create a market by turning the species into a tasty meal. The duo started by getting some Frankenfish into the test kitchen to figure out how best to cook it. He discovered they "are very mild, have a clean taste. They're not oily at all, just firm white-fleshed fish," he says. "They make a beautiful filet. They're like steaks. You can get one on a grill, and it won't fall apart."

Wells says he's the first chef in the country to serve snakefish.

"The first time I popped it on a menu, it seemed like every person with a camera and a microphone contacted me within a day," he recalls. He's since appeared on the cooking television shows "Bizarre Foods," "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and "Hook, Line and Dinner." Snakefish may not yet be the top request on his menu, but he continues to serve it, along with another invasive species: blue catfish. As a result, local commercial fishermen have an incentive to hunt these fish — because they sell for considerably more than standard local species and without catch limits.

The touch of celebrity limelight gives Wells a platforms to preach ecological sustainability while he continues to chase his passions of cooking and fishing.

"If I speak at a Department of Natural Resources event, I bring snakehead," he says. "The best way to connect with people is through food. It's a delicious fish to eat, it's here, and if we catch them and put them on a plate, maybe we can control them a little."

As for that boat? He's now on his third — and last (maybe) — bass boat.

Wells is in love with his 19-foot, 10-inch 1998 Gambler Intimidator, a niche performance bass boat marked by its bold design. "I have a 4-year-old who says it looks like Batman's boat," he says. He fishes all over the state, mostly for bass and, outside of invasive species, practices catch-and-release. He works with local conservation groups and regularly joins waterfront cleanup efforts.

"From being a chef, I understand how important these resources are, and I try to leave as small a footprint as possible," he says. The former punk rocker has evolved into a family man and solid citizen, one who loves to feed people and catch fish.

"Any day of fishing is a good day," Wells says. 

— Published: June/July 2017

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