When bass fisherman Juan Duran pulled an 18-pound northern snakehead from a tributary creek of the Potomac River on May 6, media reports hailed the potential world-record catch as just one more sign that this Asian invader is a ferocious "Frankenfish," a freakish monster capable of wreaking havoc in American waters. Yet Duran and others who fish the Potomac see a different possibility, one decidedly at odds with the alarming scenarios sketched out by some fisheries experts when snakeheads were discovered in a Crofton, Maryland, pond in 2002. They see a world in which snakeheads not only coexist with bass and other highly valued game fish, but also rival them for the thrills they provide--on a rod and on a plate. __
Photo courtesy of Juan Duran.
Duran, 25, of Annandale, Virginia, says he’s wanted to catch snakeheads since he was in high school, when their discovery in Maryland created a huge story as wildlife officials poisoned ponds where the fish were found and urged anglers to kill every snakehead they caught. The fish’s reputation as a savage predator even spawned a pair of monster movies–Snakehead Terror and Frankenfish. Duran finally landed his first snakehead last year. “I really didn’t know what to do,” he says. “With everything you see and hear on TV and radio, they are kind of a hated fish. But I started running into them more and more, and now I think they’re a pretty cool fish.” A serious bass angler who has fished professionally, Duran says he usually catches snakeheads while targeting bass. __ Photo courtesy of Juan Duran
On May 6, he and a buddy were fishing for largemouths in the Occoquan River, a tributary on the Virginia side of the Potomac, when they decided to pitch their baits around some boat docks in a protected bay. “A guy told us he’d seen a real big snakehead in there, so my friend said, ‘Put this lure on, because it works really good for snakeheads,'” Duran recalls. The lure was the Kinky Beaver by Reaction Innovations. “I Texas rigged it on a flipping stick, and no joke, my first cast hooked the big one.” Photo courtesy of Juan Duran
Snakeheads will hit about any bass lure, and they fight just as hard as a bass, Duran says. “It’s a really aggressive fish that puts up a good fight from start to finish. After catching the first one, you’re hooked on them.” Duran says his snakehead weighed 18.37 pounds on a friend’s digital scale. He plans to submit the scale and other required documentation to the IGFA for certification. The current IGFA all-tackle world record for northern snakehead is a 17-pound 4-ounce fish caught in 2004 in Japan by Satoshi Ikeda.
Photo courtesy of Juan Duran_
Steve Chaconas, a bass guide on the Potomac, says he’s seeing more and more people like Duran, who appreciate the snakehead as a game fish worthy of pursuit. Of the 100 to 150 guide trips he makes in a year, 20 or so are now booked by anglers who want to target snakeheads exclusively. “They are usually bass fishermen who want a bigger jolt,” Chaconas says. “Bass are no longer exciting for them. Snakeheads are a very powerful fish, and when you hook them they try to back away from you. Catching one is like pulling a dog off a fire hydrant.” __ Photo courtesy of Steve Chaconas
“It’s not like a bass, where you lip them and grin for the camera,” Chaconas says. “These things are dangerous. They have nasty teeth and they are super strong and really hard to hold. Once you get them out of the water, they are extremely slimy–like Saint Bernard slimy.” Photo courtesy of Steve Chaconas
What snakeheads are not, say Chaconas and others, is some kind of super predator capable of wiping out largemouth bass and other game fish–at least not on the Potomac. “It’s a demon fish, a devil fish that’s going to walk on land and eat your dogs; it’s going to take over the fishery and eat all the other fish,” Chaconas says, reiterating the early horror stories that greeted the snakehead’s discovery on the East Coast. “From what we’ve seen from biologists, they’re basically sharing the same food source as largemouth bass–small bluegill, crappie, banded killifish. The Potomac is more than 60 miles of fishable water; there’s plenty of room for invasives.” Photo courtesy of John Odenkirk
John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, has studied snakeheads since 2004, when they were first detected in the Potomac. Focusing on the tributary creeks that feed the tidal river from the Virginia side, he created an index that tracks the number of fish caught per hour of electrofishing. That index had steadily risen each year until 2011, when it leveled off. “That is significant, but we don’t know yet if it’s a trend or just an anomaly,” Odenkirk says. “If it stays flat this year, that tells me something.” Photo courtesy of John Odenkirk
A flattening of the trend line would tell him that snakehead population growth has peaked. “We always knew the numbers were gonna top out somewhere,” he says. “Typically with these invasions, it tops out and drops back to a lower level and stabilizes. If that’s what snakeheads are going to do, I don’t think it’s a big deal at all.” Photo courtesy of King Montgomery
Both Odenkirk and Chaconas–who often fish together–believe snakeheads can coexist with bass and other game fish in the Potomac. “The Potomac is a fish factory,” Odenkirk says. “The biomass, the nutrients, the forage is astounding. Another mouth to feed is not a big deal.” Photo courtesy of King Montgomery
“It’s occupying a niche that was vacant,” Odenkirk continues. In May, snakeheads live alongside largemouth bass and long nose gar, but as water temperatures rise and the plant cover thickens, snakeheads move to the margins. “By June they’ll be in 3 to 5 inches of water that’s 90 degrees and choked with vegetation, with minimal oxygen content. There are no other fish there. Any respectable predator fish are out in deeper channels, in sensible water, not this tepid, stank backwater where air-breathing fish can hang out.” Photo courtesy of John Odenkirk
Although they believe the snakehead poses no threat to the Potomac, Odenkirk and Chaconas do see the necessity of stopping its spread to smaller, less productive river systems, particularly given the snakehead’s reproductive prowess. The fish can spawn several times in a year, and both parents guard the eggs and fry. “The question,” says Chaconas, “are there some areas, smaller fisheries, where these fish could dominate?” Odenkirk notes that long-established populations of snakehead species in New York, Arkansas, Florida and Hawaii have not disrupted local ecosystems. “If you look across the board anywhere snakeheads are established, you hear a lot about all the damage they cause, but there is not one peer-reviewed scientific journal article that demonstrates any negative impact,” he says. “Which is astonishing given the evil that has been heaped upon the fish.” Photo courtesy of John Odenkirk
Virginia regulations prohibit possession of live snakeheads but do allow anglers to catch and release the fish. Wildlife officials prefer that anglers kill snakeheads instead of releasing them. Chaconas regularly kills snakeheads his anglers catch. “It’s a moral dilemma for someone like me who was raised with the catch-and-release ethic of largemouth fishing,” Chaconas says. “But I always try to find a table for the fish. More and more people think of them as a game fish now, and some chefs are starting to take an interest in them.” Photo courtesy of Steve Chaconas
One thing seems certain: Contrary to all the hype, the northern snakehead is no Fishzilla immune to the laws of the jungle. “People say it has no natural predators,” Odenkirk says. “Sure they do. Birds get a lot of them, and when they’re young, there’s tons of stuff that eats the juveniles. Man’s a predator. Just because they’re at the top of the food chain, how is that any different than a largemouth or a striped bass or a long nose gar? So they’ve got big teeth: How is that different than a walleye or a northern pike or even a big brown trout?” Photo courtesy of John Odenkirk
Will the northern snakehead some day be considered a game fish to be prized, pursued and even stocked? Maybe some day. But it will be a tough sell, Odenkirk says. “There are a lot of people who just feel this is a really bad fish that needs to be annihilated.” In the meantime, he fields calls and emails every day from anglers who want to know more about northern snakeheads. “They want to catch snakeheads, and there’s a large archery following developing, because as air-breathers they are susceptible to bowfishing,” Odenkirk says. And thanks to Duran’s catch, the Potomac may now be seen as a destination river for world-record snakeheads. “I think it’s great. If something like this gets dropped in our laps and we have to live with it, why not make the best of a fish that tastes good, fights good and can handle degraded water conditions most fish can’t. It’s creating a fishery that people are getting excited about it, and that’s a good thing.” Photo courtesy of Tom Driscoll
On May 6, 25-year-old Juan Duran from Annandale, Virginia, caught an 18.37 pound potential world record Snakehead in the Potomac River. But he’s not the only one targeting snakeheads these days. Are Snakeheads the next great game fish in the East or are they “Frankenfish” that need to be annihilated?