Snakeheads everywhere

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RISON, Md.

What began with the discovery of a single, odd-looking fish in May 2004 in Little Hunting Creek, a tidal Potomac River tributary, now is becoming an almost common occurrence.

The northern snakehead, a tooth-laden, exotic creature dubbed Frankenfish by fright-happy headline writers who wouldn’t know a catfish from a vacuum cleaner, now is being increasingly seen on the business end of fishing lures by bass anglers from below Great Falls to Virginia’s Aquia Creek - a long stretch of river.

Why bass fishermen? Like a bass, the snakeskin-patterned foreign invader apparently is occasionally fooled by the same artificial lures, believing them to be food.

But what was once confined to Little Hunting Creek - subsequently and in larger numbers also in Dogue Creek, a broad water area on the Virginia side of the Potomac - now is making its presence felt up and down the waterway and no one really has any ideas how to stop it. Federal and state fisheries officials have ruled that the snakehead cannot be released after being caught. It must be killed, then disposed of on dry land (not in water), put into a trash can or such.

Prince George’s County bass boaters Bob Troup and Steve Hawks not long ago caught young snakeheads on topwater lures inside Maryland’s Pomonkey Creek, followed by a snakehead catch in the back of the Piscataway creek.

On a recent Tuesday, I spotted a Maryland Department of Natural Resources electro-shock boat crew in the Mattawoman Creek and asked what they were doing. DNR biologist Tim Groves said, “We’re looking for snakeheads, and we’re finding them.” (The DNR electro-shock team lately has managed to get at least 10 snakeheads every day.)

Related Story:Scientists say snakehead’s impact still hard to judge

Last week, bass fishing guide Andy Andrzejewski hosted father-and-son clients Harry and Matt Raynor, who live in Northern Virginia. Inside Maryland’s Chicamuxen Creek, the Raynors hooked largemouth bass on shallow-diving crankbait lures known as the Baby 1-Minus. A few hours into the trip, the senior Raynor caught two Northern snakeheads. Both were juveniles, but either these young snakeheads swam downstream from elsewhere or an egg-bearing adult female - maybe more than one - has lived inside the scenic creek and spawned, delivering an entire school of baby snakeheads.

Imagine. Inside the Chicamuxen. In a place where nobody ever expected to see anything but bass, perch, catfish and carp.

More than one expert bass hunter on the river now believes that specifically going after snakeheads will soon become a regular recreational activity. Potomac River fishing guide Steve Chaconas already has put out the word that he’ll specialize in chasing after the Asian import if a client wishes to do so.

The plain fact of the matter is that the snakeheads will occupy a niche in the river and like 20-odd other non-native fish species will eventually become as accepted as the top banana in the Potomac - the largemouth bass.

But did you know that the largemouth is just as alien to the river as the snakehead. It isn’t a native species; neither is the smallmouth bass, blue catfish, gar, carp and all manner of shiners and minnows. The true natives of the tidal Potomac include the striped bass, white perch, shad, sturgeon, yellow perch and herring, to name those that sport anglers usually are after.

Meanwhile, biologist John Odenkirk, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said, “I agree that the snakehead will take hold in the river. Its range is expanding all the time.”

Odenkirk said the snakeheads have spread over wider river portions much quicker in the last year than during the first two years they were found. But will they pose a threat to all the other species that call the Potomac home?

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