- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

My friend Tim Tucker, a senior writer for BASS Times magazine, says a group of Florida scientists considers the current wave of snakehead hysteria unwarranted.

That might be of little comfort to Northern Virginians who recently netted, snagged and otherwise latched onto at least 80 of the finned predators in a matter of hours inside Dogue Creek, a tidal Potomac River tributary.

Despite new discoveries of northern snakeheads (most recently in a 93-acre lake in New York, with some a whopping 28 inches long), the Florida scientists told Tucker the barrage of news reports of snakehead fish “invading” our waters is a distorted doomsday image. Some newspapers and TV stations have referred to the exotic fish as “Frankenfish,” or the “Fish from Hell,” which only exacerbates the feeling of being invaded by a dreadful creature deserving of human fear.

Walter Courtenay, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, sheds quite a bit of light on the real and perceived dangers of a fish species that the uninformed believe can travel easily across land and inundate heretofore snakehead-free waters.

Courtenay says the northern snakehead and another species known as the bull’s-eye snakehead are capable of movements over land only in a very limited way. Land travel by these fish apparently occurs only during monsoon rain seasons, which are required by the snakeheads to keep their breathing organs and bodies moist. Without the heavy rains, a land-traveling snakehead would die in a matter of hours, not days, Courtenay told Tucker.

This revelation could explain why those recent Dogue Creek snakeheads suddenly showed up in large numbers in very shallow water. Was it only to feed on trapped minnows, or could it have been in preparation for wet land travel? There were heavy rains during that period, meaning the snakeheads might have found a stroll inviting, so to speak.

The previously mentioned scientists/biologists, who work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and who have had to deal with a snakehead population of their own, point out that although snakeheads have small, sharp teeth, they are not overly aggressive and will not wipe out a native fish population.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, meanwhile, isn’t quite that optimistic, preferring instead to study the presence of these Asian strangers a little while longer before deciding whether snakeheads pose an ongoing threat to native fish populations.

Which brings us to the words “native fish populations.” Which one is native and which one isn’t?

We already know that the snakehead is an alien in the Potomac River, but did you know that the very fish that draws thousands of anglers to the tidal Potomac, the largemouth bass, isn’t a brackish river native?

Neither are the upper Potomac’s smallmouth bass, tiger muskellunge, carp or flathead catfish. In the tidal Potomac, the blue catfish, carp and shortnose gar also are aliens.

By all that’s right then, shouldn’t we shout and holler about getting rid of everything in the tidal river except the “homeys,” the striped bass, white and yellow perch, hickory and white shad, blueback herring, white catfish, sunfish and sturgeon?

Despite the fearsome image the snakehead already has earned — however erroneous the image might be — chances are this unwanted critter will carve out a niche for itself just like all the others have. I don’t like it and I plan to get rid of every one I hook, if I ever hook one. But life will go on, the shrill cries of hyperactive ninnies notwithstanding.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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