- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

POHICK BAY, Va.

The day started quietly, but before it ended we were in the middle of a hunt for a fish that is on the wanted-dead/never-alive list by everyone in these parts. The biggest northern snakehead that three local biologists had ever seen was netted and quickly dumped into a holding tank, but not before it made mincemeat of an expensive digital scale.

Dark clouds hovered overhead and weather forecasters predicted there would be rain, maybe severe thunder storms. My boat partner, the Freshwater Fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Bob Lunsford, stood on the back deck slipping into a rain suit. The meteorologists were right. Pretty soon both of us wiped rain from our faces, but we ignored it, paying far more attention to the largemouth bass that jumped on scented plastic worms or lizards.

“I don’t think he’ll show up in this weather,” Lunsford said as we fished. All the same, he kept an eye on the public boat launching ramp at Pohick Bay.

“He” was John Odenkirk, 44, the Northern Virginia fisheries biologist who has become a household name among local anglers who have accidentally hooked the dreaded snakehead fish. It is Odenkirk who usually shows up to identify the species when he’s called by perplexed anglers who have never seen one of the snakeskin-patterned critters with the nasty attitude. It is Odenkirk who will put fears to rest or quietly explain the potential damage this alien invasive species can wreak on the current inhabitants of the tidal Potomac River and its tributaries.

“Give John a call and see if he’s going to launch today,” Lunsford said. But Odenkirk and his colleague, biologist Tom Gunter, had already slipped their boat into the water. They were inside the adjacent Dogue Creek (across from Marshall Hall, Md.), ready to shoot the juice to the shallow waters in a hunt for the northern snakehead that these insiders simply refer to as NSH.

Odenkirk and Gunter met us in an electro-shock boat and pointed the way toward the Mount Vernon Marina, where they’d begin a search for a creature that some have dubbed “Frankenfish.”

The two biologists entered the marina, only a stone’s throw from the Potomac River’s main stem. The generator was cranked up and within minutes electric charges entered the water, largemouth bass, sunfish and crappies instantly came to the surface, slightly stunned, but there were no snakeheads.

Odenkirk turned the boat, backed it up, then shot forward as Gunter quickly dip-netted a few that were to be tagged and released. Then it happened.

“Snakehead, a big one!” shouted Gunter.

But he missed the fish with his long-handled net and, unlike temporarily stunned fish species that remain on their sides for minutes on end, the snakehead instantly gained momentum and disappeared. Odenkirk shook his head.

“Oh, man, I wanted that snakehead,” he said.

Only five minutes later, along a seawall with an expensive house overlooking a manicured lawn, Gunter and Odenkirk struck pay dirt. A northern snakehead was electrically zapped and this time Gunter didn’t miss.

“It’s huge,” said Odenkirk, pointing to the dip-net held by Gunter while we, in an aluminum boat that wasn’t insulated with rubber pads and such, kept a respectful distance from the electric charges. However, we could plainly see the net in which a strangely patterned creature flailed and twisted about with astonishing strength.

It was a large female NSH. When Odenkirk placed her on a measuring board next to his digital scale, she wildly slammed her tail and body from side to side and promptly demolished the biologist’s scale.

“They’re tough, aren’t they?” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. Finally he weighed her on a hand-held scale. The fish weighed 12 pounds. It was the biggest snakehead Odenkirk had yet recorded.

“I want to weigh her ovaries, which helps predict what a future spawn might [have] been like,” he said.

Two smaller snakeheads were also collected that morning. But then the clouds got even darker and the rain that had briefly stopped threatened to return big-time. We thanked the Virginians for allowing us to spend the morning with them, safe in the knowledge three snakeheads would no longer stalk the shallow waters of Dogue Creek.

Odenkirk, by the way, doesn’t disagree with what I’ve written in the past. The snakeheads will find their place in the river system, just as 30 non-native species have done since 1854 and that includes the super-popular largemouth and smallmouth bass. Life will go on.

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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