BELMONT BAY, Va.
A funny thing happened during an electroshock study of northern snakehead fish that live in the upper tidal Potomac River and its tributaries. It turned out that the largemouth bass outnumbered the dreaded Chinese invaders by at least 100 to 1.
A few days ago, snakehead expert John Odenkirk, the senior district biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, met me inside Massey Creek, a short, brackish stream that is lined with expensive homes on one side and dense fields of water lily-like spatterdock on the other.
Odenkirk, whose work regarding the undesirable introduction of northern snakeheads in the waters of Dogue Creek and other nearby Virginia feeder streams is known nationally, never rests when it comes to this unwanted Oriental species.
On a day when he and fellow Game and Inland Fisheries biologists Mike Isel and Steve Owens, along with Rick Browder of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, undertook a hunt for snakeheads that they knew had spread into the Belmont Bay area of the Occoquan River, Odenkirk provided a surprising picture of all that swims in the Potomac’s marsh-edged tributary streams.
As he steered a large aluminum boat outfitted with spiderlike arms that shot powerful charges of electricity into the creek, temporarily stunning the fish that live in the normally shallow water, Isel and Owens soon began to dip a variety of fish species with long-handled nets. They deposited some in a holding tank and others back into the creek. None of the fish were injured; all of them recovered quickly.
But what amazed everyone was the astonishing number of largemouth bass that came to the surface. Even more amazing was the presence of two fishing boats in the headwaters of Massey Creek, its occupants catching bass in front of the electroshock boat, ignoring the biologists, who did not wish to bother the anglers.
It all worked out wonderfully well. Odenkirk and crew were not only in the hunt for snakeheads - which was just as well because there weren’t many to be found - but they also were doing a study to evaluate the local bass population. Browder, of the Department of Environmental Quality, wanted various sizes of bass to take back to the laboratory, where tissue samples would be would be checked for the presence of PCBs, mercury and other harmful substances. We won’t know if the news will be good or bad until weeks, possibly months, from now.
When the day ended, Odenkirk and company found more largemouth bass than any sport fisherman could ever begin to believe. Not only that, but many crappies, sunfish, bullhead and channel catfish rose to the top helplessly because of the electric current. To be sure, there was one small and one large northern snakehead was found in Massey Creek, and another three large specimens in nearby Kanes Creek.
“You can’t draw any real conclusions of the presence of snakeheads after only one day,” said Odenkirk, “but we’ll be out twice a month through the season; we’ll have a good idea eventually.”
Nowadays Odenkirk tags the shocked-up snakeheads and then releases them.
“They may be growing quicker than we thought, but we don’t know for sure - yet,” he said. “It’s one reason why we tag some and hope to recapture them to establish [their] growth rate.” Of course, catching or shocking up tagged fish anywhere in the river system will also prove how quickly they’ve moved into new areas.
Odenkirk said he’s not seeing as many small snakeheads as he did some years ago when the discovery of the Chinese imports were the talk of the country. “But we are seeing many bigger ones,” he said.
Over on the Maryland shore, meanwhile, local anglers find a variety of the voracious snakeheads that like to attack bass lures. To show how they’ve spread throughout the river system, there have been many catches in Maryland’s Chicamuxen, Pomonkey, Mattawoman and Piscataway creeks, some even as far up as the District.
Recreational anglers are still told to kill a snakehead when they catch one and not to drop it back into the water.
• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: email@example.com. Also check out Mueller’s more detailed weekend fishing report and his Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.