They were called “frankenfish” and “fishzilla,” as if they were created in the laboratory of a mad scientist. They even morphed into a mythological creature that could walk across dry land and survive out of water for days. The hysteria around snakeheads also spawned a rash of B-list movies.
One included gruesome attacks by roving packs of six-foot fish that devoured swimmers, crashed boats, and slithered into lakeside cabins to gnaw on helpless teenagers.
But snakeheads are not the result of a freak experiment. They are nothing more than a fish native to Asia that somehow made its way into the tidal Potomac River more than a decade ago.
As it turns out, snakeheads can indeed wriggle across the ground for short distances. They can even live out of water for several days, thanks to their ability to breathe air, but they must be kept moist. They don’t attack swimmers, however, and they certainly won’t crawl into a house to eat children or pets.
Even better, snakeheads are not the ecological disaster many fisheries biologists feared, at least not in the Potomac. One early study suggested the river’s bass population would decline by one third if snakehead numbers were not controlled. There’s no question they prey on juvenile largemouth bass and other young game fish, but after more than a decade of research, snakeheads, it turns out, are just another fish.
“They seem to have reached an equilibrium with the other fish in the river and they occupy a niche that was largely unfilled,” says Regional Fisheries Biologist John Odenkirk, with the Department (DGIF). “The Potomac is a very fertile river. There seems to be plenty of food to go around, even with the addition of this new species.
“We’ve found 20 or 25 different items in their stomachs, which means they just eat what’s available at the time. Killifish, white perch, baby bluegills, crayfish, mice, whatever happens to be in front of them. They even eat their own young.”
The good news? They have not had any noticeable impact on the largemouth fishery. In other words, snakeheads are just another game fish in a system brimming with game fish. Well, not just another game fish. Watch a snakehead smash a top water lure meant for bass and you might ditch your bass tackle and start fishing for snakeheads.
Because of those heart-stopping, lure-crushing strikes, the powerful runs, their voracious appetite and varied diet, snakeheads have turned into a bucket-list fish for a growing number of anglers throughout Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region. The good news is that snakeheads are not only abundant in parts of the Potomac, they are relatively easy to catch, says Potomac River guide Steve Chaconas. Make that, they are relatively easy to hook. Getting one to a net, however, isn’t necessarily turnkey.
“They have sharp teeth, so they can cut line pretty easily,” says Chaconas. “They are also incredibly strong and they are very good at burying themselves in grass and other cover. I use some pretty heavy tackle and 60-pound braided fishing line, which is more difficult to cut and it has less stretch than monofilament. You need to make long casts, which means it can be harder to get a good hook set if you use monofilament.”
That’s one reason he favors lures like hollow-body frogs. They are relatively heavy and can be cast much farther than lots of other lures. Frogs also float. Since snakeheads stay close to the surface much of the spring and summer, frogs are an ideal choice. Besides, who doesn’t love the sight of a big fish exploding on a topwater lure?
A variety of other surface baits work, but hollow-body frogs have a number of distinct advantages. First, said Chaconas, they are weedless. Since snakeheads prefer thick aquatic vegetation and heavy wood cover, it’s all but impossible to use a lure with exposed hooks.
Frogs also make lots of noise. Snakeheads not only hunt by sight, they also hunt by sound. And frogs have heavier hooks than most baits. The fish are strong enough to bend thinner hooks found on other lures.
Snakeheads are also showing up in a number of places that don’t offer the security of wide mudflats and vast stands of aquatic plants. Despite warnings and even laws preventing the transport of live snakeheads and their release into public waters, a number of anglers have done just that. One Virginia angler was actually fined after admitting he released snakeheads into Lake Brittle, which now has an established population. So do a number of other waters, including Lake Abel, Burke Lake, and Pelham, Occoquan, and Hunting Run reservoirs. Whether or not they will settle into their own niche without harming the existing fisheries remains to be seen. In the meantime, Odenkirk encourages anglers to target snakeheads in those waters. He only asks that when you catch one, kill it and then take it home and eat it.
More important, don’t transport live fish and, above all, do not stock them anywhere, even in a pond that may seem isolated. They may not be able to walk for miles across dry land and they don’t chase screaming teenagers, but why take chances?
–David Hart with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries