Pit bulls in space. Snakeheads, well, everywhere
It's been nine years since a recreational fisherman pulled a northern snakehead out of a scrummy pond in Crofton and federal and state experts told us it was an isolated problem.
I heard about it and wrote the first story. It was the last time I was alone, with CNN, NPR and tons of other media outlets camping out until the Department of Natural Resources poisioned the pond and ended the saga--temporarily.
Now, it's hard to think of a watering hole that might not harbor the toothy invasive fish from Asia. The snakehead is becoming one of those cyclical summer stories like pit bull and shark attacks--not at the same time. These stories fill the headlines and airwaves for a few weeks and then disappear just as suddenly.
Just this week, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center announced that biologists netted a 23-inch, egg-bearing female in the Rhode River, just south of Annapolis, while conducting their annual fish sampling.
Don Cosden, the assistant fisheries director for DNR, says he has other reports of snakehead sightings. And fishing guide Mike Starrett sent me a photo of his latest catch (17 pounds, 30-inches) taken Wednesday night in Mattawoman Creek--more on that in a moment.
In an email to me, Cosden said he had three reports--two confirmed and one from a very credible source--of snakeheads in the Nanticoke River.
"I had a report of an observation that sounded pretty credible at the head of South River. We think these are all natural range expansion of this critter," he wrote. "We had another caught in a pond in Montgomery County, which is in the Muddy Branch drainage, which is a tributary to the Potomac River above Great Falls. I believe this one must have been released by someone because of the difficulty of actually migrating into this impoundment."
Is someone spreading these suckers with an eye toward creating a new recreational opportunity (like Virginia's blue catfish) or is it an entrepreneur who sees snakeheads as a replacement in fish markets for declining species?
Beats me. Beats the folks with the science degrees.
Until someone gets to the bottom of this range expansion thing, perhaps we all ought to practice pitching plastic lures to grass beds, like chef Chad Wells of Baltimore's Alewife restaurant and Starrett.
Here's Starrett's Mattawoman story in his own words: "I saw the big fish slide into hole and turn facing out. I cast a black horny toad over the hole in the hydrilla and ran it slowly over top. Nuttin, not even a look-see. So I cast it again and this let it drop in the hole with a slight twitch, as the poor little frog left the hole the snakehead attacked it.
"Hookup was strong and I had a medium-heavy rod, with 40-pound braid to turn him from digging into the grass--I have lost so many by them weaving my line through the matted grass. Once I got him clear of the grass, my reel seat popped and I was able to retighten it quickly.
"I Boga gripped his lower jaw and then clipped his gills with a pair of kitchen shears. Later that evening the big snakehead came back to life and leaped out of the livewell and almost bit the young man (a client) on boat. It was kinda funny.
"I clipped his gills again. Later at the dock the snakehead leaped out of the livewell again and, man, that young man was shaken by that. We all laughed. It will stick in his memory forever."
Starrett said he gave the fish to his neighbor, who loves the taste of snakehead.
Can't wait to hear the next snakehead story...unless we've moved onto another species to get us through the summer.