They didn’t have to be blockbusters to send the message: This fish is to be feared. A native of China, the Channa argus had been snagging national headlines about the havoc it would wreak since it was first discovered in a Crofton, MD, pond in 2002. It could eat everything around and then walk overland to another water body to do it again. Or so the rap went.
Since then, snakeheads have proliferated and spread like wildfire, as many had feared. But, along the way, their fearsome reputation has softened some, at least among recreational anglers who’ve found they’re fun to catch and not bad tasting either.
“It was set up to be the poster child for all invasives, because it had this fierce name and teeth,” said John Odenkirk, fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “Many of us never subscribed to the initial hysteria, but we’ve been battling it ever since.”
Despite Maryland’s draining the pond where snakeheads were first found, the fish showed up in the Potomac and has since become firmly established in more than 60 miles of the waterway. It has also spread to ponds, reservoirs and other rivers. The U.S. Geological Survey lists snakeheads as “established” in the creeks around Baltimore, the Rhode River south of Annapolis and the Wicomico River near Salisbury. They’ve made it all the way up the Bay to the lower Susquehanna River and south to the Rappahannock River.
In response to that first snakehead sighting in the Potomac, anglers were exhorted to catch and kill as many as they could, lest the fish consume or outcompete their beloved bass and other keystone species. But, more than a decade later and despite its rampant spread, fears about the fish’s environmental impact have yet to materialize.
Its numbers, rather, appear to have plateaued, Odenkirk said, and the snakehead’s presence has had little discernible impact on the rest of the food chain — so far.
“While I’ve been saying for years and continue to say is that there doesn’t seem to be an ecological impact yet, I always make sure that I put that ‘yet’ in there because we’re dealing with an invasive that has only been here about 10 years,” said Daniel Ryan, fisheries research branch chief for the District Department of Energy & Environment.
But the snakehead’s low impact is not the main reason anglers are warming to the fish they once cursed when it took the place of a trophy catch on their lines. With its tasteful white meat — some anglers call it the “pork of the Potomac” — and elusive ways in the water, the snakehead has become a popular fish to snag and eat. The programs that encouraged anglers to start catching them were successful, perhaps too much so. Residents who’ve fallen for the fish are often suspected of aiding its spread to new areas.
“If you ask the majority of anglers now, they’ll say, ‘Keep them here,’ ” said Art Noglak, fishing manager at the Orvis store in Tysons Corner, VA, and a member of the Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders. He called it “a great game fish.”
Noglak has come to enjoy the snakehead so much that he’ll even go so far as to call them “absolutely gorgeous,” an accolade that few might give to the primitive-looking creature.
Virginia’s Odenkirk wouldn’t call it pretty, but said its presence hasn’t proved as detrimental to the Potomac landscape as many thought it might be. The electrofishing surveys he regularly conducts indicate that the river’s snakehead population plateaued around 2008 and 2009 and has declined in some areas since then.
He has a theory that nonnative species introduced to a new ecosystem eventually reach a state of equilibrium with other species there, followed by a reduction in abundance. Some anglers think they’ve seen that themselves.
Though Odenkirk’s fish-counting data is highly variable, he said his theory has been supported by a smaller study of Little Hunting Creek near Mount Vernon, VA, where biologists have been tracking snakeheads for the last three years. The population estimate there went from 700 adult fish in 2013 to half as many last year, he said, “so that gives us some credence that we’re seeing real declines.”
Odenkirk suggested that thriving recreational fisheries in Virginia and the District of Columbia have helped to keep the numbers in check — even as they’ve encouraged more fishermen to “fall in love with this fish,” he said.
“Now, I have people calling my office every week. They want me to put limits on how many people can take, because they don’t see as many and they love their snakeheads,” said Odenkirk, whose surveys reflect a slight uptick in the number of anglers fishing exclusively for snakehead rather than largemouth bass.
Though some anglers have come to embrace the maligned snakehead, that doesn’t suddenly make them welcome in local waters, said Joseph Love, a fisheries biologist in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service still lists the northern snakehead as “injurious to the health and welfare of humans, the interests of agriculture, horticulture or forestry, and the welfare and survival of wildlife resources.”
Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia each classify the snakehead as either an invasive or nuisance species that they do not want to spread any farther into local ecosystems.
Both states have prosecuted anglers thought to have moved fish from one area to another or found with live snakeheads in their possession. Doing so is in violation of the federal Lacey Act and can come with a $10,000 fine and, in some cases, jail time.
But the states’ approaches diverge from there. Virginia has a recreational but no commercial fishery for snakehead, while the Potomac River Fisheries Commission has declared open season on them year-round, with no size or catch limits. Maryland has encouraged commercial fishermen to sell any they catch, with local wholesalers paying around $5 a pound.
Odenkirk expressed concern that creating a commercial fishery for them in Virginia could give people an economic incentive to illegally transplant them to other lakes and rivers in the state. The snakehead is already well-established in many Maryland waters, but officials want to encourage anything that would help keep their numbers down.
“In terms of our fear that people are going to be playing Johnny Appleseed with the animal,” Love said, “we haven’t seen that. Instead, what we have seen is a species that’s very capable of dispersing on its own.”
How the snakehead has reached some areas of the watershed remains a mystery. Though it can’t really “walk” overland, the freshwater fish has proven to be quite the traveler on its own — tolerant to brackish or even polluted waters in some regions.
Female snakeheads can release 40,000 to 100,000 eggs and spawn multiple times per year. Biologists believe that like many other fish, they disperse into suitable new areas as their populations grow. Birds and anglers can also inadvertently spread a few of the snakehead’s many eggs to a new water body.
For these reasons, Love said Maryland has “really stepped up its game” to limit their reach as much as possible.
His department will host a “Stop the Snakehead” fishing derby on May 21 in the C&O Canal, where the fish was found reproducing in 2015.
“A lot of times, government will not impose control methods for newly introduced species, because they don’t see them as a problem,” Love said. “But you give it 20 or 30 years, and we end up seeing collapses in the fisheries we care about because actions weren’t taken soon enough.”
The uphill battle to stem the tide of the snakehead’s spread has also meant trying to sell it as good to eat. The DNR’s former fisheries marketing director, Steve Vilnit, encouraged chefs in the region to put invasive species on their menus, to build a market for the fishermen they were urging to catch them.
Meanwhile, when the snakehead appeared in new areas, such as ponds near Maryland’s Patuxent and Wicomico rivers around 2012, officials rushed to eradicate them before they spread, with limited success. They’ve also been discovered in parts of Boston, North Carolina, Arkansas and Florida.
“The one problem with changing angler attitudes, from a fisheries management perspective, is that now we have a species that is desirable to catch,” said the District’s Ryan.
“That increases the threat of that species being moved by man into other tributaries and ponds where it doesn’t exist.”
Anglers say snakeheads aren’t all that easy to catch. But Noglak said that makes it all the more fun to try.
On a given day this time of year, on Chain Bridge across the Potomac in Northwest DC, Noglak said, “You’ll see 50 or 60 guys up there going for snakeheads, hootin’ and hollerin’.”
Martin Gary, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said he was not surprised to learn that some recreational anglers have come to prefer catching snakehead.
“It’s gone from a novelty to something people really enjoy pursuing, and they’re really good to eat,” said Gary, whose organization created a bow-fishing license for the snakehead in 2015.
While the wily fish can be caught with a net during the winter, the preferred method for fetching them from the Bay grasses in the summer is with a bow or crossbow at night. This involves shooting a barbed arrow through the fish that can then be reeled in by an attached line.
“My bow fishermen can go out and catch 300–500 pounds in a night” in the Potomac, said John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability for the seafood distributor Profish.
In the last five or six years, Rorapaugh estimates his company has sold 30,000 pounds of snakehead, mostly to District chefs.
In recognition of that small but growing commercial market, Maryland’s legislature last month approved a commercial bow-fishing license for snakeheads.
DOEE’s Ryan said he’s still amazed at the number of recreational anglers in the region who have converted their bass boats to fish for snakehead, adding generators to fuel halogen lights for midnight hunting.
Though opinions diverge about the snakehead’s invasiveness, it’s clear that it has become part of the local landscape and a fishing culture that already relies on nonnative species. The largemouth bass and rainbow trout, to name a couple prized catches, were introduced long ago.
The question — which may not be answered for years — is whether the snakehead will outcompete those other species, driving down their numbers over time.
For now, Odenkirk said, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the Potomac, where largemouth bass still outnumber snakehead by about 15 to 1. They occupy the same space in the food chain, so their coexistence, Odenkirk surmised, indicates that there’s enough fish food to go around.
Or could the snakehead, in the end, be squeezed by another invasive species, the rapacious, massive blue catfish? Introduced by Odenkirk’s department in the 1970s, the blue cat population has expanded dramatically in recent years. In parts of the James River, they now account for more than three-quarters of all fish biomass, and they are thought to be harming important Bay species in many of the tributaries they are taking over.
Perhaps the best thing for the snakehead’s reputation could be that there’s a new fish in town that, by comparison, makes it look — almost — worth welcoming.