Brian Rawlings stares down into a hydrilla bed on Mattawoman Creek, mayflies circling his face. Suddenly, a large gray mass begins to move. He pulls back his arm and shoots an arrow into the heart of a snakehead.
After the atta-boys, Rawlings’ friend Austin Murphy measures the fish: 35 inches. Its weight: close to 17 pounds, the size of a small toddler. Murphy whacks the whipsawing fish with a baseball bat to immobilize it. Then, the men cut out the gills to make sure the catch is good and dead.
“This is a good night,” Murphy declares.
And how. By midnight, the five-man crew will pulverize more than a half-dozen snakeheads, enough to feed the co-workers and friends who can’t get enough of the invasive but delicious fish.
The war against the Potomac River snakeheads was lost long ago— hundreds of thousands of the toothy Asian invaders now make their home in the river. But that doesn’t mean these snakehead slayers can’t enjoy the battle. After all, few prospects are more exciting to recreational fishermen than that of catching as many fish as they want, whenever they want at whatever size they can find with whatever gear — or artillery — they choose.
“We don’t want to sustain this as a fishery. We’re hoping the anglers will go out there and shut the thing down,” said Joe Love, the tidal bass manager at the Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland natural resources officials are not certain we can eat our way out of the invasive problem. But, they reason, there’s no harm in trying. Plus, Love notes, snakehead is tasty. Few would say that about other invaders such as Asian carp, sea lamprey or zebra mussels.
The Snakehead Five and some friends have organized the second annual Potomac Snakehead Tournament. Dubbed the Snakehead Smackdown, it was scheduled to begin before sundown on June 2 at Smallwood State Park in Charles County and go until lunch the next day. Love will speak at the tournament. Chad Wells, an avid fisherman famous for turning the so-called Frankenfish into delicious tacos and ceviche at his Baltimore restaurant, Alewife, will prepare the fish.
Virginia officials are “astonished” by Maryland’s embrace of the snakehead fishery, said Virginia Inland Game and Fisheries Biologist John Odenkirk. They favor a quieter approach, allowing snakehead fishing but declining to advertise it.
“Realistically,” he said, “I think that’s a real big stretch to say what recreational anglers are going to do is going to have an impact on these fish.”
Maryland biologists first discovered northern snakeheads in a Crofton pond 10 years ago. They worried the fish — which can survive on land for several days — would enter the Little Patuxent River. DNR officials poisoned and drained the pond, removing hundreds of juveniles. The Crofton annihilation prompted a media frenzy that stoked the public’s appetite for the so-called Frankenfish. Wells has helped to create a movement among chefs to sate that demand.
Besides the Potomac, the fish have turned up in the Rhode, Patuxent, Nanticoke, Blackwater and Susquehanna rivers. They have also made a prodigal return to the Crofton pond, where anglers recently discovered them.