Monday, June 18, 2012

Visiting Snakehead Invasion Ground Zero

You know that spot you always wanted to fish, but you didn't?  I have lots of them, and you probably do too.  One of them is between Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington, and was the scene of the east coast's first Northern Snakehead discovery in 2002.   Like most spots I've circled on a map but haven't visited, I've stayed away for a variety of reasons - no single causative "no go."  However, the biggest reason I've delayed my first visit is that upon finding the Snakehead in this pond, Maryland DNR obliterated the pond with Rotenone, killing pretty much all animal life (and a thousand-plus snakeheads) within the pond.  I think it's been poisoned again since then, to make sure the Snakeheads were gone.  Fish poisons with a 20-year half-life seem like a good reason to avoid fishing a spot.

Good cover, good oxygen
But finally I stopped by the place.  I won't name the pond, not because it's secret (I found a worm bucket and several empty soda bottles) but because the pond's ownership is dubious, and personally, I'd prefer that it remain so.   Like many of the other spots I fish within a few miles of there, it's an abandoned or "reclaimed" sand and gravel pit in the floodplain of the Patuxent / Little Patuxent Rivers.  The "reclamation" process usually includes shoring up any dams, throwing down a little topsoil and a little grass seed, and saying "So long!"  Even so, given time, some pretty interesting habitats can develop on these sites - these are often groundwater-fed ponds, which often have no linkage to the nearby rivers (except during floods).   Most are less than 40-50 acres in size, and have no current or fetch to speak of - just cold, clean water.  At least until the algae bloom starts and the groundwater table drops for the summer.

In 2002, an angler headed out to this pond for what turned out to be a very newsworthy day, or at least what passes for newsworthy when an invasive species is something other than a tiger or 20 foot crocodile.  He was bass fishing and instead of bass, found something very different, something that had been brought all the way from the canals and wetlands of Southeast Asia.  This is the actual photo (courtesy of Maryland DNR).

The alarms immediately went off for federal and state fisheries biologists, and an immediate, aggressive control effort was put into place.  And it failed.   We'll never really know if the Northern Snakehead invasion began in this pond, but it's pretty likely, and the fish reproduced and moved into the Patuxent River very quickly - more were discovered downstream that very year.   Two years later, it was found in the tidal portion of the Potomac.   Other rivers followed.  In 2011, it was confirmed to have crossed the Chesapeake Bay successfully, and invading tidal freshwater rivers on Maryland's eastern shore.   Most warm, tidal tributaries of the Potomac and Patuxent now have documented Snakeheads present.  Biologists hope that saltwater to the south and cold winter temperatures to the north can work to limit its spread.  Hasn't worked yet.

The Snakehead is a voracious killer, and it's said to love juvenile largemouth bass (themselves introduced to Maryland about 100 years ago, although from Florida, not Asia).   Maryland DNR requires that all Snakeheads be killed once in possession - it's illegal to have a live one in your possession, no matter what the circumstances.   A few snakehead tournaments have already been held, and more are yet to come.  But it certainly seems like this toothy invader is probably here to stay.  I've been trying to chase one down for about a year and have failed.  It's almost time for my next attempt, at Mattawoman Creek, one of North America's hotspots for snakehead fishing.  Stay tuned....


Steve Zakur said...

That's a fish that just plain scares me. It's prehistoric and voracious. I like native fish though I try not to be a native snob. Heck, I like catching Browns and Rainbows too. But the Snakehead is the posterchild for being too ambivalent about non-native species; where does it end?

I hope you never catch one. :) I especially hope I never catch one.

Alex said...

Going to try and catch Bullseye Snakehead this September. It's gonna be awesome!

Jack Landers said...

I've got a honey-hole for snakeheads around Mason Neck that I'd be happy to share with you. Its not that they are easy to get there -- but they are always present and can be reached on foot. Shoot me an email if you want details.

River Mud said...

Steve, I don't think it's ambivalence. It's just that removing this particular invasive is "fun" - it's an excellent catch and an excellent meal. Also consider the nature of these expansive waterways - hard to imagine we'll get rid of them completely.

River Mud said...

Jack - thanks. I've been to some pretty "suspect" spots on both the Refuge and the state park (around 2008-2009) and I honestly wondered if they'd end up being snakehead habitat. The reports started coming in last summer :(

I'll email you for the info, I still end up down there a few times a year.