THERE ARE MANY SLIMY and unappealing things in Washington, D.C.—politicians, attorneys, lobbyists—but flyfisher Austin Murphy is interested in just one: the northern snakehead, also known as the Potomac Pike or the fearsome-sounding Frankenfish, named for its seemingly unnatural ability to move on land, live for days out of water breathing air, secrete mucus from its thick skin, and eat just about anything it can fit in its mouth.
“I’m obsessed with them,” Murphy says. It’s true, even his Twitter handle is Snakehead Slayer. Murphy works the weedy, shallow tidal waters of the Potomac River and its tributary creeks, poling a skiff and sight-fishing with an 8- or 9-weight. He compares catching snakeheads on the fly to taking a permit or musky, in terms of difficulty and approach.
“I love the challenge of catching them on the fly,” he says. “They’re selective feeders and creatures of vibration, so they’re spooky.” He fishes for them when they’re on the move and feeding, during the peak season between April and July.
You can see them swimming, Murphy says, but you can’t always get them to eat, partially because their food source is constantly changing. Like trout fishing, you need to match the hatch—they’ll eat bull minnows, shad, bluegill, perch, mice, birds, crayfish, amphibians, and occasionally each other.
Murphy’s not alone. There is a small but growing army of fly rodders gunning for these toothsome Asian invaders. Local Virginia guide Rob Snowhite began stalking snakeheads twelve years ago from shore and in kayaks and drift boats. He struck out his first year. Frustrated, he dreamed about them at night.
Then he got lucky in the tidal basin, not far from the Washington Monument, using a foam bug as an indicator and about five feet of eight-pound mono to separate his nymph from the indicator. He was moving along the flooded shores, sight-casting to carp and allowing his nymph to drift in the current, when something big ate his fly and took off for deeper water. He called over a nearby tourist and handed him a camera to film the whole thing. His prize was a 34-inch snakehead—his first. He’s caught four more since.
Now, just like Murphy, Snowhite is addicted. He estimates he’s scouting for snakeheads 90 percent of the time he’s out fishing. “I’m always looking for them,” he says. “I just spent a month searching for them while trespassing in a three-square-mile area covered with signs reading, ‘Unexploded Ordinances. Do Not Go Out Of Boundaries.’”
At times it almost sounds personal for Snowhite, as if he believes the snakeheads are taunting him.
“You sometimes see a dozen of them in six inches of water with their backs sticking out,” he says. “They like to tease you. They’ll come up to breathe right under your rod tip or in front of your feet. They’ll make eye contact. They show no fear. You can bounce flies off their nose, yet they’re sensitive—they know everything that’s going on.”
Snowhite can name about a dozen people in the area who have landed snakeheads on a fly. “But the numbers are absolutely growing,” he says.
Maryland guide Trent Jones just laughs. “Oh the elusive Channa argus.” (The scientific name for Northern Snakehead.)
This growing group is a welcome addition to local waters. Snakeheads are native to China, Russia, and Korea, where they are considered a delicacy. They were introduced to America through illegal fish farms that breed them for sport fishing and eating. Armed with massive teeth and a voracious appetite, the fish has no natural predators here, and can often outcompete native fish for food, damaging commercial fishing industries.
The first northern snakehead found in the U.S. was pulled out of California’s Silverwood Lake, just east of Los Angeles, in 1977. The invasive species first appeared in the Potomac in 2002, and they expanded from there to rivers on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The snakehead is now a concern to the entire mid-Atlantic region, with an estimated 20,000 snakeheads in the Potomac alone, including a few discovered last July in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, above Great Falls. The fish had never before been found in the non-tidal upper part of the river.
In response, state and federal agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have steadily increased penalties and fines, and are now up to $250,000 and five years in jail for live possession, breeding, or transporting a snakehead.
The snakehead world record was set in May—an 18.42-pounder caught in a Potomac tributary in Maryland. And last October, another angler pulled one weighing 17-and-a-half pounds out of a Virginia river. Some are hoping the chance of landing a record fish will help enlist anglers in the battle. In January 2012, a snakehead “eradication contest,” sponsored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, saw 69 anglers land 82 snakeheads. Murphy has run the Potomac Snakehead Tournament for the past five years.
The eradication event—rechristened the “Stop the Snakehead” fishing derby—was resurrected on June 11 of this year. Organizers and sponsors, including Maryland DNR, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were motivated in part by last summer’s discovery of the fish above Great Falls.
“Snakeheads are thriving,” said Joe Evans, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who encourages people to catch them, keep them, and eat them, since they are a non-native species with the capacity to negatively affect the local fish population.
“There’s a lot of buzz out there,” Murphy said. “A lot more fly rodders are targeting them.”
It doesn’t hurt that the fish taste good. Baltimore and Washington area restaurants serve it regularly, as area chefs consider the dense, meaty, mild-tasting white flesh ideal for anything from grilling to baking. Murphy sometimes fillets and grills them right on the boat, adding nothing more than salt, pepper, and a little Old Bay seasoning.
[John Clarke writes for The New Yorker, Reuters, and The Washington Post.]