The Snakehead Mission

This week’s blog was written by Joseph S., a Brookies alumni. He is mainly interested in reptiles – especially snakes, amphibians, and fish. Joseph has many reptile species and both fresh and saltwater fish at home and in the pond in his backyard. Joseph enjoys hiking and kayaking in national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges. He would like to become a herpetologist or toxicologist.

Imagine a vicious mythological sea serpent covered by brown and tan scales with dark blotches, an enormous mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, intelligent eyes placed on top of its head, and a powerful tail for speedy swimming. Now, just downsize the creature to a couple of feet in length and move it from depths of the ocean to freshwater, and you get the northern snakehead (Channa Argus), the Northeast’s fiercest invasive freshwater fish.

Our first caught snakehead, Mallows Bay, Maryland

Even though this hardy predator native in China and Russia, is no mysterious ancient species, its swift expansion through many US states is alarming. The first established population was discovered in Maryland in 2002 when the northern snakehead was released without authorization into a pond. Soon, many thriving populations have been established in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The first sightings in Pennsylvania were reported in 2004 and since then, snakeheads have been caught in the Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and many other rivers.

A parent guarding its snakehead fry (circled), Mattawoman Creek, Maryland

You might hear many wild stories about snakeheads and this species is also known for some really unique adaptations. A special organ allows them to get oxygen directly out of the air, so they can survive without water for up to four days. On top of that, snakeheads can move on land. Even though they are ferocious eaters and their diet includes other fish, amphibians, birds, and even small mammals, they really don’t hunt people (men were only on the sea serpent’s menu). Still, attacks from snakeheads guarding their nests (very unusual for a fish) on people have been described. Being more aggressive than native fish, snakeheads can easily outcompete (and eventually displace) local predators like largemouth and smallmouth bass, and their spread in Maryland indicates the possibility of snakeheads even taking over trout waters.

Snakehead’s huge mouth with dagger-like teeth.

Although the idea that such an aggressive fish is in our waterways can be grim, there are some positive aspects. They can spread exceptionally fast, but still, no permanent destruction of local ecosystems by these apex predators has been documented. Snakeheads are an interesting game fish for anglers. They fight much harder than bass and their meat is very tasty. Since they prefer shallow waters, they are an easy target for bow fishermen. There are no limits on snakeheads and anglers are urged to kill all caught snakeheads immediately.

Snakehead, Tidal Basin, Washington DC

After observing multiple whirling snakeheads in the C&O canal, my brother and I decided to finally face this invasive monster. Equipped with topwater lures and the knowledge that snakehead females release as many as 100,000 eggs every year, we did not expect any difficulties. However, during our first outings, we failed completely even in well-known snakehead creeks. We decided to try our luck from a canoe on Mallows Bay off the Potomac. After hours of paddling through thick vegetation, the fierce creature finally attacked. It was already growing dusk when we spotted a movement in water lilies with less than a couple of inches of water. Within a second, my brother casted, our weedless frog suddenly disappeared in a huge swirl. Our heavy line and stiff rod could barely handle the fighting fish. After a lot of chaos on our deck and powerful wriggling all over our canoe, the serpent-like fish, at last, ended under my seat. All sweaty and muddy, we started to understand why some anglers call the snakehead “frankenfish”. Even though we have caught many more snakeheads at various locations this spring and summer, we give them a lot of credit for being very challenging opponents. For sure, we do not call our mission accomplished. There are tens of thousands of invasive snakeheads aggressively hunting in our local creeks and their numbers need to be at least reduced if not eliminated. Also, we have never gotten even close to the record 19.9-pound catch.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.