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SNAKEHEADS:  Dead or Alive!

When Snakeheads first illegally invaded our border, namely the Potomac River, the bass fishing community rallied behind resource managers and set out to attack and kill the alien invaders!  Militias of anglers from across the country responded to a Bass Pro Shops bounty, and for 4 years, sought out the piscatorial predator and executed a death sentence. Soon an all out angling assault was organized. A “snakehead rally” was organized to hook the Frankenfish…while none were landed or even seen, it was evident we were serious about eradicating this highly prolific invasive species. WANTED posters greeted anglers at marinas, tackle shops and on line!  An angling army ascended on the Nation’s River unsure as to what we were up against.  Bottom line, the Northern Snakehead was not welcome in our waters.

Try as we might these sinister marauders, who have the reputation of eating everything in sight, have reached mythical proportions and are here to stay. Breathing air, living in low-oxygenated waters, reproducing up to 5 times a year with both parents guarding the fry, and with very few predators, the Snakeheads are the fastest growing fish in our sea, growing an average of over 2 pounds per year!  Ten pounders are routine and a few over 15 pounds have been landed!  Now what?

Both Virginia and Maryland remain focused on the assassination of these fish, while most will agree we aren’t putting a dent in the population growth of this invasive!  They eat just about anything, primarily killifish, but also bass, bluegill, and anything they can sink their snaggled teeth into.  Are they having an impact on bass fishing?  More of an interruption to bass fishing. But, they are becoming a huge nuisance if you are fishing for bass and hook one of these angry fish! Only 20 snakeheads were caught in 2004. Today it’s not out of the ordinary for an individual angler to reel in 2 to 3 a day. What was novel is now routine. Daily outings result in sightings at least, and likely hookups. It’s safe to say these dangerous fish are well established. Our orders remain…catch and kill!

Snakeheads taste great. It’s a firm meat and can be prepared many ways!  In fact, prior to their release into US waters, these fish were imported alive as a food fish!  Since they grow very fast, reportedly about 2 pounds a year, they do not have time to allow toxins to accumulate in their flesh…thus making them fair game for the dinner plate…perhaps one of the safer Potomac River fish to consume. But, if you want to take one home, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Inland Fisheries Director Don Cosden says the fish must be immediately killed and its head removed, or gutted, or both gill arches removed, or filleted.  There are no limits on the capture and possession of snakeheads and they are not subject to any season, creel limit or size limit.” We want you to catch and kill snakeheads,” says Cosden. “This is not a species that we encourage in our waters.” MD officials want to hear from anglers who catch snakeheads only if they are caught outside of the Potomac… (410) 260-8287 or at This will help DNR track the expansion of the species.

Virginia is in accord with Maryland when it comes to snakeheads, both states are hoping to avoid the spread or implantation into smaller more sensitive fisheries. Virginia, however, is still asking that anglers kill and report snakehead captures.  According to VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk, the only thing an angler is legally required to do is contact the snakehead hotline if he or she wishes to keep it.  Odenkirk insists they MUST have killed it and reported to the hotline to have it in possession.  Hotline is 804-367-2925.

As we are in full swing into the 6th year of the war on snakeheads, anglers are becoming weary of snakehead executions. Most anglers come from the “old school” culture of releasing anything not for consumption. While snakeheads are tasty, this catch and kill policy creates a dilemma. Dead fish are like houseguests…stinking after a few hours!  Bass boats are really not designed nor are bass fishermen really prepared to ice down a catch for dining. Who wants to eat a fish that’s been dead for several hours?

At “boat” temperature?   Keeping a fugitive fish alive aboard a boat in livewells is against the law…and when transported across state lines, becomes a federal Lacey Act violation, punishable by fines and imprisonment. 

On the other hand, snakeheads are becoming a sought after sport fish!  Exciting strikes and a pretty good fight are bringing anglers to the Potomac seeking a trophy.  Derek Radoski of reports a worldwide interest in the aggressive Potomac Snakeheads and those in Thailand and Florida! His site features reports, techniques, and lures for these sportsmen. But some of these anglers have adopted a creed of “catch and release”. It is very difficult for anglers to respect their prey then killing them.  Radoski says there are two distinct angler types visiting his site:  those interested in protecting the environment and those interested in sport fishing. With over 2,000 members to his Snakehead Angler Society, Radoski promotes protection of native species through removal of these invasives.

Herein lies the rub. Both MD and VA are doing a great job managing our fisheries. They have been proactive on the snakehead front. But the genie is out of the bottle and most agree snakeheads are here to stay. Surely it helps to remove them from our fisheries. The continued catch and kill policy insures there will be one less fish to compete for forage, to reproduce, or to be transplanted into a smaller fishery which would be devastating. In short time, those fisheries would not survive a snakehead invasion. Removal of just one fish could mean the eradication of potential offspring or expose new brood to predation as both parents are required to protect fry from bird, turtle and fish assaults. With the death of one adult fish, several spawns potentially tens of thousands young fish won’t be in the system next year. This strategy of over-fishing might seem like a drop in the Potomac, but take note of how over-fishing impacted the River’s sturgeon.

Our enemy is the Northern Snakehead. Anglers reluctant to kill a snakehead could be responsible for the species to be renamed, The Potomac River Snakehead! The fish you release might be the one that creates thousands of Potomac River Snakeheads. The law is quite clear, anglers must comply with eradication efforts, no matter how entrenched our outdoor values. Consider the Snakehead’s legacy…a bad sci-fi movie or our national fish. Today it’s a Potomac River problem. Let’s not let it become a national epidemic.

Capt. Steve Chaconas is a Potomac bass fishing guide and BoatUS “Ask the Expert” ( Potomac River reports: Book a trip or purchase gift certificates:



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