Kenny, 47, hasn’t put the fish in the cooler behind the Woolford store in Dorchester County, one of his favorite haunts, but he’s seen his fair share of open snakeheads and knows that they are usually full of eggs and other animals. He rattled off a list, his voice choppy like a machine gun: minnows, bass, perch, crayfish, frogs, even baby ducks. “There’s not a place in here where they haven’t had an impact,” Kenny tells me as he pulls a big eight-pounder out of the cooler. “There’s not a biologist here who says we’re fine.”
Northern snakeheads were first seen in the spring of 2002 when a fisherman snagged one in a marshy pond behind a shopping center in Crofton. When another was captured there and reported to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, all aquatic hell broke loose and the legend of the “Frankenfish” was born. Think of the “killer bees” of the 1970s and the media attention they received.
A Washington Post headline from July 2002 revealed that “bizarre fish story flourishes.” This fish was able to swallow air and “walk”. Horror movies were made – including one titled “Snakehead Terror,” starring model Carol Alt – and locals sold t-shirts.
How did the dreaded fish get here? Two snakeheads were released into the pond, The Post has learned, by a man who bought them at an Asian market in New York, intending to turn them into soup.
For every outdoor enthusiast like Kenny, who believes the snakeheads will eventually destroy local people, there are others who have come to appreciate, even obsess, the fish for its fighting prowess after a fishing line. Many of these fishermen say they don’t see this devastation in the places where they fish. The two factions often mingle in the half-dozen Facebook groups dedicated to snakeheads. (Full disclosure: I’ve caught a few dozen snakeheads over the years in New Jersey, and haven’t killed one yet.)
Steve Kambouris, 38, a snakehead enthusiast from Dundalk, Maryland, thinks the species will eventually be considered a non-native game fish, something to market for sport fishers, not a pest to eradicate. “I would say anyone who says he’s a trash fish hasn’t caught one,” Kambouris told me. “In terms of sport fish, I can’t think of any freshwater fish I’d rather catch.”
Biologists, of course, are more measured than both sides in their assessments. Twenty years, they say, is a breach in biological chronology. “We should be concerned about invasive species because once they become established, eradicating them is virtually impossible and control measures can be very costly,” says Steven P. Minkkinen, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. When it comes to snakeheads, Minkkinen says, “the genie is out of the bottle.”
Minkkinen pointed to a study, a before and after look at fish populations in the Blackwater River catchment after the Snakeheads were established in 2012. The river and its extensive tributaries are only a few miles from the Woolford store and became a hub for the snakehead. fishermen from all over the country. The 2018-19 study replicated a fish study conducted at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in 2006-07 and found declines in other prey fish populations. “The loss of these prey species could be partly due to the presence of an additional top predator like Northern Snakehead,” the study authors wrote.
Snakeheads are tough. They can breathe oxygen from the water for days and they don’t collapse on their side like most fish. Snakeheads are slipping. During heavy rains, they often grow in adjacent streams. When the snakeheads were discovered, officials poisoned Crofton Pond to kill them, but the Little Patuxent River flows a few yards away, and it’s likely that fish or eggs came out or were moved by birds and turtles. They then settled in the Potomac River.
Snakeheads can be sold commercially but are difficult to catch in large numbers because they prefer shallow water with dense vegetation, which few boats with nets can access. One of the most effective ways of killing them has been archery fishing at night – using a bow and arrow – on smaller boats equipped with bright lights.
Anglers find snakeheads difficult to catch, due to their hard, bony mouths, and they fight like pit bulls to get loose, even when inside your kayak. That’s why most of the snakeheads in Kenny’s cooler had holes in their heads from arrows, knives, or screwdrivers: from the moment the fishermen administer the knockout blow, as if they were sending a zombie.
“Man, as long as they’re wet they can live for days,” Kenny said.
Kenny, like state and federal wildlife officials, wants anglers to eat the snakeheads they catch. He promotes events, such as the Cecil County Snakehead Fishing Tournament, in which snakeheads must be taken to a weigh station to be measured. Since it’s illegal to transport a live Northern Serpent’s Head, it must be dead. A screwdriver in the head usually does this.
Kambouris, on the other hand, hosts online tournaments where anglers submit their measurements along with photos before releasing the snakehead.
Kenny’s final argument for killing snakeheads was a freshly made plate of breaded fish sticks on a table outside the store. He took a sip of an energy drink, then encouraged everyone – a fellow fisherman, the shop owner, this reporter and a photographer – to dig.
“It’s like crabmeat in pieces,” he told us.
Some fish are so ugly that sailors and traders have changed their names to make them more palatable to the seafood industry. Snakeheads, with their bulging eyes and penchant for oozing mud, have no had such a makeover – but once you’ve eaten one, it doesn’t matter. Their meat is as white and flaky as any cod or plaice, maybe even better.
The plate was empty within minutes, and there’s at least one more angler who could carry a screwdriver in his tackle box now.
Jason Nark is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a freelance writer.