By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan

There’s been a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of unsupported claims, a lot of vitriolic condemnation – and goodness knows, the movie industry’s portrayal has not helped. Nevertheless, despite the confusion; and overlooking such gems as Snakehead Terror, Frankenfish and Swarm of the Snakehead; fisheries biologists in Virginia and Florida have found that the northern snakehead and bullseye snakehead, respectively, have not become the ecological nightmare many had feared.

It’s that new-neighbor thing – someone different moves in, they don’t fit the mold, they do things differently and immediately, they’re judged to be wrong.

Referencing the past decade-plus of population studies, along with the lack of any damning evidence in professional literature, John Odenkirk, regional fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), said the snakehead probably gets more heat than it actually deserves.

“When I’m giving presentations, instead of just saying ‘invasive,’ I’ll put the word ‘potentially’ in front of that because I don’t think there has been any verifiable ecological or economical negative associated with (any snakehead),” Odenkirk said. “Whether it’s the bullseye in south Florida, the blotched snakehead in Hawaii or the northern in (various states), it just hasn’t happened yet and despite all the hysteria and hype that we experienced in the early 2000s, these fears just haven’t come to fruition.

“I’m not saying it won’t and I’m not saying it’s a good thing to move fish around, but let’s be real. Let’s step back and look at the science and then let’s let that drive the policy when it’s time to make decisions.”

So, what does the science say? According to Odenkirk, it says that the snakehead’s aggressive expansion should not be misinterpreted as necessarily problematic.

“I published a paper last year that showed that the increase in abundance after the snakehead colonized had slowed, if not reversed and began to decrease,” he said. “Where the fish has been the longest – the better part of 15 years (in the Potomac River) – I think we’ve seen it run its course in terms of maximum density.

“The northern snakehead is continuing to colonize new areas and where it has most recently colonized, the numbers are increasing. If your definition of ‘invasive’ is a good colonist, then it would have to be invasive; but most people’s definition of invasive include some negative economic or ecological impact and you can argue that with economics, the snakehead has actually been on the plus side.” (More on that in a moment.)

In the Sunshine State – where southern flood control canals abound with a plethora of released cichlids, snakeheads and other aquarium oddballs – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Barron Moody said he’s not surprised by Virginia’s findings with the northern snakehead in the Potomac. His agency’s findings seem to agree with those of his Mid-Atlantic colleagues.

“Our experience in south Florida with bullseye snakehead in urban canal systems is fairly similar and it reflects most of our general experience with exotic freshwater fish in south Florida,” Moody said. “Our monitoring continues to support no declines in native sport fish due to exotic fishes in these habitats.”

Courtesy of Steve Chaconas
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Chaconas

Slender in profile and perfectly designed for hiding amid aquatic vegetation, snakeheads pack a mean bite.

Precisely how these fish of Asian origin reached U.S. waters defies a simple answer, but the U.S. Dept. of the Interior offers this summary:

Prior to being added to the list of injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act in October 2002, which banned import and interstate transport without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, snakeheads were sold in pet stores and in live food fish markets and some restaurants in several major U.S. cities, including Boston, New York, and St. Louis. Live specimens have been confiscated by authorities in Alabama, California, Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Washington where possession of live snakeheads is illegal.

Some snakeheads living in natural waters of the U.S. may have been released by aquarium hobbyists or those hoping to establish a local food resource. Also, some cultures practice "prayer animal release", a faith-based activity in which individuals purchase, then release, an animal (fish, amphibian, reptile, or bird) to earn merits with a deity.

A Different Opportunity

Odenkirk’s quick to clarify: he’s not chairing any snakehead PR campaign. That being said, he points out that the species that so many thought would wreck the Potomac bass scene has not only not done so, but has actually created a niche angling opportunity adjacent to the beloved largemouth.

“I don’t ever want to portray a potentially invasive fish as a good thing, but the snakehead has created an entirely new fishery,” Odenkirk said. “Bass Pro Shops and Green Top in Richmond, Va. are selling outfitted bow-fishing boats for people who go out at night with floodlights and generators to bow-fish for snakeheads.

“This is a huge industry that’s very popular – and not just bow-fishing, but hook-and-line as well. Some people are targeting them recreationally for their own consumption, while in Maryland, it’s legal to sell them and some people are making significant money selling snakeheads.”

Courtesy of Steve Chaconas
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Chaconas

Increasingly, recreational anglers are starting to embrace the snakehead as a bonus species rather than an environmental scourge.

Moody adds this: “The canal systems of south Florida provide highly accessible, quality fishing opportunities for non-native fish (like bullseye snakeheads). These canals also continue to support excellent bass fishing, boasting some of our best angler catch rates across the state when conditions are favorable.”

Sporty Side

Slender, sneaky and perfectly camouflaged for hiding amid aquatic grasses and pads, snakehead are brutal on those soft-bodied frogs intended for bass. But, while this is purely a pain for tournament anglers, a day of fun fishing is well punctuated with snakehead bites.

“This invasive has been great for Potomac River guides as it has caught the eye of people from around the world to travel to D.C. to target them,” said Steve Chaconas, who operates National Bass Guide Service. “Locals also have an interest in targeting them with guides, too. Recreational angling for snakeheads has also increased.

“The strikes are violent and, since we target them with topwater lures, they are also very exciting. The fight is very different as they try to back away from the angler, as if they were a dog being pulled away from a fire hydrant.”

Noting the snakehead’s surprisingly powerful fights and propensity for dazzling leaps, FLW regional angler Troy Garrison said the fish’s fight is 10 times that of a big smallmouth. The strike is one of the most vicious he’s seen.

And don’t overlook the fact that snakeheads are a popular food fish in Asian markets, with a growing acceptance in the U.S. Think of it like raw oysters – if you can get over the appearance, it’s pretty tasty. Chaconas said many local fine dining establishments, like Laporta's in Old Town Alexandria, offer exquisitely prepared snakehead entrees. Big picture – Chaconas said he’s no snakehead hater.

Now, don’t misread this as a green light for invasives. Introducing any non-native species remains illegal.

But insomuch as the snakehead is here and is unlikely to leave anytime soon, it’s important to know the scientifically substantiated picture. Yeah, the fish with the hideous face will continue to tear up your frogs, but rest easy knowing the folks who study this stuff say snakeheads really aren’t doing much harm to the bass populations.