If you spent any time around the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam over the summer, you probably noticed some of the same wanted posters that caught my eye. On those posters is the likeness of a fish, with a warning to anyone who catches one not to release it back into the river.
If this fish story sounds a little familiar, maybe it's because recollections of the infamous frankenfish remain fresh in the public imagination, even as the hype has died down and the finned terror known in these parts as the northern snakehead has staked out a territory and established itself as a permanent resident.
Indeed, if you check out the Internet, you can find fishing guides who will, for a fee, take you out for a day of snakehead fishing on the Potomac River.
Though there are fears snakeheads will make their way through the Chesapeake Bay into the Susquehanna, the wanted posters weren't for these infamous fish, imported from Asia, but for a transplant from the American Midwest: the flathead catfish.
The wanted posters along the river point out the differences between the invading flathead, and our more familiar channel and bullhead catfish. True to its name, the flathead has a broader, flatter head, and a much bigger mouth for its size than more familiar Susquehanna catfish. Though the differences are immediately apparent to those of us who fish, to most folks, catfish are singularly ugly and the distinctions are of little consequence.
The wanted posters are up, it's worth pointing out, because flatheads – the whiskered stars of the cable TV show Hillbilly Handfishin' — get a good deal bigger on average than their channel catfish cousins. This coupled with their larger mouths and their aggressive, predatory dispositions, make them a potential threat to small fish, notably young rockfish.
A native of the Mississippi and Ohio River systems that has crossed the Appalachian divide, no doubt with human assistance, flatheads have long been found in the waters of western Pennsylvania, so it's not like they're total strangers. Sill, any time you add a new creature to a natural ecological system, you're bound to upset the balance.
This upsetting of the balance is probably what was behind the snakehead hype a few years back, exacerbated by snakeheads being toothsome and predatory. On top of that, fish stories, though heavily laden with the baggage of being specious solely because they're, well, fish stories.
One such story that was making the rounds of the back-page news scene a few years back involved a fish farming operation in New Zealand that was suspected of genetically engineering a strain of king salmon that supposedly grew to 10 or 11 times the size of a regular adult king salmon. King salmon, a fish with an impressive set of needle-sharp teeth and a gaping mouth, grow fairly commonly to the 40-pound range, and a variant that could grow to 400 pounds would be fairly frightening, even as it produced a lot of delicious salmon fillets. After all, a shark in the 400 pound range, though potentially mouthwatering if properly grilled, would clear a beach if it showed up uninvited.
Though there were public inquiries about the monster salmon project, it was never made clear if the genetic research got much beyond the theoretical stage, and the effort was unceremoniously abandoned.
Out of curiosity, I've followed stories like this since I was a kid. Back in the day (and I was a kid when the original Jaws hit the big screen), it puzzled me why stories of particularly large, exotic or aggressive fish held such fascination. After years of tracking down details of stories about piranhas, candirus, sharks, sting rays, monster catfish, not to mention crypto-zoological lake and river monsters, I've come to a conclusion about the general fascination with them.
Fish, with the possible exception of bears, are the only creatures we eat that also have the potential to eat us. Like bears, they therefore are the last remaining creatures with which we have an eat or be eaten relationship. Granted, if you're a fish you're about a billion times more likely to be eaten by a human than the other way around. This, however, fits right into my theory because it explains why stories of a fish like a snakehead, which is fairly similar in a lot of ways to our native northern pike, becomes such a headline grabber, or why a catfish with a flat head can end up on a wanted poster.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun