Hooked on Frankenfish
Crofton: Biologists may have given the snakehead its walking papers last summer, but residents here are keeping the quirky creature's memory alive.
Joe Gillespie shows off the large northern snakehead that he caught last summer in a Crofton pond, creating a media frenzy. Stuffed and mounted, the infamous fish now calls a skateboard shop home. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby / July 18, 2003)
The northern snakehead doesn't look so scary from its perch above the news clippings and late-night TV top-10 lists at a Crofton skateboard shop. Its once-sharp fangs are mere nubs, its muscular body a freeze-dried shell. After the yearlong taxidermy, only its skin remains intact.
But just one year ago, when angler Joe Gillespie pulled the golf bag-sized Chinese fish from a pond behind the Dunkin' Donuts along Route 3, the fish was menacing enough to launch a state-sponsored poisoning effort, a nationwide ban and attention from as far as Singapore.
A local man dumped a male and female snakehead into the pond after they outgrew his aquarium. With an indefatigable libido and a ravenous appetite, the creatures quickly dubbed "Frankenfish" helped spawn hundreds of offspring that could slither on land, live out of water for three days and breathe air.
Worried scientists applied a one-two punch of plant and fish poison before the invasive fish could whipsaw into the nearby Little Patuxent River and nosh their way through the Chesapeake Bay.
Now, the three ponds have been restocked and - along with the river - declared snakehead-free. The U.S. Department of the Interior has made it illegal to import live snakeheads or transport them over state lines. The immediate scare is over.
But in ways large and small, the Frankenfish lives on.
"The snakehead is back in Crofton," Gillespie said, holding his stuffed catch, "and it's no longer a threat."
The computer repairman paid a taxidermist nearly $200 to preserve and mount the fish at Drop-In, a skateboard shop off Route 450, so neighbors could remember the feeding frenzy that consumed their town of about 20,000 last summer.
Among his own fond memories: driving to catch the snakehead with his son while blasting Parliament's "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker," killing the fish, then telling ABC News anchor Peter Jennings all about it.
Drop-In owner Jim Brackett is planning to sell snakehead-inspired boards and sponsor a "Snakehead Fest" next month. Had Gillespie's snakehead lived, Brackett joked, the fish would have held its own on the half-pipe - "he's got feet, so I guess he can hang ten."
Pond owner William Berkshire's daughters are selling snakehead T-shirts, sweat shirts and caps online. At Uncle Nicky's, the restaurant Berkshire owns bordering the pond, chef Daniel Camus serves up the "Frankenfish Po Boy" - a fried catfish sandwich for now because Camus has to figure out how to get and cook snakeheads.
The two also are building a "snakehead trail" behind the restaurant, where patrons can watch burbling frogs and Canada geese in the pond where snakeheads once reigned.
"Practically every day, someone comes into the restaurant, wanting to see where it all happened," Berkshire said. "We're trying to just continue the fun, create a smile and a twinkle for everyone who remembers it."
The frenzy wasn't always fun for Berkshire. In the beginning, reporters called constantly, bringing the former Secret Service agent publicity he didn't necessarily want. Even when he traveled to Nashville, Tenn., where his son played in a championship baseball tournament, the pond was never far away.
All the other players asked about it. When he flipped on the TV in his hotel room, comic David Letterman had the fish on his top-10 list.
Maryland's scientists weren't always enjoying themselves, either. As the world watched, they had to quickly map the best strategy for protecting native fish while holding harmless the pond owners, who were queasy about having their property doused with aquatic chemicals.
Finally, a "snakehead panel" recommended a herbicide to rid the pond of its plants - so the snakeheads couldn't hide - and then a fish poison. More than 1,100 pounds of nonsnakehead fish were carted off to the landfill afterward. As for the snakeheads, scientists found six adults and more than 1,000 juveniles.
Steve Early, director of the restoration enhancement program for DNR's fisheries service, once thought of the snakehead summer as a "grind" but now looks at it positively.