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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.

By Rona Kobell

Sun Staff

July 31, 2003

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This is the fish that launched a thousand headlines?

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.

"It was a challenge, but we got through it, and now it's our success," Early said. "We just hope that people are more sensitive about getting rid of fish and plants that they don't want."

Early still receives about two calls a week from locals who think they've seen snakeheads. One Baltimorean even inquired about a fish trapped in his toilet. Alas, the only confirmed sighting outside the pond was in Fells Point, and Early believes that one was a publicity stunt.

The government had been eyeing a ban on importing snakeheads in 2001. It recruited Walter Courtenay, a Florida ichthyologist, to work on a snakehead study for the U.S. Geological Survey. Before Courtenay's team submitted the final report, the 69-year-old scientist had acquired a nickname - "Dr. Snakehead" - and had gained fame for confirming that Gillespie's catch was indeed the Frankenfish.

"The find in Crofton is what really got the nation's attention to this," Courtenay said.

If Maryland officials hadn't reacted quickly, Courtenay said, the fish would almost certainly have migrated into the Little Patuxent River after this year's rains.

With Crofton out of the woods, residents can't resist having some fun with their most famous one-time neighbor. Some use the fish as a reference point when describing where they're from. Others keep scrapbooks. Many are talking about the Smithsonian's snakehead book and the Sci-Fi Channel's movie, both expected in the fall.

"It ate most of the fish, so they had to get rid of it," explained 10-year-old McKenzie Beiler, who wrote about the snakehead for a social studies class.

DNR is displaying a few snakeheads at its Cedarville visitors center, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays. Their numbers are dwindling because the fish keep eating each other. Nevertheless, scientists keep the tanks behind three locked gates and two locked doors, just to be sure they stay put.

That's a smart move, said Yin Yankee Cafe chef Jerry Trice, who had concocted soups, sushi and ceviche out of live snakeheads until the ban. Once, a snakehead escaped from a sealed cooler at the Annapolis restaurant and sauntered toward City Dock before Trice caught it. Now, the Yin Yankee's snakehead dishes come from frozen fillets - not as tasty, but much safer.

"It's definitely a fish I would not turn my back on," Trice said.

Many in Crofton say they have no intention of doing that.

"A lot of people feel connected to it," Berkshire said. "This fish is going to be famous for a long time."