Snakeheads – menace or meal?

A report from the Eastern Shore puts the northern snakehead — that slithery, toothy Frankenfish introduced to Central Maryland by some ecological saboteur a decade ago — in Marshyhope Creek, suggesting that the invasive species has moved beyond the Potomac River, across the Chesapeake Bay and into the Delmarva Peninsula.

Apparently, these bad boys like to swim as much as they like to eat.

Or, here's another theory: Some scoundrel caught a few snakeheads on the Western Shore, transported them across the Bay Bridge and stocked them in either the Marshyhope, east of Hurlock, or the Nanticoke River into which it flows.

Joey Love, snakehead expert with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, subscribes to the latter theory, but acknowledges the possibility of the fish's natural expansion. "We are currently investigating the genetics of the populations to determine if we can decipher which hypothesis has some legitimate support," Love says.

Either way, Frankenfish expansion probably isn't good news for the Chesapeake ecosystem. The state still thinks they should be fished hard and eaten often.

The northern snakehead got to Maryland famously when a reproducing population of the Asian fish turned up in a pond in Crofton, in Anne Arundel County, in 2002. Alarmed that the snakehead — a voracious feeder that can slither across grass — might establish a permanent presence in Maryland waters, DNR drained the pond and killed the snakeheads there.

Alas, that didn't stop the invasion.

By now, the snakehead has been seen along 60 miles of the Potomac and a few have moved into the Patuxent River. "Successful establishment and expansion of an exotic species is not too common," says Love, tidal bass manager for DNR. "However, a few species are very good at it. Northern snakehead is one of those species."

It appears that this hungry predator is here to stay. But its full impact on the Chesapeake remains to be seen, studied and understood.

"The snakehead, like other predators in the system, eats a wide diversity of prey," says Love. "However, we do not know if there are any consequences to the populations of those species." For example, he says, snakeheads do not appear to have made a dent in the numbers of largemouth bass, a favorite quarry of the recreational angler.

"I don't think we need to answer the question of negative impacts in order for us to implement a control strategy," Love adds. "The fact that the species is invasive means that our control efforts are warranted. I try to sell that message to folks so they continue to know that their harvest of northern snakehead is meaningful."

That fish-hard-eat-often message has been loud and clear. Love and other Maryland fisheries officials tell anglers to harvest all the snakeheads they can catch, filet, grill, fry, freeze or give away, and more and more anglers are going for snakehead.

In fact, Austin Murphy, who fishes for them regularly — and passionately, with a fly rod — says he sees the region becoming a destination fishery for people who like to go after big, aggressive species. Snakehead could even provide a modest economic boon to Maryland.

Murphy, founding director of the coming weekend's Potomac Snakehead Tournament, likes to stand on an elevated platform of a boat, in the manner of guides who scout bonefish in the Florida Keys or redfish in South Carolina. He only casts to snakeheads he can see.

"I like a cloudless sky, bright sun and the middle of the day. ... It's an obsession with me. A typical day might be 25 shots to snakeheads within my [casting] range, and out of that maybe five or six fish will chase my fly, and out of that I might get four hookups, and out of that I might land two. And that's a good day."

Murphy says snakeheads can be selective in their foraging, putting to rest rumors that they'll eat anything that moves.

Speaking of eating, that's what Murphy does with what he catches. "I like to hunt things that I can eat," he says. "I don't buy meat in the grocery store. I live off wild turkey, goose and venison. And snakehead is one of the tastiest fish around. You can grill it, fry it. It lends itself to a lot of different styles of cooking. It has a light, almost buttery flavor you'd associate with an ocean fish."

Murphy and Chad Wells, chef at Rockfish in Annapolis, treated Andrew Zimmern to a hunt-and-munch expedition for the adventurous gourmet's "Bizarre Foods America" show on the Travel Channel. Wells cooked fresh-caught snakehead aboard Murphy's boat — blackened, and served on toasted brioche — and Zimmern declared it a "great fish sandwich."

If this weekend's tournament is anything like last year's, there will be at least 1,400 pounds of snakefish harvested from the Potomac, and Wells will cook some of it at the tournament headquarters, in Smallwood State Park in Charles County. He promises barbecue-smoked snakehead sliders with chipotle slaw and homemade pickles.

One guy's invasive species is another guy's lunch.

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