Photographers' Blog

Behind the snakehead legend

May 30, 2013

Mt. Vernon, Virginia

By Gary Cameron

Spending time on the water pursuing fish is one of my favorite, relaxing pastimes. Spending time on the water pursuing fish as part of my job comes in as a close second.

In a city that requires plenty of time having photographers covering men in suits behind microphones with lots of blah-blah-blah, going out on a Virginia Department of Game and Inland fisheries biologists “stunboat” for a day of chasing, capturing, monitoring, studying, dissecting and releasing the once-feared northern snakehead fish was an assignment I looked forward to.

The northern snakehead (Channa argus, for those of you who stayed awake in Latin class), became an instant, and feared, celebrity in the Washington, D.C. area back in the summer of 2002. It was reported that someone had discovered a snakehead in a pond in suburban Maryland and this intruder would search, spread, and destroy other species found in local waters, specifically, the Potomac River. Adding to the “fear factor” of the snakeheads very aggressive disposition, an extremely slimy coating, and a mouthful of sharp teeth, was the fact that snakeheads are obligate air breathers. Not only are they comfortable under water, they, like turtles, can spend time breathing air OUT of water as well. Locals were told to kill any snakeheads to stop the spreading of the species, and while you’re at it, hide the women and children as well. This was one bad-ass fish.

Well, like most subjects, there is a lot of yes, and no, when looking deeper into all things snakehead.

John Odenkirk, the Virginia Fisheries biologist who I accompanied on the stunboat, says that snakeheads were in these waters approximately four years before the infamous 2002 Maryland pond sighting. Odenkirk, and assistant biologist Mike Isel, spend a lot of time out on the Potomac from March to October in pursuit of snakeheads for some serious studies. They also monitor largemouth bass and other species as well.

To accomplish this, the two biologists ventured out in the Potomac, and surrounding creeks, in a large jon-boat that has some very interesting options on board. For decoration purposes, and river clean up, a GI Joe action figure, a small doll, and a pink flamingo were attached to the boat. It gave it a little personality, and displayed that fisheries biologists are not nerdy and have a neat twist.

And then there was the working aspect of the stunboat.

Equipped with a normal outboard motor, the stunboat also has an onboard generator whose alternating current power goes through a converter, which transforms the current into direct current, (follow me here, think Edison and Tesla), and which is attached to two anode booms that can be lowered into the water to temporarily stun fish with seven amps of current. Isel, the operator of the boat, hits a foot switch activating the boom’s power, and he and Odenkirk communicate by yelling (even a Honda generator is LOUD on a small boat), and hand signals to chase the snakeheads who react differently than the other fish floating to the surface.

Bass, perch, gar, catfish, and more float to the surface, temporarily stunned by the seven amps of juice. Snakeheads, not affected by the electro shock, expel their large air bladders and head to land. Like I said, the northern snakehead is one bad-ass fish.

Odenkirk and college intern Jarrett Talley leaned over the bow with long dip nets that have insulated handles. The water exploded, chaos reigned, and Isel continually moved the stunboat in and out of position. You could tell that they had been working as a team for some time and enjoyed the chase; several snakeheads were brought on board, inspected, tagged, recorded, and released – bare-handed!

Having handled a distant fish-cousin in slime, the northern pike (Esox lucius), many times, I can tell you that teeth, plus slime, plus torque, equals trouble. Lots of trouble. And the northern snakehead makes the northern pike look like a little grade-schooler.

One snakehead was brought aboard, alive, with a gaping stomach wound that looked human-induced. It was nasty, with entrails showing, and clearly a life-threatening wound. The snakehead reacted, just like the black knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” “It’s just a flesh wound.. Come back ya bleeding coward!”

After an afternoon of snakehead chasin’ and snakehead taggin’, and bass chasin’ and bass monitoring, Odenkirk and crew returned to the boat launch area for some tailgate dissection, study, tagging, recording of data, and filet cleaning. As much as this fish was feared, Odenkirk feels that years later, and after much study, that the negative impact is not what was initially expected. The snakehead is here to stay, but other species do not seem to be affected. And make no mistake, the snakeheads are spreading and populating the waterways in great numbers and size.

During a break in lunch, Odenkirk offered up snakehead appetizers on crackers. Baked in a ginger and soy sauce combination, the firm, white meat is very, very, good. In fact, almost as good as my favorite eating freshwater fish, breaded walleye fillets. So, the fish that caused a local panic years ago is here to stay and multiplying rapidly in numbers. It still is a species that should be handled with the utmost care and concern (by the fisherman). But it tastes great, and is being served in some local high-end restaurants. All you need to do is get past the fearsome appearance, slime, teeth, and legends and find a good recipe. And no, it doesn’t taste like chicken.

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In a city that requires plenty of time having photographers covering men in suits behind microphones with lots of blah-blah-blah, going out on a Virginia Department of Game and Inland fisheries biologists “stunboat” for a day of chasing, capturing, monitoring, studying, dissecting and releasing the once-feared northern snakehead fish was an assignment I looked forward to.

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