BY DOYLE DIETZ
Just as Leif Erikson and his crew somehow avoided being sunk by the Kraken and other mythological beasts to discover the New World some 400 years before Christopher Columbus, Pennsylvania anglers are enjoying a great sportfish by disregarding the advice of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission from a few years ago regarding flathead catfish in the Susquehanna River.
An invasive species with an insatiable appetite for any smaller species that swim in the river — including citation-sized smallmouth bass — the PFBC advised when flatheads first arrived that any angler catching one should destroy the fish. Once anglers learned how much enjoyment can be had fighting these monsters — the state record exceeds 50 pounds — that advice was heeded much in the same manner as Dorothy being told not to look behind the curtain.
Now, a new invasive species is being targeted by the PFBC, and hopefully anglers will disregard the request as they did the seek-and-destroy message concerning flatheads. This time anglers are being requested to “report and dispose of any invasive Northern snakehead fish that may be caught in the lower Susquehanna River.”
Northern snakeheads are — no surprise — native to parts of China, as well as Russia and Korea, and first drew attention in the mid-Atlantic region in 2002 when a pair was discovered in a Maryland pond. Snakeheads were first confirmed in Pennsylvania in July 2004 in Meadow Lake, Philadelphia County, and are present in the connecting lower Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.
In summer 2018, anglers began catching snakeheads in Octoraro Creek in Lancaster County, a tributary that enters the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam. And it didn’t take long for myths to begin circulating about these fish with the appearance of a prehistoric beast.
Topping the charts was the claim they were able to walk on land, but my favorite was the story told to me by an angler on fishing with a group on the Chesapeake Bay that he saw one attack a small dog. Well, they don’t walk, but they do have the ability to squirm their way over land from one body of water to another, and considering they eat just about anything presented at the end of a line, I’m pretty sure they may eat a piece of hot dog used as bait.
In late March, operators of the fish passage systems used at the Conowingo, Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams to assist migrating American shad during their spring spawning runs indicated that due to restrictions associated with COVID-19, fish passage operations had been delayed from the original start date of April 1. Fish passage operations commenced on the afternoon of May 12 at Conowingo Dam’s east fish lift when nearly 70 percent of the annual American shad spawning migration would have already passed Conowingo Dam during a typical spring.
Over the course of four days, lift operators observed 35 Northern snakeheads within the east fish lift; 14 of the invasive fish were able to be netted and removed, while another 21 entered the Conowingo Pool. During this same time, just 485 American shad were counted at the east fish lift, and due to the concern over increased invasive species passage and the lateness of the season for successful American shad passage, the Susquehanna River Anadromous Fish Restoration Cooperative recommended that fish passage operations be immediately ceased to prevent further passage of snakeheads.
“Further introduction of an invasive species such as the Northern snakehead to the Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania is something we take very seriously,” PFBC Anadromous Fish Restoration Unit fisheries biologist Joshua Tryninewski said. “Unfortunately, a late start to fish passage operations followed by an increasing occurrence of the unwanted fish presented unfavorable conditions for successful shad passage and have posed a serious threat to the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources.”
Tryninewski may be taking the advice first given by Eric Burton who said, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.” This advice, however, is nearly the same as that given to Maryland anglers some 18 years ago, which they fortunately ignored.
Today, Northern snakehead has become one of the most targeted sportfish on the Potomac, but unfortunately is in decline in some portions of the river because for more than a decade, fish and game authorities on both sides of the river have asked anglers to kill every snakehead they catch. Now, there is growing support to halt that practice and designate the snakehead a game fish and limit the number that can be kept.
Two years ago on a trip sponsored by the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association, I experienced firsthand how challenging it is to catch a Northern snakehead and how great are the rewards. These fish are as tasty as they are repulsive to gaze upon, and today they are served — at top dollar — in some of the finest restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Northern snakehead: It’s what’s for dinner.
Dietz is parliamentarian (of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. Contact the writer: email@example.com