From plague to prize: How the conversation is shifting on this invasive species

From plague to prize: How the conversation is shifting on this invasive species
Dover's David Wyatt poses with a snakehead, an invasive species that is now prized by local anglers. Photo courtesy of David Wyatt. 

It’s not often that government officials encourage the public to kill wildlife, but it’s becoming more common as more invasive species take hold.

“If you catch a snakehead in Delaware, you should kill it,” the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) says bluntly on its website about this “problem invasive species” native to China and Russia.

But this long, odd-looking fish with a mouth full of sharp teeth has become an adrenaline-inducing hobby for anglers in the First State, who have found friendships in fighting the invasive fish into submission.

“There’s definitely a community that’s been building around it, and it seems to really be growing in popularity,” said David Wyatt, who grew up in Delaware and has been fishing most of his life.

Yet, every day isn’t a win when fishing, even if it’s an invasive species you’re hoping to snatch.

On a recent cool summer day, Wyatt rose before the sun and headed south, loaded up with his kayak and fishing gear. The Dover resident stopped at one of his favorite spots, a pond off of the Nanticoke River not far from Seaford. He’d rather not name names since snakehead fishing has become so popular.

So much so that since 2011 — when the first northern snakeheads were officially documented in Delaware waters — a fellowship has formed around the fish. A Facebook group with more than 3,000 members posts daily about gear, looking for recommendations and showing off their catches. Upstate, an online-based new business, Snakehead Outlawz, bloomed out of making custom fishing gear for catching this slithery species.

On this particular summer morning, Wyatt hooked more largemouth bass than snakehead. That’s in part because the technique and gear for the two species is quite similar: it’s best to use a “topwater presentation,” where you throw a lure that floats or stays on the surface of the water during motion, and make the lure mimic prey. But the lack of snakeheads that day may have in part just been bad luck because this Delaware Independent reporter really wanted to see some snakeheads.

David Wyatt fishes for snakeheads from a kayak. Photo by Maddy Lauria.

“It can be tougher to catch them down here; the river’s so big it can kind of be hard to find them,” Wyatt said right before catching a 12.5-inch largemouth bass in disappointment. “But if you are catching one species, others will bite.”

Wyatt caught his first snakehead off the Nanticoke last July. Now he’s the one who’s hooked.

“I’ve pretty much been addicted to fishing for them ever since; they’re a ton of fun to catch,” the 22-year-old said. “They fight harder than anything else. They have the potential to be the next big game fish.”

Largemouth bass may have been the coveted catch for many, but some local fishermen like Adam Carrigan had practically given up the sport before the snakeheads arrived.

Growing up fishing the Great Lakes, Carrigan was ready to take his 16-foot bass boat out when he landed on Delmarva in 2011. But he got an unpleasant surprise.

“The fishing was terrible. It was horrible,” he said. He went into Pennsylvania, Delaware, along the Eastern Shore, the western shore, and couldn’t find a bass population worth targeting anywhere. He sold his boat and gave up on fishing altogether.

Then, a few years ago, he heard about snakeheads. He bought a secondhand kayak and hit the water once again.

For Carrigan, who lives in Maryland near Elkton, the thrill is in the technique and the fight for a fish that’s known to jump.

“When I grew up, if you caught a 5-pound largemouth bass, you were going to the taxidermist and getting it stuffed as a trophy for the rest of your life,” he said. “Here, a 5-pound snakehead is just another Tuesday.”

The state of Delaware encourages anglers to kill snakeheads when they catch them. Photo courtesy of David Wyatt.

Where'd they come from?

Snakeheads are thriving in Delaware waterways, particularly the Nanticoke and Delaware rivers and their tributaries. They’ve even reared their ugly heads in stormwater ponds and other pond systems — likely because they were illegally stocked there, according to DNREC fisheries biologist Edna Stetzar.

Genetic testing showed experts that the snakeheads found in Becks Pond in New Castle County had been purchased in the Philadelphia area and brought illegally to the Delaware pond (it’s actually a federal offense when crossing state lines). But in the Nanticoke, this resilient species, which thrives in heavy vegetation and can live in poor quality waters, naturally expanded from the Potomac River and Eastern Shore of Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, northern snakeheads were first found in a pond in Crofton in 2002, and were eventually traced to a Maryland man who had purchased them in New York City and later released them into the pond, according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine. Two years later, northern snakeheads were found in the Potomac River and have since spread.

“They’ve been able to get up as far as you can imagine,” Stetzar said. “They’re just so adaptable.”

One big reason these fish are so adaptable is because of their ability to breathe air, not just the dissolved oxygen in water that most fish use for breathing. They actually prefer to live in shallow, stagnant water, such as muddy streams. They can also tolerate a wider range in temperature and salinity than many similar species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They’re successful at reproduction, as each spawn can result in up to 1,500 eggs, with up to five spawns occurring in a year’s time.

What some anglers see as a much-needed relief from slack lines, others argue is a plague on the ecosystem.

“They are a top-level predator,” Stetzar explained, noting that while they are very likely competing with species like largemouth bass for both food sources and habitat, no extensive studies on their impact have been explored in Delaware waters.

Even if more studies were done on their ecological impacts, it might be difficult to parse out what issues are directly caused by the spread of snakeheads. That’s because the Nanticoke River is dealing with another arguably more impactful invasive species: the blue catfish. Because of development and other influences, this waterway is also limited in its available habitat for these species, and suffers from water quality problems.

“It’s just another strain on the ecosystem,” Stetzar said of snakeheads. “They’re able to live in places that our native species can’t (higher salinity, lower water quality). Eventually, they could displace (native species). That’s the concern.”

But anglers like Carrigan advocate for the species, arguing that studies elsewhere have not found their impact to be significantly detrimental. The real issue, he says, is the health of these waterways.

“The fisheries themselves aren’t really capable of supporting the type of biomass we had maybe 20, 30, 40, 100 years ago,” Carrigan said. “The water itself isn’t healthy.”

Dover's David Wyatt often goes fishing for snakeheads with his 16-year-old brother, Matthew Wyatt, shown here with a big catch. Photo courtesy of David Wyatt.

Fighting a losing battle

Even if all anglers kept their catch, the fight against snakeheads in Delaware waterways is already all but lost. While DNREC encourages fishermen to kill the invasive species when they catch it, they recognize that many anglers only do catch and release. The real trouble comes when people move the species to different waterways.

“We’re not everywhere, and we don’t want to see snakeheads everywhere,” Stetzar said. “We encourage anglers to kill them because they are invasive, and anglers encounter them in a lot of places we can’t get to or aren’t sampling.”

Stetzar said other states have tried to eradicate them from rivers, but the effort has largely been unsuccessful and costly. In one case, a pond in Maryland was drained to remove the snakeheads — an approach that would not be practical or even possible in large tributaries.

Fishermen like Wyatt and Carrigan prefer to catch and release, despite DNREC’s advice. For those who do decide to take their prizes home, snakeheads are not only fun to catch, but apparently make a delicious meal as well.

“They make some of the best table fare ever,” said Carrigan, who described their meat as close to red snapper. The clean, white meat has a “happy medium” consistency that makes snakehead perfect for fish tacos — especially with Carrigan’s homemade spicy mango reduction sauce.

“There’s a thousand different reasons why I like to go after them, but No. 1 is that the fish are absolutely fascinating,” he said. “Fishing is fun again.”

For more information on invasive species in Delaware and what you can do, go to dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/fish-wildlife/fishing/invasive-species.

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