Dorchester ditch fishing for snakehead

DNR encouraging anglers to keep and eat tasty invasive species

CHURCH CREEK — True to their name, the waters in and near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are dark, murky, muddy, and perfect habitat for the invasive northern snakehead fish.

Right now, the biting is good in marshes, ponds and roadside ditches near Blackwater.

According to information provided by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the northern snakehead is native to the Yangtze River basin in China. It can reach more than 33 inches long and tolerate a wide range of temperatures. This fish prefers stagnant shallow ponds, swamps, or slow-moving streams and rivers with mud substrate and aquatic vegetation. The snakehead is a very hearty fish with gills that are adapted to absorb oxygen from the air. It can therefore thrive in low-oxygen waters.

Joe Love is a tidal and freshwater fisheries biologist who specializes in black bass. The northern snakehead is a threat to black bass, especially largemouth, and many other aquatic species in Maryland. For that reason, Mr. Love has become a student of the snakehead.

According to information available on DNR’s website at dnr.maryland.gov/Fisheries, “… in 2002, a reproducing population of northern snakeheads was discovered in a pond in Crofton, Maryland.” The snakeheads were exterminated in Crofton, but, “… In 2004, northern snakeheads were found in the Potomac River near the nation’s capital and have since established a reproducing population.”

Dorchester Banner/Courtesy of DNR
In May 2016, Emory “Dutch” Baldwin broke the Maryland state record when he caught this 18.42-pound northern snakehead while fishing on the Potomac River. The previous record of 17.47 pounds was set in August 2015.

Mr. Love is now tracking the spread of the invasive fish.

“Snakeheads were on the Eastern Shore, I believe it was in 2010 or 2011,” he said.

On the Shore, snakeheads were first found in Delaware in the Marshyhope Creek, which feeds the Nanticoke River. From there, Mr. Love theorizes the invasive fish spread to the Nanticoke, then the Wicomico River and Fishing Bay. Soon after, they were found in Blackwater Refuge, then the Little Choptank River. They have also been seen in the Choptank River and Tuckahoe Creek.

“They’re just moving,” Mr. Love said. “From Blackwater, they ended up moving up the Little Blackwater River. … It wasn’t too surprising when they ended up in the Little Choptank River. … We saw them spread. They began spreading upstream from Nanticoke. … They’re just moving toward freshwater inflow.”

In the area around the Blackwater Refuge, “the snakehead population has really been expanding for four or five years,” he said. “Part of it is it’s a perfect habitat for them.”

Dorchester Banner/Bob Zimberoff
Northern snakehead were spotted Thursday, June 29, in Buttons Creek under the Golden Hill Road bridge. According to Joe Love, a tidal and freshwater fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, muddy, brackish water with good cover is perfect habitat for the invasive snakehead.

This spring and summer, anglers have been catching snakeheads from roadside ditches, ponds and marshes in the area.
“The fact that they’re hitting the ditches was actually a concern of ours about eight years ago,” Mr. Love said. “It was just a matter of time before they spread widely, and that’s exactly what they did.”

Mr. Love said snakeheads can be caught much like largemouth bass, using top-water lures and live worms. He said he heard fishermen have had success using frogs as bait as well.

“Any artificial that folks throw for bass, they can usually catch snakeheads,” he said. While he has heard of people getting lucky using live bait, “more often than not, it’s people tossing artificials.”

Mr. Love and DNR authorities are urging fishermen to keep the snakeheads they catch. Anglers can help control the species. DNR is also encouraging watermen to consider harvesting snakeheads to bring them to market.

“They’re a legitimate threat to resources. They don’t belong here. They don’t belong on our continent,” he said. “They are delicious. We’re telling people to eat them.”

However, it is illegal to transport snakeheads, and they are able to absorb oxygen from the air. Anyone intending to transport northern snakeheads must kill them before taking them on the road. Mr. Love said the best techniques for killing snakeheads is to cut off their heads, remove their gills, or eviscerate them. Of course, they have teeth, so be careful when handling them.

With such narrow roads near Blackwater, Mr. Love also urges caution for both motorists and anglers.

“We want everyone to be safe,” he said.

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