Fishing for Snakeheads — Frankenfish and Fries, Please


snakehead fish

Only a threat to our ecosystems until local fishermen find out how good they taste. Illustration by Susan Trammel at usgs.gov

A few years ago when the news broke about the discovery of snakeheads in a pond in Crofton, Maryland, the outlook seemed grim. Voracious land-roaming monster fish were headed north, and south, and threatened to take over our ecosystems. The panic spawned some nearly interesting horror movies about snakeheads slithering into suburbs to eat people in swimming pools, and the fisheries experts seemed about as excited as Hollywood.


Enough fish to feed a
whole neighborhood, if
you don’t cut and run.

I got caught up in the hype like everyone else, worrying over the outlook for our sporting fish and native species, heeding the warnings that snakeheads would eat everything, wiping out everything from bass to catfish to frogs and doodlebugs. Then one day I paid attention to a picture of a snakehead on TV, and I said, Hey! wait a minute! I know that fish!

I’ve fished for snakeheads, not knowing what they were at the time but willing to catch anything that came after my lures. Snakeheads cooperated nicely with that when I was fishing the lakes and rivers of northern Thailand. I admit I was a little scared the first time I reeled in a lure and saw one of these critters chasing it, because it’s a fearsome looking fish and if you haven’t dealt with them before it’s a little bit of a surprise to see a four foot long snake-like musclebound fish coming after you with a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth. But heck, the truth is, it’s a fish, and it’s been living among other fish and insects and amphibians and whatever, ever since it evolved from whatever came before it. There’s plenty of natural life of other kinds around snakeheads in their home range.

Kaeng som chaom thot with snakehead fish

Calm yourself, it's only a snakehead stew called kaeng som chaom thot. Fear the chilis, not the snakehead. Photo by takeaway at Wikimedia; CC 2.0 license.

Over here, I suppose they’d cause some trouble, but snakeheads are like the Asian equivalent of a largemouth or smallmouth bass, top predators in their ecosystems except for crocodiles or alligators, depending on which territory you’re talking about. We’re familiar with bass and not afraid of them, but if you’d never seen a bigmouth fish before that could instantly swallow a fish a third its own size with one fast gulp, you might be worried about exactly how big those suckers get. They did get a lot bigger in the old days, but now we’ve fished largemouth bass down to a smaller average. You won’t find largemouth bass today that can swallow small children, but a couple of hundred years ago, maybe so.

steamed snakehead

Snakehead ready for steaming, stuffed with Thai herbs for a dish called pla chon. First word I learned in Thai was pla, means fish. Second word I learned was gin, means eat. Photo by User:Mattes at Wikimedia Commons; CC 2.0 License.

Snakeheads are a different breed with a different attack style, more like a pike or a barracuda than a bass. They will definitely take chunks out of things too big to swallow, and the giant snakehead has even taken chunks out of people from time to time. Experts still say that in this country the snakehead has no natural predators and can expand a population here explosively. Maybe that’s because our raccoons and snakes and bass haven’t a chance to sample them. When a snakehead is small, it’s bait. When a snakehead grows up, then it’s fairly safe except from its greatest natural enemy, people.

What a shame that people think of new and unusual creatures as revolting things to be killed and thrown aside as dangerous garbage. Snakeheads are delicious, one of the best fish found in Asia in terms of texture and flavor. They aren’t greasy or sticky or disgusting, any more than a bass is before you fry it. People in Asia encourage snakeheads, set them loose in flooded rice paddies and farm ponds, because they’re tough and tolerate bad conditions and grow into excellent meals. They’re not like carp, another popular food fish in Asia. I’ve tried eating carp and even though it’s not bad, I’m not enthused about it. Carp is mostly stomach, with very little muscle attached. Snakeheads are all meat, and it’s mostly lean meat, none of that questionable fat that you’ll find on a lazy catfish. Snakeheads are athletes.


Jeremy Wade fishes for
snakeheads in his second
series. My old stomping
grounds.

Currently there’s not much good snakehead fishing in the U.S., although a southern variety, the spotted Snakehead, has established itself in parts of Florida. Northern snakeheads have occasionally been caught in places like the Mississippi River in Arkansas and in the Potomac River near Washington, with scattered success as far north as Maine. This fish might exploit waterways as far as Canada if allowed. You can’t really depend on them in most places, though. If you do catch one, it’s illegal to throw it back. I’m not in danger of breaking that law, if I catch one it’s coming home with me.

While I definitely do not encourage the distribution of snakeheads in our local fisheries, I’d be happy to help deal with the problem if it does happen. It’s not the end of the world, it’s supper. Maybe the snakeheads will trim out some of the carp, I sure hope so. We can use some help with that.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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