July 06, 2020
What if I told you that you could catch a unique type of “Super Bass” at a few select locations across the United States? These Super Bass could weigh as much as 15 to 20 pounds and reach lengths topping 3 feet—bigger than most largemouth bass. Their fighting ability would also be far superior to the largemouth bass—more par with muskies.
Speaking of muskies, these Super Bass would have some serious teeth. Not enough to require the use of wire leaders, but enough to give the fish character. To bolster their sportfish persona, they would explode wildly on topwater lures, go airborne on occasion, and have enough raw power to straighten 2x hooks. As a bonus, you wouldn’t need an expensive bass boat to target these ultimate sportfish. The best action for Super Bass could be from shore or kayaks in areas with thick vegetation.
Fish names can be misleading, and they can shape opinions in positive or negative ways. These mystery Super Bass actually do exist but don’t come from the Centrarchidae (sunfish) family of fish, which includes our native largemouth bass, as well as smallmouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, crappies, and pumpkinseed. Nor are our Super Bass from the Cichlidae (cichlid) family, which include butterfly peacock bass, a non-native fish that aren’t bass at all. Peacock bass were intentionally introduced into the canals of South Florida by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in 1984 and 1987, and is a self-sustaining fishery that brings in more than $10 million annually to the local economy. Imagine that, a non-native species that coexists with native species and generates an exciting sportfishery that anglers travel across the country to experience.
Super Bass = Snakeheads
Our Super Bass are part of the Channidae family. The English name given to this family of fish is snakehead, and from there and after, they have suffered a public relations crisis on this side of the Pacific.
As background, there are more than 40 species within the diverse Channidae family. Most are dwarf varieties and don’t exceed 10 inches when fully grown. Only a handful grow to lengths of more than 30 inches, with the giant snakehead being the largest with a maximum size exceeding 30 pounds. Collectively, the native range of snakeheads spans limited areas of tropical Africa and widely across Asia, where they are highly regarded for their sporting qualities and as superb table fare. Of the 40 some snakehead species, only one can survive beyond the warmest climates of the United States. For the others, water temperatures below 50°F are lethal.
Three members of the Channidae family are firmly established and naturally reproducing in the United States, with a fourth species being limited to the Hawaii Fish Co.’s aquaculture facility in Oahu. The blotched snakehead has been in Hawaii since the 1800s, without destroying the native fish, flora, or fauna. It’s an incredibly popular sportfish where present in Hawaii.
Secondly, bullseye snakeheads have been thriving in Southeast Florida for more than two decades with no ill-effects on native fish populations—so much so that knowledgeable Florida anglers profess that their bass fishing has improved since their arrival.
Thirdly, northern snakeheads made a huge splash on the East Coast nearly 20 years ago when a small breeding population was discovered in a Crofton, Maryland, pond. But northern snakeheads were already firmly established in the Potomac River system by the time the national press started the “Frankenfish” hysteria and the U.S. Department of the Interior was reeled into the pandemonium hook, line, and sinker. The national press was at their poetic worst in labeling northern snakeheads Frankenfish—a reference to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece novel Frankenstein, in which a scientist regrets giving life to a hideous subhuman creature that goes on an uncontrolled rampage and must be destroyed.
Facts Gone Awry
Some scientific evidence should be required for the federal government to promulgate or expand statutes that restrict the rights of its citizens. However, on July 26, 2002, less than a month after confirming the existence of an isolated, reproducing population of northern snakeheads in that Maryland pond, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had published a proposed rule to add the entire Channidae family of fish to the Lacey Act. According to the FWS, “The biological characteristics of snakehead fishes and their potential to be injurious to the wildlife and wildlife resources of the United States is the basis for our decision to add snakeheads to the list of injurious fishes under the Lacey Act. By these standards, it would seem that every living thing should be added to the Lacey Act (18 U.S.C. 42), as having a potential to do harm, without providing any empirical evidence for the assertion.
The proposed rule had a 30-day comment period in which a mere 67 responses were received from across the country. Of those responses, 1 was editorial in nature, 32 opposed the action, and 34 supported the proposed rule (including state and federal agencies) (Federal Register 67 FR 62194). Talk about a low turnout. But no matter the responses, there was little doubt the rule would pass. On October 4, 2002, less than 6 months after the first northern snakehead was caught in Maryland and without a single study demonstrating any injurious effects that Channidae had in Hawaii over the prior 100 years, or any other location across the country, the U.S. government had added all snakeheads to the list of injurious fish under the Lacy Act, thereby prohibiting their importation or interstate transportation within the U.S. and its territories. Snakeheads were Public Enemy #1.
The FWS eventually acknowledged that “some of the facts (about snakeheads) have been exaggerated, and we have taken measures to correct misinformation that has appeared in the media.” (67 FR 62194). The FWS went on to state: “As a result of the discovery of the bullseye snakehead in South Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Service began evaluating the risks associated with snakehead fishes in 2001.” (67 FR 62194). Such USGS publication entitled Snakeheads (Pisces, Channidae) - A Biological Synopsis and Risk Assessment found that neither bullseye nor northern snakeheads were species of Channa most capable of overland migrations (p. 12). Yet Gale A. Norton, as Secretary of the Interior, stated to the American public during her press conference on northern snakeheads that, “These fish are top-level predators that will eat virtually anything in their path. They can travel across land and live out of water for up to three days.” This continued sensationalized narrative by the U.S. Department of the Interior fueled the public’s fear of this fish.
Paul Shafland of the FWC and other longtime Florida residents likened the distorted facts surrounding snakeheads to those associated with walking catfish in the 1960s and 1970s, when the press forecasted that it would cause the complete collapse of Florida’s fisheries. Yet walking catfish have had only a marginal impact on Florida’s resources. In much the same way, bullseye snakeheads have been vilified in the press as being capable of vast destructive overland migrations. Although they are facultative airbreathers, their ability to survive out of water is limited. Dr. Jeffrey Hill, chief fish researcher at the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, notes that bullseye snakeheads are not capable of overland migrations and die within a few hours if not kept moist when out of water. This is no different than native fish such as gar and bowfin.
I have witnessed the progression in South Florida’s bullseye snakehead fishery and people’s attitudes toward them. In the early- to mid-2000s, hardly anyone new what a snakehead was. People confused them with bowfin, call them mudfish, and typically held to the view, “Kill ‘em all. Those things will destroy our bass fisheries.” That mantra was the same whether the person had ever even seen a snakehead or caught one—although oddly enough, if they had caught one, they typically commented on how hard they fought.
Catching just a few snakeheads a day was the norm in the early days. It was a new and rewarding experience even though most fish were only in the 3- to 6-pound range. Few people were targeting them, and you had to do your own homework to be successful. By 2010, their numbers, size, and distribution had increased. Catching a dozen or more in a day was common with most fish still being on the small side; but there were plenty of 6- to 9-pound fish in the mix, with an occasional giant over 10 pounds. Tangling with a double-digit snakehead in tight quarters on medium-power bass gear is a mind-boggling experience.
Soon word got out about how much fun these new fish were to catch. Easily accessible canals and ponds became overfished. Snakeheads are cautious and perceptive fish. They were affected by the increased pressure and constant kill tournaments, which seemed to be more of a mechanism to sell fishing lures then to eradicate a firmly established non-native fish in Southeast Florida. A natural rebalancing of the bullseye snakehead population took place in the early 2010s and their distribution range leveled off. Never did we find a pond or canal that was overrun by snakeheads to the detriment of bass.
Actually, quite to the contrary. It appears that bass and bullseye snakeheads have their own niches within the canals of Florida. Instead of snakeheads preying on bass, surveys conducted by the FWC support the opposite. Bass are disproportionately targeting snakeheads as prey. An early electrofishing study conducted by the FWC examined the stomach contents of 127 snakeheads. The FWC found the remains of 13 bullseye snakeheads, 1 bluegill, 11 mosquitofish, 7 warmouth, 2 peacock bass, several lizards, bufo toads, small turtles, a rat, and a snake. A fairly diverse diet without a single largemouth bass in the stomach of 127 dead snakeheads. These field report results were never mentioned in the news, probably because it didn’t fit the narrative being touted about snakeheads.
Over years, the numbers of snakeheads have leveled off and most of the best snakehead fisheries also have big bass. Early on, people were concerned that these “invasive” fish would have no natural enemies and go unchecked in their new environment. Kelly Gestring, a biological administrator of the FWC’s non-native fish research lab in Boca Raton is quoted as saying, “What we’re seeing is that the native fish population seems to be holding strong. We’ve not been able to detect any measurable impacts by bullseye snakeheads on any of our individual native species.” Once again, mother nature had proven to be resilient. Small snakeheads are preyed upon by everything from herons and egrets to largemouth bass and peacock bass; medium snakeheads have to fear ospreys, tarpon, and snook; while large snakeheads are likely targets of gators, as well as anglers.
Potomac River Region Snakeheads
Switching gears from bullseye snakeheads in Southeast Florida, Steven Kambouris of Baltimore, Maryland, has a similar take on the hype surrounding northern snakeheads in the Potomac River basin. Kambouris grew up catching trout, bass, and striped bass. After 14 years of service in the U.S. Army, he returned home to find northern snakeheads established in the Potomac. The more he fished for snakeheads, the less time he found himself pursuing other species.
Kambouris explains: “In short, I found that snakeheads were superior to every other freshwater species I had ever chased in terms of excitement, sporting qualities, and table fare. Still, I was inundated by stories of their ferociousness and the danger they posed to our native species, ranging from attacking humans to crawling long distances over land. When I discovered that these stories didn’t square with my own experience, I began exploring the science around snakeheads. What I found changed my perspective entirely.
“Through researching and reading about snakeheads, I eventually came across work done by John Odenkirk, a fishery biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In reading his work and the work of others, I quickly discovered that all the published scientific studies done by fishery biologists in the U.S. didn’t demonstrate any invasive impact to native species from snakeheads.
“Contrary to early fears, largemouth bass hadn’t decreased in number since the introduction of snakeheads. They had increased in number since snakeheads arrived in the Potomac and its tributaries. The prey species of northern snakehead, like banded killifish, hadn’t decreased either. They had also increased. Clearly, this didn’t match the media headlines that heralded the end of our native species in the jaws of the infamous snakehead fish.
“In 2018, the American Fisheries Society, a nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to the responsible management of fisheries in the U.S. and around the world, sponsored the first International Snakehead Symposium, a gathering of fishery biologists who were studying snakeheads around the country and the world. Scientists attending this meeting came from 22 states and 4 countries with three key goals in mind: 1) sharing the most recent scientific information on snakeheads; 2) discussing management strategies; and 3) determining the risk the species posed as they continue to expand their range within the U.S. After having watched the many hours of scientific presentations online, I changed my behavior and my outlook on the species.”
The Future of Sportfishing
Kambouris sees northern snakehead as the future of freshwater sportfishing in the DELMARVA area. “They’re the most exciting freshwater sportfish I’ve ever chased,” he says. “Their hits can be vicious, particularly on topwater lures. They fight with explosive ferocity, often leaping clear out of the water several times between their massive head shakes. For those who like to eat fish, their meat is firm, white, tasty, and their long bodies produce much of it.”
Kambouris remains a multispecies angler, but concedes that he’s mostly filling in time with other fish until the topwater snakehead bite tuns on each year. He also practices selective harvest with snakeheads, even though the fish is a non-native species. Through his research, he’s learned that many of the region’s favorite fish, such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie, and muskie are not native to that region, and that brown trout aren’t even native to the United States. So why does the public perceive snakeheads differently?
Kambouris surmises, “In large part, our difference in perception exists because didn’t we grow up with snakeheads in our backyards. Our other favorite species here like largemouth bass and brown trout seem as American as apple pie because they were here as we grew up, part of our lives and lands. But snakeheads, with their imposing teeth, snake-like bodies and patterns, foreign origins, and scary media fanfare make for excellent villains. With that said, as people become more accustomed to the presence of snakeheads, I expect them to gain a following as passionate as any of the other naturalized species.”
I agree with Kambouris’ assessment and prediction. With time, snakeheads will garner a bigger and bigger sportfishing following throughout their range. Be forewarned, they can be as addictive and frustrating as any fish you will pursue. I’ve taken my own snakehead obsession to the extreme by going far and wide to chase giant snakeheads in Malaysia, emperor snakeheads in Thailand, chevron snakeheads in PNG, ocellated snakeheads in Borneo, and rorest snakeheads in Indonesia. I’m always grateful when I can stay a little closer to home to fish bullseyes in Florida and northerns in Maryland.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan isn’t just an exceptional multispecies angler for North American species, he’s also traveled the world in search of exceptional sportfishing opportunities.
Response by In-Fisherman Contributor Dr. Hal Schramm
In his 2015 book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, Fred Pearce provides myriad positive examples of why people should not only accept but appreciate and even embrace non-native species. Included among his many examples are a few devastated ecosystems that have been restored to health with a rich biodiversity of non-native species. His evidence supporting abandoning a bias against non-native species is, to my knowledge, valid. His examples, however, are largely from terrestrial systems.
But non-native fishes, too, have a place. Brown trout are not native to North America. Black bass, indeed much of the sunfish family, are introduced east of the Appalachians and west of the Rockies. Although introduced largemouth bass have caused or contributed to extinctions of several fish species, most anglers and biologists would agree that these fishes are very welcome guests. Pacific salmon introduced to the Great Lakes to turn invasive alewife into valuable sport fish is a great success story, although managers are presently concerned about the salmon, now established, exceeding their forage supply. This recent problem can probably be solved by ceasing stocking.
Steve Ryan makes a case for snakeheads, the bullseye snakehead in peninsular Florida and northern snakehead in the Potomac River, as an exciting sport fish and delectable food fish. I’ve never caught a snakehead, but Steve is an accomplished multispecies angler, and after reading his description, I admit that I would like to. I have eaten snakehead while I was in China and agree that it is excellent. But I also consider a long list of native fishes excellent table fare.
Ryan is correct that snakeheads have yet to be found to have any adverse effect on native sport fishes or aquatic ecosystems. But snakeheads are rapidly expanding in the U.S. Although ecological models indicate the bullseye snakehead could spread widely in Florida, it presently is largely confined to southeastern Florida canals and provides a recreational opportunity in these man-made ecosystems. The northern snakehead, unfortunately, is far less well behaved. It was first detected in the Potomac River, Virginia, in 2004. Since then, the northern snakehead has colonized the entire Potomac River, including above the fall line, and has spread southward to other Chesapeake Bay drainages. This rapid spread was likely a result of the fish’s broad thermal and salinity tolerances, but the northern snakehead is now also in Lake Anna, Virginia, a confirmed bait-bucket introduction (the guilty party was convicted).
Northern snakehead escaped an aquaculture facility in Arkansas and established in Piney Creek. The population appeared to be confined to a small area. In 2009, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission launched Operation Mongoose, an eradication effort that can be better likened to a military excursion than a fisheries management effort: 125 personnel from three agencies spent seven days spraying rotenone from land and swamp vehicles, helicopters, and boats into 400 miles of ditches and creeks and 4,000 acres of connected reservoirs, ponds, and sloughs. The effort killed thousands of snakeheads (and every other fish that lived in the area) but failed to eradicate them. Since the effort, the northern snakehead has spread in the vicinity of Piney Creek, entered the Mississippi River, and is now in a stream that drains into the Missouri river.
Ryan makes a good case for “sampling” snakeheads―both rod and reel and at the dinner table―if the opportunity presents itself. But touting snakehead, or any non-native aquatic plant or animal, scares me because not all readers understand the consequences of a bad introduction. There are multiple ways for introduced aquatics to adversely affect fish and their habitat, and the consequences of a bad introduction are huge: a non-native fish, once established, is forever. The snakehead can tolerate low oxygen better than most fish but, as Ryan points out, does not walk on land. But people do. And some carry fish. The best way to prevent the potential spread and establishment of snakehead or any other non-native species is to keep all of them out.