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Snakeheads slithering up Rappahannock

AP photo

Northern snakehead fish have been moving inexorably into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Rappahannock River.

While the popularity of the odd-looking invasive fish and the speed of its migration have surpassed expectations, its impact on other species hasn’t been nearly as significant as first thought.

John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Fredericksburg office, will talk about the invasion as part of the Friends of the Rappahannock’s annual meeting May 20. He’s been studying snakeheads since they were first found in the Potomac River in 2004.

Since then, they’ve been migrating downstream. By last summer, the invasive fish had reached the mouth of the river.

Odenkirk said in an interview with The Free Lance–Star last June that it was only a matter of time before the fish made it to the Rappahannock.

That happened the following month, when an angler caught one in Ruffins Pond along Routes 2 and 17. The waterway feeds into Massaponax Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock.

Shortly after that, a game department sampling crew caught another one and saw a few others, Odenkirk recalled in an interview last week.

“Within a week, an angler caught one in Massaponax Creek,” where it enters the river. “At that point, it was, ‘Wow. The cat’s out of the bag,’” he said.

Other state fish biologists then reported catching snakeheads in the lower Rappahannock, miles downriver, at Drake’s Marsh near Leedstown in Westmoreland County and at Hick’s Landing in Caroline County.

Odenkirk said the fish got into the river either by being intentionally released or through natural dispersion.

For now, “You can reasonably expect [them] to be found almost anywhere in the river.”

So far, no snakeheads have been caught upriver from Massaponax Creek. But based on research on the Potomac, he said, “They have a greater tendency to disperse upstream. They are very good migrants.”

Odenkirk said there is some hope of keeping them out of other bay rivers.

“We still have designs to keep them contained and out of the York and James [rivers]. The more information we get out, the better chance we have to do that,” he said.

Anglers on the Rappahannock River are asked to report any snakeheads they catch by calling 804/367-2925.

John Tippett, executive director of the river-protection group, spoke to Odenkirk recently about the department’s snakehead research and asked him to speak at the annual meeting.

“It promises to be a really fascinating discussion of topics ranging from how it affects the local ecology and fishing, to recipes for preparing it,” Tippett said.

There is lots of interest in snakeheads, which were dubbed “Frankenfish” due to their large teeth, voracious appetite and ability to survive for short periods out of water.

Odenkirk spoke last month to an outdoor writers group in Staunton. And snakeheads made news earlier this month when they were found in Harlem Meer, a pond in New York City’s Central Park.

Native to China, Korea and Russia, they were imported to the United States for food. They can grow to over 40 inches and more than 15 pounds. They prefer weeded areas and will eat practically anything they can catch, researchers say.

Named for the snakelike pattern on their skin, the fish first showed up in a pond in Crofton, Md., in 2002. In May 2004, one was caught by an angler in Little Hunting Creek, a Potomac River tributary in Fairfax County.

Conservationists were alarmed at the time, worrying that the top-tier predator could change the ecology of the river. But that has not been the case; researchers say there appears to be little impact on other species so far.

By 2009, snakeheads had made it as far south on the Potomac as Machodoc Creek in King George County. That summer, a boy fishing in Aquia Creek caught one 3 feet long.

Last June, a fisherman pulled an 18.4-pound monster out of the Occoquan River, which might have been certified as a world record had the fish not been eaten for dinner.

The record northern snakehead , caught in Japan, weighed 17.4 pounds.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Friends of the Rappahannock’s annual meeting and potluck dinner. Open to the public.

WHEN: Monday, May 20, 6:30–8 p.m.

WHERE: Micks Education Center, FOR headquarters off Fall Hill Avenue.

DETAILS: Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk will speak about spread of northern snakehead fish in Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Pre-registration is suggested, call 540/373-3448 for that and other information.

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