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Snakehead fish prey at tourney

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Snakehead fish are nasty, Jimmy Jowitt says.

But he was prepared to catch one Friday during the 2nd annual “Commander’s Snakehead Fishing Tournament” on the Potomac River at Quantico Marine Corps Base.

A friend “made me this guy to take care of them,” said Jowitt, showing off a souvenir miniature baseball bat with a gaff hook attached to it.

Tournament rules require participants to kill any snakehead fish, an invasive species named for the snakelike pattern on their skin.

“If you gotta kill ’em, it’s OK to grab a hold of them rather than deal with them in the boat with you,” said John Stone, 36, a former Marine from Orange County who made the snakehead-killing contraption. “On a kayak, it can get a little hairy dealing with bigger fish.”

“I’m a little nervous,” Jowitt, 29, who spent four years in the Navy, chimed in.

Organizers of the overnight tournament, which ends at 3 p.m. today, said they expect at least 80 participants—many of them active-duty military. As part of the event, Quantico is hosting a music festival from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. today at Barnett Field.

Participants don’t need fishing licenses because Friday, Saturday and Sunday have been designated free fishing days by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Gary Gutshall, operations director for Marine Corps Community Services, said the purpose of the event was twofold—to enjoy nature and help manage the snakehead population.

“It’s an opportunity to help the ongoing program to get that invasive species under control,” he said.

Prizes will go to teams and individuals who catch the most (in weight) snakeheads, catfish, gar and carp.

Whoever catches the largest snakehead will also win a prize. The biggest snakehead caught at last year’s tournament weighed about 9 pounds, said Tim Stamps, head of the natural resources section at Quantico.

Tournament participant Jim Bensinger said he thinks snakeheads have gotten a bad rap. The fish are simply “finding their little niche,” he said.

“They’re an immigrant, and they’re new,” said Bensinger of Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit that teaches fly fishing to injured military personnel and disabled veterans.

Jowitt, who lives in Orange, said he was excited by the opportunity to catch his first snakehead. He and his buddies planned to camp out on Friday night and continue fishing today.

“We’ve gone fishing for snakeheads before, and I have struck out for the past year and half,” Jowitt said. “So I’m hoping to break my bad streak.” 

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402