Amateur anglers aim to hook a snakehead

Hunt: With state biologists off for the weekend, fishermen stake out the Crofton pond where the dreaded Chinese native has been discovered.

July 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

They came yesterday to the weed-choked pond behind the shopping plaza like vigilantes seeking a fugitive, or farmers hunting a marauding wolf - fishermen armed with rods and bait, in pursuit of the dreaded snakehead.

But after hours of waiting by dozens of anglers, the stakeout at the Crofton pond appeared to be in vain. Not only weren't the snakeheads biting, there were few sightings of any fish - maybe, fishermen speculated, because the snakeheads had eaten them all.

"There must be some real fat snakeheads in there - pretty soon, they're going to be eating people," joked Brian Gaines of Odenton, who arrived at the pond at 7:30 a.m. with his brother-in-law and two nephews.

It has been three weeks since state biologists made the discovery that a small pond just off Route 3 held an 18-inch northern snakehead fish, a sharp-toothed, torpedo-shaped native of China that devours local fish, can survive up to three days outside water, grows up to three feet and uses its fins to walk short distances on land. Biologists are unsure how the species, which is sold in Asian specialty groceries, got into the pond.

Officials' determination to catch the fish - and thereby prevent the species from spreading into the nearby Patuxent River - was heightened last week when a Crofton man caught a 26-inch snakehead in the 9-acre pond, raising the likelihood that multiple snakeheads were present.

But state biologists decided to take the holiday weekend off and let local anglers pursue the fish before officials return this week and renew their efforts, which have included electro-shocking the pond and setting traps with cat food.

So yesterday it was the amateurs who took over the hunt, glory-seekers drawn from across the state by the story of a killer fish that has made it onto the CBS Evening News and Live with Regis and Kelly.

"It would be pretty tight to say you caught the snakehead," said Steve Diaz, 15, of Pasadena.

Richard Wohkittel, a Baltimore police officer, made the trip from Harford County with sons Richard Jr., 9, and Brett, 6, each of whom was holding a small, worm-baited rod. "When I heard about it, I said, `This sounds crazy. I got to bring down the kids and take a shot at it,'" Wohkittel said.

A range of strategies

By late morning, a half-dozen groups of fishermen were arrayed around the pond, tucked away under the overhanging branches like snipers. Their strategies varied; baits included minnow, roast beef and regular old earthworms.

Michael Payne, 16, who heard about the snakehead while on vacation in Ocean City, was convinced that if he stood quietly at the pond's edge before casting his line, he would be able to see the fish jumping for bugs and then aim his line at that spot. Payne, of Gambrills, also had a theory about the fish's origins: "I was thinking that sushi bar down the road might have something to do with it."

Bob Bock, of Silver Spring, took a more scientific approach to the hunt. Bock, a member of the North American Native Fishes Association, arrived with a seine, a net-like contraption used to skim small fish from the water. Wearing hip boots, he made his way around the murky, cigarette butt-filled edges of the pond to make sure no newly spawned snakeheads were there. By day's end, he was relieved to report he had found none.

Md.'s Most Wanted

State officials had been planning to post Most Wanted signs on trees around the pond alerting anglers not to release snakeheads.

No signs were visible yesterday, but the fishermen said there was no reason to worry about their throwing the killer fish back into the water.

"This thing walks on land and has teeth sharper than a piranha. It doesn't belong here," said Joe Smith, 18, of Glen Burnie. "If I get that [fish], I'm going to stab the heck out of it and kill it."

Some anglers were motivated more by profit hunger than bloodlust. Teen-agers Vince Gray, Steve Rutland and Matt Voltz, all from nearby towns, said they would keep the snakehead alive and sell it on eBay if they caught it.

"It's from China, and Crofton is the only place in America where you can [catch] it," said Gray, 16. "We'll start the bids at $500."

But what if state Department of National Resources officials demand the fish?

"Then we'll sell it to them," said Voltz, 15. "They can bid on it like everyone else."

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