Keep that doughnut out of sight, and guard your extremities. The fish are biting in Crofton.

July 13, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

CROFTON - It's quiet out here. Too quiet. At 7 in the morning, a light mist still covers the most famous pond in America, and not one unsuspecting poodle has been snatched from the shore and dragged under by whatever's lurking in that murky, weed-choked water.

Now maybe you think that "most famous pond" stuff is a little over the top. Maybe you think Walden Pond, where Thoreau derived his inspiration, is better known. But Walden Pond doesn't have killer fish roaming around like the Bloods and the Crips and the national media all over the story, and we got that here, baby.

We got northern snakeheads, Chinese thug fish, in our pond. And who knows how big these monsters are? One fisherman said he saw one as big as a golf bag. But what if he's wrong? What if the sun was in his eyes or he's got cornea problems and he only saw half the damn fish? What if these northern snakeheads are as big as a sleeper sofa?

At this hour, most of the stores in the strip mall behind the pond are still closed. But there's a Dunkin' Donuts across the way, where you can grab a cup of joe and a glazed doughnut. 'Course, these northern snakeheads, they see you standing along the shore with a doughnut in your hand, they'll come shooting out of the water and tear it from you, maybe take your head off with it.

Least that's what I heard.

OK, I didn't really hear that. But I heard lots of other things about these snakeheads.

I hear they have teeth like concertina wire and can live out of the water for three days. I hear they can walk on land and close on you from 50 yards like a cheetah. I hear the only way to kill 'em is with a silver crucifix through the heart. And you gotta be reciting the Lord's Prayer - backward.

OK, I really didn't hear any of that, either. Look, I don't know what I heard. All I know is this place is creeping me out.

Fortunately, a TV truck from Baltimore rolls in a few minutes later. And not long after, a black Isuzu Rodeo pulls up, and out steps the world-famous Joe Gillespie.

Gillespie is the Crofton fisherman who caught a 26-inch snakehead two weeks ago and a bunch of baby snakeheads in a dip net the other day. He's been fishing this pond forever, but is now the Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin of northern snakeheads. It's all I can do not to ask for his autograph.

For all his notoriety, though, Gillespie turns out to be a friendly, unassuming guy. He says he was supposed to appear on Good Morning America last week, but the segment was replaced by a piece on security precautions for the Fourth of July.

Bummer, I say. Gillespie nods. A computer specialist when he's not stalking snakeheads, he's still coming to grips with his new-found celebrity.

"It's been a lot of fun," he says with a smile. "Last night, my son and I went to Blockbuster and he said: `Dad, don't talk to anyone.' "

Soon a few trucks from the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pull up, one towing a 16-foot johnboat with electro-shock gear, including a big generator that looks like something they could be using on death row.

The DNR and Fish and Wildlife are all in a lather about these snakeheads, fearing they'll gobble up all the other fish in the pond and do serious damage to the ecosystem.

Like mute swans and nutria and phragmites - which DNR head flack Chuck Porcari describes as "a cat-tail on steroids" - northern snakeheads could wreak havoc in their new environment, which is about 10,000 miles from their old environment, the Yangtze River in China.

Plus the Little Patuxent River is only 75 yards away. Even if the snakeheads don't just lace up their Nikes and walk to the river, they could easily reach it if heavy rains cause flooding.

And if they get in the river, my God, you could have cattle being snatched from the riverbanks, maybe even the occasional senior citizen.

As the DNR guys paddle out to check on traps they've set for the snakeheads, a hot rumor sweeps the assembled media wretches: A news conference is being set up. They've caught the creep who dumped the snakeheads in the pond.

All right! I can already envision the "perp walk," a man holding a small aquarium in his handcuffed hands, raincoat thrown over his head, being led from the police station and shoved into the back of a dark sedan as the TV cameras roll.

No such luck. The snakehead perp, it turns out, wasn't even arrested. He could have been rung up on charges of releasing a non-indigenous species into the wild. But he wasn't because - get this - the statute of limitations has run out!

Yo, we don't need no stinkin' statute of limitations. Some dope releases two snakeheads from his home aquarium because they've gotten too big? String him up right now!

A little earlier, Porcari had told me about a northern snakehead found in Tamarack, Fla., a few years ago that was eventually traced to a local Asian deli. I'll bet they didn't pussyfoot around with whoever dumped that one. In Florida, you could probably get the chair for snakehead dumping.

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