In Wheaton, the snakehead resurfaces

2 years after `Frankenfish' were killed off in Crofton, predator is landed in Md.

April 29, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien and Candus Thomson | Dennis O'Brien and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

A Montgomery County fisherman has bagged a northern snakehead, the same voracious, fin-walking Asian predator that made national news when it took over three Crofton ponds in the summer of 2002.

Terry Wintermoyer plucked the nasty customer from Wheaton Regional Park's Pine Lake on Monday afternoon, prompting officials to close the lake to fishing and to make plans to drain it as quickly as possible. The lake's bass and sunfish, numbering in the hundreds, will be pumped out and shipped to other ponds.

The 19-inch snakehead that Wintermoyer caught lived up to the aggressive reputation of its species: as it lay covered in plastic wrap shortly after Wintermoyer landed it, the snakehead bit into the steel-tipped boot of a passer-by.

Besides devouring other fish in their environment, snakeheads are known for surviving out of water for long periods and moving on land with their fins.

At a lakeside news conference yesterday, Wintermoyer, 23, said he immediately knew he had something special. He used pliers to extract the hook from the snakehead's mouth - thus avoiding its fang-like teeth - and admired his catch for an hour before turning it in to park police.

"I hadn't seen anything like that my whole life," he said.

Using electroshock to survey the lake's population, state biologists found no evidence of other snakeheads. The process passes an electric current into the water to stun fish within 20 feet, forcing them to float to the surface for examination. The survey turned up hundreds of bass and sunfish, but no snakehead.

Even so, officials concede they might have missed a snakehead or two. "I'll be confident when the pond is drained," said Steven Early, assistant director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

There's no apparent threat to downstream waterways. The pond feeds into the Northwest Branch, a tributary of both the Anacostia and the Potomac rivers, state wildlife officials said.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which manages the park, is expected to have crews at the lake today to begin draining it. The process should take about two days, said Doug Redmond, principal natural resources specialist for the commission. The fish in the lake will be put into tanks and taken to other lakes, he said.

Redmond said refilling Pine Lake will take one to two weeks if the weather is dry, but a heavy rainstorm could top it off in a couple of days.

Early said draining the lake is a good idea. "It's an aggressive form of management, but the right one," he said.

Unlike the snakehead incident in Crofton, only one fish has been found - and it was removed before spawning season, Early noted. "We are only aware of a single introduction here and a single capture," he said.

In Crofton, the fish multiplied over the summer before officials took action. Biologists eventually poured poison into the lake, killing the predators.

Early estimated the Wheaton snakehead to be about 4 years old. He said it was probably dumped in the lake intentionally, violating a state law that was well-publicized after the Crofton incident. Dumping an invasive species into a state waterway is punishable by a $2,500 fine and 30 days in jail.

"Obviously, we haven't gotten the word out to everyone," Early told reporters.

Wintermoyer, who lives with his grandmother in Silver Spring, said he initially thought the snakehead was a 25- to 30-pound large-mouth bass because of the fierce fight it put up. The fish emerged from under a rock near the spot where he was standing just before he hooked it. "It was probably the worst fighting fish I've seen so far," he said.

The discovery of northern snakeheads in the tidy community of Crofton was a major event during the summer of 2002, drawing national attention and prompting jokes by Jay Leno, Regis Philbin and shows on Comedy Central.

Local entrepreneurs sold T-shirts bearing a likeness of the ugly fish, and the owner of the ponds hired an independent film crew to capture all the action.

The predator has since been the subject of a book published by the Smithsonian Institution and a movie on the SciFi network.

Fisherman Paul DiMauro caught the first Crofton fish, an 18-incher, on May 15, 2002. But he took pictures and tossed it right back, thinking he might have caught an endangered species. News of DiMauro's catch surfaced June 22, and nine days later, Crofton angler Joe Gillespie caught a 26-inch snakehead.

He also announced that several months earlier, he had hooked a snakehead "the size of a golf bag."

When Gillespie netted some baby snakeheads days later, the state convened a panel of 14 experts to draft an extermination plan. In September 2002, scientists poured an herbicide in the three Crofton ponds to kill off vegetation - followed by a lethal dose of the fish poison rotenone.

The final Crofton tally - six adults and nearly 1,000 juvenile fish - startled DNR biologists. They believed that the two adult snakeheads originally dumped in 2000 had produced only one crop of young.

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