PORT DEPOSIT — They are slimy, hard to kill, and not native to Cecil County waters, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is urging every angler to drop a hook in the water to catch and keep all the northern snakeheads that can be caught.
“There’s no catch limit and no size limit,” said Joseph Love, DNR program manager. “But you do need a fishing license.”
The best news is they are delicious, Love said.
“Fry them or bake them. It’s very, very tasty fish,” he said.
Cecil Whig outdoor columnist Tim Sherman is, well, hooked on snakeheads. He’s got filets in his freezer and plans to catch more.
“They’re addictive to catch,” the Elkton angler said. “They are long and very strong. You can’t hold them with one hand.”
According to Sherman, the snakehead is stronger than pike, meaning it’s a challenge to get them to take the hook and an even bigger challenge to hold onto the rod and get them into the net or on the boat.
“They’re kind of rough on tackle,” he said.
Along a popular shoreline, he said anglers have left a line of broken rods stuck in the sand.
Patrick Webb likes bass fishing in his kayak on the Sassafras River, but the North East man said he has also discovered snakeheads.
“Over the past three to four years, I’ve probably caught 30 to 40,” he said, noting that he’s eaten most of them.
Maryland DNR officials are urging anglers to keep them with the recent discovery of 81 snakeheads in the fish lift at the Conowingo Dam.
“Last year we did not see any. This year we pulled out 81 from the west lift,” Love said.
All were turned over to Pennsylvania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Love said researchers are still trying to determine what these invasive fish are eating, as well as tracking their life and reproductive cycles.
“They like bass bait, earthworms, spinners and crank baits,” Love suggested, for those interested in catching. Frogs and bull minnows are also a delicacy to the snakehead, however, they also eat perch and bass, crayfish, bluegill and killifish.
“(Killifish) are important to the environment. They eat a lot of insects,” Love noted.
Webb has been making his own lures from artificial materials, and said that he’s found success with spinner baits and topwater frogs.
Sherman likes fathead minnows when he makes his twice-weekly fishing trips.
“They’re called ‘snakehead destroyers,’” he said.
Sherman won’t tell you where he fishes, but added that Principio Creek, Furnace Bay, and the Northeast and Elk rivers have the fish.
On average, an adult snakehead is 10 to 15 pounds, although a Charles County man caught one that came in at almost 20 pounds last year.
“Right now they are pushing 20 pounds. That’s a big fish for a freshwater system,” Love explained.
Catching the snakehead is easier than handling it and also much easier than killing it, which can be a problem since it is illegal to be in possession of a live snakehead.
“They produce a lot of slime,” Love said. “And they have a lot of sharp teeth.”
Love suggests using a towel to get a good grip on the snakehead, and not attempting to get a hook back until it is dead. There are also teeth in the roof of its mouth and its gills. There are several guaranteed methods to kill a snakehead, anglers report — and none of them are particularly gentle.
“It’s hard to decapitate. A lot of fishers just stab it in the head with a screwdriver,” Love said.
Others hit it with a club or use pliers to pull the gills off the sides of its head.
Snakeheads need to surface to get air, so some anglers bury the fish under ice, which slows its metabolism. Then the fish can be gutted.
“They are a tough animal,” Love said.
Out of the water snakeheads are even tougher, Sherman added.
Sherman said on land the fish recharges, doing what he calls “a death roll.”
“You cannot stop it,” he said, “They’re crazy.”
“They go nuts when you get them out of the water,” Webb said. “And they are very resilient.
“The first one I caught I thought I got all his gills but I missed one,” he said. “Three hours later, I open the cooler and he’s flopping around. He was still alive.”
Once the snakehead is deceased, however, it is quite easy to filet, Love said.
“Because the meat is so thick I can still get a good filet,” Love said.
DNR officials recently gave demonstrations on cleaning and cooking the fish, giving out free samples to the audience.
Webb likes to coat his filets in butter and Old Bay, top with mayonnaise and sliced tomatoes and bake for 15 minutes at 450 degrees.
“It’s very comparable to striped bass, but has a steak-like consistency, like mahi mahi,” he said.
For Sherman, the challenge is that the snakehead’s rib cage runs the entire length of its body. He’s had to make a few adjustments to his methods when cutting the meat from these buggers.
“They’re long like a walleye,” he explained. “Once you separate the meat from the skin, it’s easy to filet.”
Still a mystery
Snakeheads were first spotted in Maryland in the Potomac River more than a decade ago. Native to Asia and Africa, they can now be found in many freshwater flows in the state, including the Susquehanna and Sassafras rivers. Residents already notice a change in the watershed.
“People along the shore are not hearing frogs like they did,” Love said. “And there is some concern they are eating ducklings.”
Webb noticed that the snakeheads are not as aggressive as bass.
“It only eats when it’s hungry,” he said. “I think they could help the striped bass population.”
A favorite of anglers, striped bass — also known in Maryland as rockfish — is under tight control for catching. He says there’s no science to back him up, but he thinks these anglers could turn to the snakeheads instead and get the same experience.
“It’s another species to fish for that’s just as fulfilling,” Webb said.
Snakeheads have no natural predators here; at least not in their adult phase. In the larval phase, sunfish and perch are among those that eat the eggs and young fish.
“Sunfish need to eat too,” Love said.
Sherman said the adults will also eat their own children, as evidenced by the young snakeheads he recently found in the stomach of an adult.
Sexual maturity arrives in the second or third year. Mating can take place any time from April to December, according to the current research.
“What we don’t know is if a single female is capable of having multiple spawns,” Love said.
Clusters of 30,000 to 40,000 eggs is called a fry ball. Sherman said he’s been told by U.S. Fish and Wildlife that the fish do spawn more than once.
“But all the females I’ve caught have been spawned out,” he said, adding those who do find a fish full of eggs enjoy the roe as well.
Snakeheads build a nest where the female deposits her eggs to be fertilized by the male. The pair guards the eggs until hatching.
“Don’t go after the fry ball with your bare hands,” Love warned. These egg masses are typically laid in about 6 feet of water in grass beds. The mass and the young fish appear golden in color. Love said the prospective fish parents are focused on guarding their young.
“If you can pull the adults off a fry nest ... the nest will get taken out by predators,” he said. “If you can catch a snakehead at the nest, that’s skill.”
Sherman has done it, adding it’s part of the thrill of the catch.
“Once you see it, catch it, taste it, you see what a neat fish it is,” he said. “People are excited. They can’t talk enough about it.”