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What began as a father-son fishing trip on Father’s Day turned into an adventure featuring a surprise catch for the Pettyjohns.
The Lusby family came away with a snakehead fish, what Calvert County Naturalist Andy Brown said is a rare find in Calvert. The snakehead, an invasive freshwater species originally from Africa and Asia, has been sighted in recent years in Maryland and other parts of the U.S., but it is a rare sighting for the fresh waters of the Chesapeake Ranch Estates, where the Pettyjohns said they were.
Though the family did not know whether they were fishing directly in Lake Lariat or in a freshwater tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, Bernard Pettyjohn described the 26-inch, 5-pound fish his son, 9-year-old James, caught on June 17 as a “monster.”
“The monster fought so hard he almost pulled in” James, Bernard Pettyjohn wrote in an email. “This snakehead was so aggressive it was making chomping sounds and thrashing around. It bit down with large white teeth on the line and snapped it moments after being hauled on land. This was the most aggressive fish I have ever seen.”
Bernard said his son thought at first that he’d caught the “world’s biggest bass” before they discovered it was a snakehead.
James’ mom, Melissa, said the whole family was “pretty excited. My son was proud the whole day. He was showing it off. It’s gonna take awhile for him to beat that catch. ... They just packed up and went for the day and they just happened to catch that.”
But personally, she said, the snakehead was “kind of scary-looking, very ugly.”
According to a snakehead fact sheet from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Invasive Species Program, snakeheads are defined by their long, cylindrical bodies, enlarged scales on their heads and a large mouth with a protruding lower jaw and canine-like teeth. The largest recorded was 4 feet long.
After examining photos of the snakehead, Brown confirmed the catch and said he was shocked they were able to catch it using a fishing lure and bait.
“It’s very difficult to catch on hook and line,” Brown said. “The most effective means is with a bow and arrow.”
Brown cited a recent snakehead fishing tournament in the Potomac River as an example, where bow fishermen harvested more than 1,500 pounds of invasive fish.
He said pet stores sold snakeheads “for years and years,” which might explain why there have been sightings in U.S. waters, but he added that he “wouldn’t even begin to speculate” how a snakehead ended up in CRE.
Mary Groves with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service said she believes, after working with the family, that the Pettyjohns caught their snakehead in Mill Creek, a spillway into Lake Lariat, and she knows of just one other snakehead catch that was reported from this area. Other sightings have been further north in Prince George’s County, she said.
“It can happen any time we have really good rain events,” Groves said. “They’ll follow the fresh water down as far as they can.”
One invasive snakehead in Calvert, or even a handful, probably isn’t cause for worry, Brown said, but he stressed that should they reproduce quickly, some native fish species in the county may run into trouble. Although snakeheads are not dangerous to humans, “they are a predatory fish, so they’re certainly going to eat other fish,” he said.
Adult snakeheads will feed on crustaceans, frogs, small reptiles and sometimes birds and small mammals as well, USFWS’s fact sheet reports, continuing that the federal agency is working with DNR to eradicate the species in Maryland. Anyone who spots a snakehead is encouraged to report it to DNR by calling 1-877-224-7229, and Groves said they can also register their catch through the department’s Angler Program; at the end of the year, a rewards drawing will be held for anyone who caught a snakehead and registered it, as an incentive to encourage people to find and get rid of them.
But Calvert at least has one less snakehead to worry about, thanks to the Pettyjohns, who kept their son’s catch, had it cleaned and turned it into a Father’s Day meal to remember.
“This fish tasted great with garlic and pan fried with butter,” Bernard wrote in the email. “Greatest Father’s Day dinner I ever had.”