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Southern Marylanders are doing their best to eradicate the snakehead, one delicious bite at a time

By MICHAEL REID

Staff writer

A few minutes after 7 on a chilly, starry night, Clyde Coffey slides his 19-foot Sea Ark into Mattawoman Creek and fires up his generator. Instantly, a bank of seven large halogen lights illuminates several feet into the murky waters.

But there are no rods, reels, lures or bait on the boat. Instead, Coffey picks up a large bow and aims his arrow into the darkness. He’s hunting snakeheads.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is trying to eradicate the invasive species. It is illegal in Maryland to release a live snakehead back into the water. There are no creel limits and no season. Coffey and his friend, Bill Massey, are only too happy to help.

“Bass is a gamefish and a trophy fish, so they want to eradicate the snakehead, which is no problem for me,” Massey said as he notched his arrow. “And waters around here are jam-packed full of snakeheads.”

How jam-packed? “The first time my cousin, Todd Murphy, took me out, we saw 47 snakeheads and shot 12,” Massey said. “The next night we went out in same area and saw close to 80.”

The best time to shoot snakeheads is from April to November, depending on the weather.

“Smaller fish spook easier. Bigger fish are territorial. They [want to] find out what’s going on,” said Massey, who along with Coffey, Murphy and coworker Robert “Block” Collins have formed the Channa Argus Posse, which refers to the species’ Latin name. “Nighttime is a lot better because you can use light. There’s not as much boat traffic on the water, but I don’t know how long it will be like that. The sport is growing so fast.”

“I’d like to see them catch them up and get them out of here,” said Robert T. Brown, the president of the St. Mary’s Waterman’s Association. “They haven’t been here that long, but there’s more and more numbers. It’s hard to say how much damage will be done. It just depends on how much they flourish and how many you have.”

Massey and Coffey, who both are Department of Defense firefighters, try to get out a few nights a week and stay on the water anywhere from a few hours to all night, depending on the success.

“I’d heard about snakeheads in pictures and videos, so I just figured I’d give it a try,” Coffey said of the sport, which he took up in June. “I shot my first fish [a 33-incher], and that was it.” He was hooked.

Massey said he’ll take a bow and arrow over a rod-and-reel combo anytime. “The fight the snakehead gives when he has an arrow in him is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s almost like a fight with a small shark on the end of a hook and line. It is by far the most exciting fight you will have at the end of your line.”

The duo don’t think the snakehead is doing irreparable harm to the ecosystem. “I think it’s just a regular fish,” Coffey said. “We see them right beside the bass. You’ll see 50 bass to each snakehead.”

“To be honest, I don’t think [bass fishing] has changed any,” Massey said. “There’s giant [bass] back there, and they co-habitate together.”

But Massey did voice some concern about the future. “It kind of bothers me a bit because there’s no other fish that can compete with them when it comes to food,” he said of the voracious eater as he scanned the water. “They’re eating the bass, the bluegills, the crappie and those are all gamefish that we want to take our kids out to catch.”

Gary Fick, a chef at the Blue Dog Saloon in Port Tobacco who regularly serves snakehead, agreed. “When we open them up we see baby rock[fish], baby perch, we see crab eggs, we see baby crabs,” he said. “Fishermen will tell you that in the summer where the crabs go to lay their eggs you can almost walk across the water because the snakeheads are so thick in there. They are invasive. No matter who tells you they’re not, they are.”

Thirty minutes into the trip, Coffey zings an arrow into the murky waters but narrowly misses a good-sized snakehead that was seeking cover under vegetation.

Snakeheads 1, Anglers 0

Joseph Love, a tidal bass manager with DNR, said the fish has an established population in the Potomac, and there’s evidence of populations in the Patuxent, Wicomico, Nanticoke and Blackwater rivers. Love said anglers now are much more informed about the species than when the fish first appeared in a Crofton pond in 2002.

“When we started out with this, I talked to many anglers who were unable to recognize the fish for what it was,” he said. “And if they did catch one they’d often cut the line and not even handle it.”

Coffey and Massey are more than willing to handle a snakehead but do not get the chance to do so on this night, though they do shoot a goldfish and a grass carp, two other invasive species. But they already have plenty of snakeheads in their freezers at home. They know well what others are just finding out.

Serving them up

It’s a busy Friday night at the Blue Dog Saloon as customers line up outdoors for a cherished table. The bar is packed, and a band is slated to play in an hour. Among the appetizers on the menu are “snake bites,” chunks of snakehead served with a melon coulis. In the entree section is something called “Nanjemoy sea bass.” It’s a snakehead fillet served over fingerling potatoes with andouille sausage and onion hash, all drizzled with a red pepper sour cream.

“A lot of people when we first opened couldn’t get over the name of it,” Fick said tongue in cheek. “A lot of people said it tasted just like Chilean sea bass, and most fishermen have caught them in Nanjemoy Creek.”

David Spencer of Hughesville said his first encounter with a snakehead was when he saw a tiny one inching along a road on his family’s farm. “It was big enough to go, ‘Oh, my God, what the hell is that?’” said Spencer, 31, a clinical massage therapist. “It’s a fish with legs.”

But his taste buds have trumped his initial disgust. “The snakehead may be a little derogatory, and it may have ruined our waters, but it’s delicious,” Spencer said as he dined with his fiancee, Narda Soto. “It’s always good here. It’s like rockfish but more moist. I like it better than rockfish. It’s the best $10 you’ll ever spend.”

J.G. Saunders, who graduated from The Calverton School in 2011 and works at the Chalk Point Power Plant, said the flavor was “so much better than white perch and rockfish put together.”

Coffey said, “A buddy at work caught one, so we just tried it. I would say it’s similar to rockfish, white perch. A real mild fish, no fishy taste.”

Massey said he would put the taste up against that of any other species. “You will not find another taste like that in your life,” he said. “You can take your favorite fish and put a snakehead next to it, and your favorite fish will pretty much be on the back burner.”

Fick, 51, said he goes through about 150 pounds of fish weekly.

“It’s a very mild flavor and firm,” he said during a brief respite from his kitchen duties. “You can blacken, saute, fry, broil, grill or roast it. It’s a versatile fish, and it holds its moisture very well. There’s no need to marinate it. It’s a very mild-flavor fish, so you don’t have to hide the fishiness or gaminess in it.”

Brenda Lee of La Plata has been a server at the Blue Dog off and on for close to 20 years. “Before it was even on the menu, people were afraid of the fish,’” she said. “And it’s a scary fish. It looks like a barracuda. One gentleman was almost appalled when he read it [on the menu] and was like, ‘Oh, no’ and had that look on his face, but he ate every last bit of it. It’s like a lot of things: If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

Spencer said more restaurants — a quick online check indicated just a handful in Maryland sell it — should start putting it on their menus because “it would get more snakeheads out of our waters, which would be beneficial.”

This fish needs a press agent

The snakehead has received plenty of bad press, thanks in large part to Hollywood. Shortly after the fish was discovered in a Crofton pond in 2002 and people learned of its unusual traits such as its ability to breathe air and move from pond to pond, the films began.

In 2004, “Snakehead Terror” starring Bruce Boxleitner and model Carol Alt was released, stating the movie was based on true events with a trailer that warned, “Fear is coming up for air.” Another trailer, with actors wielding shotguns, cautioned, “When a horror from the deep hunts on land, there is no place to hide.”

Scarier still was the release two years later of “Swarm of the Snakehead,” which featured a man with several scantily clad women adrift on a raft, all menaced by a giant snakehead attacking from below.

The movie’s synopsis said the hero returns to his fictional Maryland hometown of Barrow Springs, only to discover that “an awfully dangerous breed of snakehead fish makes this picturesque little city its natural habitat, as well — and is thirsty for some blood. They added the snakehead, “was a remnant of a long-forgotten U.S. Army experiment from the ’60s. Initially, it was happy to feed off local cats and dogs, but now it craves human flesh, as well.”

“A lot of that is unfortunate,” Love, from DNR, said. “I think in order to sell tickets or to get people to watch shows, you have to add a sensational aspect to the fish, and they did a really good job of building that sensationalism early on.”

But Love said Hollywood’s sensationalism might have done some good. “It’s helped a little bit in getting the message out [because] even if [people are] just familiar with the Hollywood film, that’s a point of conversation,” he said. “That’s a common thread from where we can build better information, so it’s been helpful in that regard. But it has been difficult because there’s still that sensationalism built into their head. I’d hate to think they’re running around with all this misinformation in their head. Hopefully if folks watch those movies and are interested in the fish, they’ll Google it and find some [factual] information.”

“There’s not much you can do [about the snakehead problem] once they get into the ecosystem,” said Brown, who fishes Port Tobacco Creek from January through March for gizzard shad, which he ships to Louisiana watermen to use as crawfish bait.

But Love also said eating the tasty fish could potentially backfire. “One of the ways is if the demand ever exceeds the supply — and it hasn’t happened yet — but if it does then I think it might give some unethical individuals reason for stocking this fish everywhere, and we certainly don’t want to promote that,” he said. “Right now it’s beneficial because there are plenty of them in the Potomac, so I think folks can meet the demand that we have. But if we ever flipped, I think we’d end up with a problem.”

mreid@somdnews.com