Washington, DC: Finding Intrigue and Irony in Invasives
Jon Leavitt loves snakehead; the general Mid-Atlantic population does not.
Some attitudes among Potomac anglers are changing, but since the early 2000’s, the population of the Potomac estuary has been up in arms in a battle against these far east invaders – a non-native species legally imported from Asia for seafood trade, aquarium exhibits, and as pawns to overthrow the US government due to lingering animosity from past World War II tensions.
It’s a joke. They’re fish. They’re not government spies, ground soldiers in an oriental scheme to destroy Major League Bass Fishing, or presentedly-violent Bernie Sanders supporters.
Everyone take a deep breath. They’re fish.
Here’s the skinny: Over ten years ago, officials found some folks were releasing what they called ‘prayer fish’ into Maryland ponds as a way to kick some good karma back to Mother Nature for hooking them up with everyday blessings. The fish multiplied, Uncle Sam found out and – in classic ‘merican fashion – poisoned the ponds and made keeping, trading, and importing the live fish illegal. The media coverage of this event sent shivers down the spines of people who had released snakehead into other waterways in the past, current owners of the now vilified fish looking to – literally – ditch the evidence, and fishery activists looking to protect native species and further disparage the new kid on the block.
The major concerns are 1) another top-of-the-food-chain predator will compete with largemouth bass – ironically, a once non-native and now idolized species introduced to the Potomac waterways in the mid-nineteenth century – or blue catfish – yet another non-native species with no bounties on it’s head – for dominance, 2) the snakehead population will spread exponentially faster than other species due to the parent’s unusual protection of their young through their bi-annual spawns, and 3) they’re just not pretty enough.
All of this even though recent data collected by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries shows their impact on the Potomac is almost non-existent.
Note – This is my interpretation of public record, government legislation, and credible-ish word of mouth information. It is an opinion, and, while well-formed, entertaining, and slightly comical, I am not pushing it as fact, nor am I pushing it as the only opinion out there.
They’re ugly, unwanted, uber aggressive, and Jon Leavitt loves them.
Progressive Fishery Avtivism
The weather cooperated, my seldom-set alarm clock did it’s thing, and I battled outbound Washington, DC traffic toward Fredericksburg to meet an anxious Jon. His fishing guide like anxiety was warranted; these fish aren’t easy to catch and I only had one day scheduled to fish the greater DC area.
While this is the first time we had met in person, Snakehead Jon and I have worked together for a couple of years now through different mutual connections, promotional opportunities, and marketing based work in kayak fishing. I’ve cyber-seen him wrangle a lot of monsters. But the photos and videos he produces – coming off as a snakehead whisperer – are deceptive. Even he will tell you that it’s a numbers game. He studies long and hard to find these fish. With a work schedule based primarily around the night shift, Jon spends most mornings in his Jackson Cuda HD surveying – exploring, observing, stalking, fishing, and not always catching.
His admiration for the species deemed lamentable by his angling counterparts is what keeps him coming back – not the ten-minute fight on light tackle and the ensuing hand-to-tooth combat at the boat. He deserves credit as a kayak angler but he also deserves credit as an amateur biologist, a novice wildlife educator, and a progressive fishery activist.
When Fishing Turns to Stalking
There isn’t much information out there on recreationally fishing the invasive species in part because they are relatively new on the scene but mostly because of two reasons: 1) the majority of local bass anglers consider them undesirable and 2) the Virginia Department of Inland Fisheries allows any size and any quantity to be taken from the Potomac – meaning meat hauls, spotlighted bow fishing, and illegal netting are all more common than traditional recreational snakehead trips.
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Armed with a big bass bites portfolio of samplers on the menu, we rigged up, slid down the roller coaster ride of a slide-assist kayak launch, and paddled toward the giant splashing coming from the far channels. The lilies got the frogs, the deep channels got the chatter baits, and the downed trees got the swim baits.
The license plates around the Potomac told me Virginia was for lovers but it was the noises coming from the channel that made me actually believe it. The spawning carp and alligator gar had no shame. With this wall-rattling presence of 30 to 40-inch fish kicking sediment, pushing wakes, and talking dirty, the channel of the Potomac offered next to nothing in the form of bycatch – if it was still hanging around the love nest, it was a mean snakehead S.O.B. and it wasn’t afraid of a little commotion.
Or so we thought.
I stumbled into a channel cat that – through my hopeless optimism, its initial run of aggression, or a mixture of the two – gave an initial fight that screamed “SNAKE.”
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The guessing game through high tide ended and our fishing trip became a stalking trip. In only inches of water, these fish were highly visible from our kayaks. Throughout the day we spotted roughly a dozen sizeable Asian tourists making permanent residence just south of DC. We polled through the shallows keeping our eyes out fifteen to twenty feet out ahead of us, trying not to spook the snakehead and trying even harder not to fall in when a five-foot long alligator gar bumped our boats.
“Snakehead eat what they want, when they want. It’s not some internal algorithm based on tides, weather, time of year, and location like other fish” Jon explained. Half the time they don’t even eat other fish, deciding instead to sample other invertebrates and even small mammals.
“It’s the pretty girl at the bar scenario. They’re incredibly hard to catch; that’s what makes them so special.”
So, after two hours fishing and four hours throwing every bait in the box to visible and not-interested frankenfish, we picked up and went to the bar where Jon talked me into rescheduling my DC tourist plans and giving these elusive ex-pats another shot at a new location.
If we could get away from the house-rocking, carp and gar Potomac lovefest going on, we have a shot.
Some People Suck
We escaped earshot of the lovebirds but unfortunately my enthusiasm was partly tempered. Gill netters beat us out to Jon’s favorite hole, just 20 minutes south of DC metro.
While gill netting is illegal, shoestring budgets and a lack of manpower keep the VDGIF from effectively enforcing the law – leaving me and Jon to fend for scraps. Here is what you have to remember: with minimal regulation and zero protection from wildlife authorities, shanty commercial fisherman have flooded the area for uncharacteristically-high five-dollar per pound payouts to Chesapeake restaurants with nets, bows, and spotlights.
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Before we got to the poached area, Jon found two largemouth bass followed by five hours of empty retrieves. My luck was even worse.
There were homemade nets everywhere. These fish – carp, gar, and bass included – didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t sport fishing, it wasn’t regulated commercial fishing, and – not to dive down this wormhole – with increasing research in animal sentience, it was downright cruel.
I went for one of the nets to loosen the laundry detergent buoy. Jon stopped me. “These are some bad dudes, man. You don’t want to do that. You never know when a lookout is watching the traps. Next thing you know, we’ll have some company waiting for us at the launch.”
Some people suck and it’s not the snakehead.
What do you call a $32 catfish? Mark’s Virginia fishing license. While I was fishless from my target species all four days in the commonwealth and up through greater Washington DC, the paddling, the company, and the monster fish stalking was a good time. Here’s to all the people that helped me enjoy Washington DC/Northern Virginia and to ending this streak soon.
- Karen Vlaskamp – Thanks for letting Cammi and I take over your basement. While I’m sure BB and Maddie are relieved she is gone, Cammi undoubtedly misses the sweet set up.
- Jeff Vlaskamp – The brawls just keep coming. I’ve pitched your assault idea on MLB fights to some unwritten rules of the game supremacists recently and it’s been well received. You may be on to something.
- Jon Leavitt – That was a blast. I want a snakehead and I want to release it. I’ll be back soon.
- Todd Darling – That Native was slick, man. I’ve always been a fan of the Ultimate models. Thanks for letting me paddle it around and pretend to get fish slime on it.
- 722 13th Street – Good to see you, my old friend. I don’t remember you much but I appreciate you for keeping the crack heads out while I chilled with blankie in the crib. Gentrification seems to treating you well, old guy.