Marines take on 'fish from hell' in Quantico snakehead derby

The few, the proud, the snakehead hunters.

Leathernecks from Marine Corps Base Quantico will take their hooks and bows to all public waters in and around the Virginia military training installation on Friday and Saturday as part of the base’s first snakehead fishing tournament. The two-day contest will culminate with a weigh-in and prizes will be doled out for the largest snakehead captured, as well as for the most total weight of all species combined.

“The main goal here is to encourage some good outdoor recreation for the Marines, their families and the general public,” Euel Tritt, a conservation officer at Quantico and one of the event’s organizers, told “And they’re an invasive species in the waterways, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Dubbed "fishzilla" and the "fish from hell" for its sharp teeth, aggressive demeanor and ability to wriggle across short distances on land, the snakehead is believed to have been introduced to North America through a fish market in New York City's Chinatown. Once dumped alive in U.S. waterways, the hardy fish, which has a ravenous appetite and no natural predators, exploded in population and became an ecological nightmare. It's illegal to possess a live snakehead in Virginia.

While no reliable estimate exists as to how many northern snakeheads are found in Virginia waters, the non-native species was first identified in 2004 and has since grown to “relative abundance,” according to John Odenkirk, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

“We’re working on coming up with a reliable estimate by the end of this year, but the bottom line is nobody knows,” Odenkirk said of the state’s snakehead population. “The jury is still out.”

In Little Hunting Creek alone, a 3.5-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River, Odenkirk said up to 500 adult snakeheads were recently counted and he expects “tens of thousands” more to be thriving in all of Virginia’s tidal tributaries, including Dogue Creek, Pohick Creek and several others.

"Whatever swims in front of its head, it’s going to eat.”

— John Odenkirk, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

“The snakehead is a lazy fish,” Odenkirk said. “They sit and wait in ambush mode. It’s an opportunist, plain and simple. Whatever swims in front of its head, it’s going to eat.”

Common targets for the snakehead are banded killifish and the bluegill, and mature males can reach up to more than 3 feet long and weigh roughly 18 or 19 pounds, Odenkirk said.

“There seems to be ample numbers of 18- and 19-pound fish out there, and that’s about a 37-inch fish,” he said. “That’s a big fish.”

With no reason to suspect that the snakehead population is declining, Odenkirk said he expects several thousand pounds of fish to be culled from Virginia waters during the weekend tournament.

“Conditions are good right now,” he said. “And if it’s good to eat and fun to catch, why not get out there and catch ‘em?”

In 2002, Virginia’s Board of Game and Inland Fisheries added the snakehead to its list of predatory and undesirable exotic species, making it illegal to possess one in the state without a permit. Anglers who legally catch a snakehead can keep the fish to mount or eat if the animal is immediately killed, however.

The contest is also open to the public since June 7-9 is a free fishing weekend in Virginia, meaning licenses are not required. All boats must be launched from Chopawamsic Creek or Quantico Creek, but fishing is permitted in all waters of the Potomac River and its tributaries.

The snakehead is the contest’s primary target, but gar, carp and catfish also can be captured by hook or bow.

Last year, Maryland wildlife officials offered $200 retail gift cards for dead snakeheads in a statewide contest.

“We do not want snakeheads in our waters," said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Inland Fisheries Director Don Cosden. "This initiative is a way to remind anglers that it is important to catch and remove this invasive species of fish.”

Anyone who captures a snakehead in Virginia should not release it into the wild. Call the state's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at (804) 367-2925 for proper disposal instructions.