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A Creepy Catch of The Day

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2004

The snakehead fish, a voracious Asian invader that's been known to breathe out of water and scoot short distances over land, has reappeared in Maryland, state authorities announced yesterday.

A 19-inch northern snakehead was caught Monday at a lake in Wheaton Regional Park -- the first appearance of the toothy green fish in the area since 2002, when the state of Maryland had to poison a pond in Crofton to prevent snakeheads there from wiggling away.

Unlike the Crofton snakeheads, the newly caught fish was not in an isolated fishing hole. Pine Lake drains into the Northwest Branch, which goes to the Anacostia River and the Potomac River.

Yesterday, authorities tried to play down the possibility that the predatory fish had spread, saying they used electric shocks and large nets to gather fish from the surrounding waters and had found no other snakeheads.

Still, to be sure, they said they will drain the five-acre lake beginning today.

"I'll be confident when the pond is drained," said Steve Early of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The northern snakehead is native to China and Korea and is prized as a food in several Asian countries. It is imported to the United States for sale in some fish markets and as an aquarium fish.

If it is released in a pond or lake in this area, experts say, the snakehead is instantly at the top of the food chain: It can grow as large as 47 inches long and weigh 15 pounds. The fish can clean out a pond of native fish, officials said, and it also eats insects -- probably including this year's expected bumper crop of cicadas.

The snakehead caught Monday appears to be about 4 years old -- old enough to reproduce, though it is still too early in the year for breeding, Early said yesterday. Because the fish had not been dissected, authorities were not sure of its sex.

The draining of the lake, which is no deeper than eight feet, will begin this afternoon and probably be completed tomorrow morning, authorities said. They said native fish will first be captured and then reintroduced to the lake when it fills again with water.

Early said that authorities would continue to look for snakeheads in other bodies of water, including downstream. But he said that with a food-laden environment such as Pine Lake, a snakehead would be unlikely to leave.

"If they've got a good place to live, they're not moving," he said.

The fish was caught by Terry Wintermoyer, 23, of Silver Spring, who was trying to catch a largemouth bass with a lure called a top-water spinner.

Wintermoyer said yesterday that he had made several casts from the shore when he saw something dart out from under an underwater rock and take the hook.

"I was pretty positive it was about a 25- or 30-pound largemouth, the way it was fighting on the line," Wintermoyer said. "It's probably the most fighting fish I've seen so far."

When he finally landed the fish, Wintermoyer said, he was surprised to find a sleek, scaly thing weighing only about four pounds. He said it had the head of snake and the teeth of a shark.

"I hadn't seen anything like it in my whole life," he said.

Wintermoyer said that a friend recognized the fish from news coverage about the Crofton snakeheads. They put it in a plastic bag and took it to a nearby station of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Police.

There, he held the bag up in front of a window where an officer was sitting.

"I think I caught what they call a snakehead fish," Wintermoyer told the officer.

Officials confiscated the fish, which Wintermoyer said he would have eaten otherwise, and kept it in a water-filled wastebasket. Experts from the Department of Natural Resources confirmed that it was a northern snakehead.

Officials said they did not know how long the snakehead had been in the lake or who had put it there.

"I don't think there's any way to find" the culprit, said Doug Redmond of the parks commission. "If someone were to come forward and say they had done it, that's probably the only way to find out."

Redmond speculated that the snakehead may have been a pet that was released after it became too big for its aquarium. That was the case with the snakeheads in Crofton, which originally were ordered as food, then kept as pets by a man who lived near the pond.

In general, authorities sought to play down the threat posed by the fish, saying they were dangerous only to fish, not to people.

But Wintermoyer told a story that hinted otherwise.

He and his friend were debating what to do with the fish, which was lying on the ground inside the plastic bag. A park maintenance worker walked up, curious, and stuck his foot near the animal.

Suddenly, Wintermoyer said, the snakehead lunged.

"It put a pretty good tooth mark in his steel-toed boot," he said.

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