Cover Story

Potomac Fever

By David A. Fahrenthold
Sunday, July 8, 2007

IN A MUDDY BRANCH OF A MUDDY INLET OF THE POTOMAC RIVER, the prey finally showed its ugly face. It popped up in a scum-surfaced canal between backyard boat docks -- a green head coming up for air. Gulp.

"There's a snakehead right there," said Steve Chaconas, surprised and suddenly focused. From the deck of a bass boat the color of a ruby slipper, Chaconas and another fisherman, Derek Radoski, started flinging their lures in the fish's direction. They cast and then reeled back in, trying to tempt the fish out of the natural caution that tells it not to bite odd, little creatures attached to a translucent line that drops out of the sky.

Cast and retrieve. Cast and retrieve. The two men's lures hit the water within inches of where the fish's head had been. Not a bite.

Then the fish popped up again. "Is that him, that just surfaced right there?" Radoski asked. He was using a lure that looked like a purple worm, fitted with a sharp metal hook and rubbed with goo from a tube that claimed it was scientifically proven to attract fish.

"I think it was," Chaconas said.

"Little bastard," Radoski said. "Bite the purple worm!"

Most people along the Potomac look at the toothy, slimy northern snakehead and see an invasive species, an ecological nightmare. Chaconas and Radoski see something else: dollar signs. In a country that spends at least $34 billion a year on recreational fishing and has made catching bass a multimillion-dollar obsession, they believe snakeheads are poised to become the next big thing in freshwater fishing. All it will take, they say, is a greater awareness of how big snakeheads grow and how hard they fight. Once that happens, hooking snakeheads will inspire just as much fervor among the nation's 34 million recreational anglers as hooking bass. Maybe more. "It's like people who go hunting for deer," Radoski says, predicting how the snakehead will change the game for the Potomac's anglers. "And then you find a carnivorous, fanged deer that's hopping through the woods."

"For a guy to come out here and catch one of these," Chaconas agrees, "it's another notch in their gunbelt."

And if the Potomac's snakeheads become the next big thing in freshwater fishing, Chaconas and Radoski want to become the first big thing in snakehead angling. Chaconas, a radio personality-turned-fishing guide who once wrote for Howard Stern, envisions a flood of new customers. Radoski, a security systems salesman and would-be entrepreneur, wants to build a business selling snakehead-fishing gear. But before they can cash in, they need to figure out how to catch snakeheads on a regular basis. And that was proving harder than expected as they eyed their prey from Chaconas's boat.

The snakehead was no longer gulping just air. It was thrashing around and roiling the water, apparently feeding on a group of tiny fish. Radoski and Chaconas threw their lures at the fish again. Cast and retrieve. Cast and retrieve. Nothing.

"He's eating pretty good over there," Chaconas said, conceding the obvious.

"He is."

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