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Sports · June 16, 2016

Invasive snakeheads get established in Lake Brittle

I think it’s the best freshwater fish I’ve ever had.
— Aaron White, who recently cooked and ate a snakehead caught at Lake Brittle
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Editor
Snakeheads — the slimy, toothy, invasive, somewhat amphibious fish discovered 14 years ago in Maryland — have made it to Fauquier County.

A state game biologist removed about 40 snakeheads from Lake Brittle near New Baltimore this spring.

John Odenkirk collected them in April and May while conducting routine surveys of the walleye population, using electricity to shock fish that floated to the 77-acre lake’s surface.

Most of the snakeheads taken from Lake Brittle measured 14 to 16 inches long, said Mr. Odenkirk, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist.

“They were probably the first generation that were spawned,” indicating a “self-sustaining population” in the popular Fauquier fishery, he said.

Lake Brittle anglers first caught snakeheads last year, after their illegal introduction to the local water. A state game warden charged and won a misdemeanor conviction of a local man, who had bragged about introducing the species to the lake just west of Vint Hill.

“Many of the regulars are upset” about the snakeheads’ arrival, said Lori Kearns, who has a contract to operate the Lake Brittle concessions, which include boat rentals and the sale of bait, tackle and snacks.

“The first ones I saw last August were probably eight to 10 inches long,” Ms. Kerns said. “I know of at least four that have been caught.”

Some welcome the fish — fun to catch and great to eat.

“I think it’s the best freshwater fish I’ve ever had,” New Baltimore resident Aaron White said of a snakehead that a fellow angler caught and gave him about two weeks ago.

Mr. White, 31, started fishing at Lake Brittle as a kindergartener. He regularly swings by after work to relax and wet a line.

The 2002 discovery of snakeheads in the Washington region spawned intense concern that the species, native to Africa and Asia, would decimate indigenous fish and eat small pets because of their ability to survive and move up to a quarter-mile on land.

Indeed, the region’s fishermen have caught some huge snakeheads, including an 18-pounder pulled from the Potomac in May.

Snakeheads, freshwater fish that have existed an estimated 50 million years, have moved as far south as the tidal Rappahannock River, Mr. Odenkirk said. They tolerate a range of water salinity.

But, the suggestion that snakeheads have no predators here have proven wrong, according to the biologist, who has worked as that Virginia game department’s leading authority on the species since 2004.

“I’m not overly concerned about it,” he said of Virginia’s snakehead population. “The concerns that people had are not coming true . . . . They do have predators. Waterfowl eat them and other fish eat small ones.”

Because snakeheads breathe air, they typically stay near the water’s surface, making them sometimes easy prey for birds and for humans — including those who fish with bows and arrows.

Chefs have come to prize the northern snakehead. Virginia has not allowed commercial sale of the fish, but filets can bring up to $20 a pound in D.C. and Maryland fish markets. Whole fish routinely sell for $5 each.

It remains illegal in Virginia to own a snakehead or to introduce the species to state waters.

Of course, Lake Brittle’s snakehead population remains new. Mr. Odenkirk, who cut open those he removed to see what they had eaten, will monitor the species closely.

“I feel good about it,” Mr. White said of the snakeheads in Lake Brittle. “The bass seem to be biting better . . . . We’d had a lot of stunted fish here. I think the snakeheads have eaten some of them.”

The state, which built Lake Brittle in 1953 expressly for fishing, stocks its waters annually with 77,000 hatchlings each of bass, catfish and walleye.

“I think this will get more people to visit Lake Brittle,” Mr. Odenkirk said of the snakeheads. “We’re gonna encourage them to take ’em home and eat ’em.”


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blurry · June 26, 2016 at 8:00 am
You could easily blame the PEC for many things.
Freedom warrior · June 17, 2016 at 1:33 pm
I don't know much about these fish, but give it a few days and someone will blame the PEC for it.
Billy S · June 17, 2016 at 8:05 am
Well folks it's just a matter of time for this. I was tournament fishing the Potomac when these fish got their start there. Now the river is full of them. They are very good to eat and they put up quite a fight when you hook one but they are not called invasive for nothing. They are carnivorous eating machines that multiply very quickly. They have predators yes but few and far between. The bass may be biting better for some reason now but that will soon change when that population diminishes. Lake Brittle is not big enough to house these hunters. The lake will be over run with them in the future, count on it. The person that decided to introduce these killers in the lake should have gotten a lot more than a smack on the wrist.
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