Category: Fish

A Potomac alien gets its green card

I went down to the C&O Canal along the Potomac River on New Year’s Eve to pay tribute to a group of immigrants that had achieved an important milestone in 2017.

I’m not taking about America’s Muslims, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, or Dreamers, all of them targets over the past year of Donald Trump’s nativist attacks. None have anything to celebrate except their resilience and determination.

It turns out that the immigrants I had come to honor were not people, but fish.

On a day like that I didn’t actually expect to seen any. An icy wind lashed my face as my feet crunched along the frozen path. Even worse, there was hardly any water in the canal. It looked like a ditch. The only signs of life were sparrows chasing wind-blown seeds on the frozen puddles. But I knew my fish were out there buried somewhere in the mud, waiting out the winter.

I marveled at their toughness. They can adapt to just about anything, much like immigrants everywhere.

Come spring, some of them will slip through the crack in the intake gates at Violette’s Lock. From there they will push upstream to the west, through the rolling hills of the Piedmont and toward the distant mountains. They will find new places to live, good things to eat, and unforeseeable ways of getting eaten.

Tough, adaptable, restless: They seemed the very embodiment of the American spirit.

Fake news fish. In case you haven’t guessed already, my fish is the snakehead, or more precisely, the Northern Snakehead, known in scientific circles as Channus argus. I’ve followed the American adventure of this East Asian native since its appearance in 2002 in a pond behind a shopping center in Crofton, Maryland. As with many immigrants, its arrival was met with panic and paranoia.

They became the target of insults and name-calling, which is not surprising for a fish labeled “snakehead.” Even a Mafia hit man would blush at such a name.

Local reporters picked up the story and pretty soon the snakehead was dragged all over the national news, and even onto late night comedy shows. Writers who knew little about nature and nothing about fish took a handful of facts and turned them into a monster. Snakeheads grew big, are vicious, they have teeth. They can walk on land, breathe air, and are super tough and hard to kill.

Posters went up along local waterways: Wanted Dead Only.

It was code red fish alert. Unless something was done, the snakehead invasion would turn into an unstoppable fishkrieg.  The newcomer would decimate native fish species, and then lumber overland to devour neighborhood cats and dogs. They were the equivalent of Donald Trump’s Mexican immigrants–criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. For environmentalists, the new fish was an existential threat to “the ecology.”

‘Rip out its gills.’ First responders sprung into action. In a circus-like scene of reporters, cameras, and tee shirt sellers, state fisheries biologists launched a chemical attack on the Crofton Pond snakeheads. The campaign was a success, they reported. No fish in the 4.4-acre pond was left alive. The total cost was $110,000. The Nation’s Capitol heaved a sigh of relief.

Then snakeheads started popping up in ponds and streams everywhere. Government biologists and bureaucrats established new regulations and laws and ordered fishermen to mete out vigilante justice to any snakeheads they caught: Bash in its skull, freeze it, rip out its gills.

Came to (and then quickly left) a
theater near you.

B-movie producers raced to meet the demand for bad science fiction. Frankenfish and Snakehead Terror were released in 2004. Swarm of the Snakehead appeared in 2006, and Snakehead Swamp in 2014.

Of course, hardly anyone had ever actually seen a snakehead. But dragons and sea serpents, and monsters of all kinds, have been part of the human imagination for thousands of years.  People didn’t need facts to believe that snakeheads are creatures of the devil, right up there with Muslim bombers and Mexican criminals.

But despite all of this, today the fish is established throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. On the Potomac River snakeheads bypassed the Great Falls barrier, apparently by taking a detour on the C&O Canal.

Arm-wrenching strikes. While most people were getting their snakehead news from the media, some instead headed down to their local launching ramp to meet the fish in person. They went where the snakehead lived, paddling through thick mats of weeds and churning the mud bottom shallows with their outboard motors. What they found was startling.

Some were bass fishermen, like me. We had heard that snakeheads would decimate populations of that iconic (though also non-native) all-American sport fish. But we seemed to be catching as many bass as ever.

And on top of that, fishing had suddenly gotten a lot more exciting. My fingers would tighten on my fishing rod as a surge of water appeared behind my bait. The fish would strike with arm-wrenching force and then go airborne in an explosion of water and weeds.

Call it whatever name you wish, but the snakehead has become a prized game fish. “Doing any good?” I’d ask another fisherman as we paddled past each other. “No snakeheads,” he’d reply. “Just some bass.”

Surprise message. At the same time biologists were taking to the water with electroshocking gear, nets, and computers. One was Virginia state fisheries biologist John Okenkirk. I met him for the first time in 2011 at a lecture for group of bass fishermen assembled on the second floor of a local fire station. This was still back when snakeheads were assumed to be ecological enemy number one. His message took the audience by surprise: For whatever reason, bass populations appeared to be increasing—not decreasing—since the snakehead appeared on the local scene.

Odenkirk: The apostle of the
northern snakehead.

Odenkirk couldn’t hide his admiration for the maligned newcomer. He told how the snakeheads can bury themselves in mud to survive droughts. He described how the male and the female work as a team to guard their young.

He flashed a photo of a snakehead on the screen, its muscular flanks patterned brown and coppery. “That is some pretty fish,” he said. The men in the room nodded.

Just another fish. The snakehead was winning admirers, but its acceptance still wasn’t official. Then something happened this past year that didn’t exactly amount to permanent resident status, but it came close.

It was the same John Odenkirk, but this time in an interview he gave for an article in the May 2017 issue of Virginia Wildlife, the official magazine of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In one sentence he popped the hysteria bubble of the previous 15 years.

“They [snakeheads] seem to have reached an equilibrium with the other fish in the river and they occupy a niche that was largely unfilled,” he said.

Article author David Hart summed it up:  “Snakeheads, it turns out, are just another fish.”

Massive wooden gates at Violette’s Lock
proved no match for snakeheads.

A real American.  My walk along the canal ended at Violette’s Lock. I stood on the wall of great sandstone blocks that anchored the intake gates. These massive wooden doors block passage from the canal to the upstream river system. If you believe in border walls, you would be impressed.

But snakeheads, like Guatemalans reaching the US border, are tough to intimidate. For several years fish have been moving through the crack where the two gates swing together. They swim along some little islands and log piles, maybe pausing in a thick bed of stargrass. There they might rise up to take a little gulp of air (yes, snakeheads do breathe air).

If they looked across the river they would see the Trump National Golf Course. They might even see Trump himself bouncing along in a little golf cart like a remote controlled toy.

Of course Trump doesn’t know about snakeheads and the intake gate at Violette’s Lock. He doesn’t know about the river, or even much about America and what truly makes this country great.

The image of a snakehead out there in the river, swimming westward would mean nothing to him. It would be left for others to say, “There goes a real American.”

A fish for a code yellow age

I don’t want to be alarming, but we have a code yellow fish living in the Potomac River. To be clear, this fish is not actually yellow, like a yellow perch. Rather its yellowness corresponds to the level of threat that it poses to the public.

It’s like the yellow in the color code system invented by legendary handgun expert and advocate Jeff Cooper. His aim was to help home defense enthusiasts define levels of mental preparedness needed to fend off a potential attack. In a state of code yellow you are aware that you are living in a dangerous world, particularly if you’re in an unfamiliar place among people you don’t know. Keep your finger close to the trigger.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for the worst. We owe our existence today to distant code yellow ancestors who kept their spear no more than an arm’s length away, ready for the saber toothed tiger that could be lurking behind the next tree.

But mental preparedness can also mean questioning the threat levels themselves. Is the threat real? And if it is, what can I do to defend myself?

The code yellow fish we will meet can help answer these questions. As we’ll see, this fish is not just the target of warnings issued by governmental and scientific authorities, but it is actually issuing warnings of its own by gleefully changing colors like a chameleon. Much like a trickster, our code yellow fish is inviting us to examine what we believe to be true and why we believe it.

Burt the Turtle. First lets take a short journey through the history of code yellow, at least in my lifetime. It started with Burt the Turtle and “duck and cover.” While it sounds on the face of it like wetland ecology,the subject was deadly serious:  surviving a nuclear attack.

It was back in the 1950s in Roaring Brook Elementary School. The teacher turns on a flickering movie called Duck and Cover. There’s Bert, an amiable cartoon-strip turtle. Burt says that when you see a nuclear fireball, you must duck and take cover. He demonstrates by pulling his head and legs into his shell. When the emergency drill alarm sounds I dive under my school desk and huddle there until the all clear. As people say now, the 1950s was an idyllic time in the life of our country.

Code yellow meant that . . .
actually we didn’t really know.

Thankfully the little wooden desks were never put to the ultimate test. But 50 years later, 9/11 put the government back in the business of preparing Americans for the worst. This meant creating a system of five colored bars stacked one on another, each of which represented a level of terrorism threat, from green (low) to red (severe). The warning level never dropped below yellow, which stood for a significant risk of attack.

The color code system didn’t go well. People wanted to know why the threat increased from yellow to red, and then back again. Did the government have some actual information? And how are we supposed to react to the threat? Find a school desk and crouch under it? Worst of all, the color codes became the butt of late night comedy shows, such as when Saturday Night Live hosted Homeland Security Chief “Tom Ridge.”

Arming up. Then came the Obama administration, and millions of Americans again scrambled to face a new code yellow alert. The government will take away our guns, the NRA warned them. Firearm sales skyrocketed, assault rifles doubled in price, and ammunition grew scarce and sometimes unobtainable. Men—and women!—flocked to self-defense schools. All across the country otherwise sensible people put loaded handguns in to their night table drawers to fend off criminals, terrorists, aliens, or whatever.

We now have a president whose hair shifts between yellow and orange, like a squid signaling the presence of a predator. We face grave threats, Trump tells us. Waves of Islamic terrorists are crossing our borders. Mexican rapists are hiding in our alleys, behind every dumpster. NAFTA is taking away our jobs and replacing them with Mexicans and robots. We’re afraid, some of us because of the presumed threats, others because of the man delivering the warnings.

Enter the snakehead. A native of China, the Northern Snakehead turned up in Maryland pond behind a shopping center in 2002. Unlike the threat of nuclear war, terrorism, or saber toothed tigers, it was never really a threat at all, at most a code green. Like other immigrants, snakeheads found their place in local ecosystems. Fishermen learned to love them, Great Blue Herons liked to eat them, and snakeheads proved tough enough (like Mexicans) to live where most other fish would turn belly up.

Ye gads, it can walk on land!

But no matter, government and the media teamed up to paint the snakehead as a code yellow fish, right up there with Jaws and the toothy terrors of Animal Planet’s River Monster series.

A Baltimore Sun reporter was first out of the gate. “Torpedo-shaped and aggressive,” she described the snakehead. They “lurk in the deep [they actually prefer very shallow water],” she continued, “and gobble up every other fish in sight [yup, this is what most fish do].” It gets worse. The snakehead, she wrote, “will make quick work of native freshwater fish: white suckers and largemouth bass, sunfish, bluegills and crappies [all of which are non-native except for the first].” The clincher was that they breathe air and can live out of the water for a long time (true) and that they walk on land (they can’t).

Other reporters piled on. Under the headline “Freakish Fish Causes Fear in Md,” Washington Post reporter Anita Huslin dubbed the newcomer “Frankenfish.” She quoted a Maryland government biologist:  “It has no known predators in this environment, can grow to 15 pounds, and it can get up and walk. What more do you need?”

“Ferocious,” said the Milwaukee Journel Sentinel, “Voracious,” said CBS Evening News, “Most-Wanted,” said Newsday, “Fish from Hell,” was the front page headline on the NY Daily News front page. “Terror from the Deep,” said the Bangkok Post, which should have known better since Thailand is part of the snakehead’s original range.

‘They are coming for you.’ It probably didn’t help that the snakehead looks the part, as in, “Do you want something like that leaping out of your toilet bowl?” Its snaggly teeth and elongated body evoke our worst suppositions. Remember the animated film Finding Nemo? The snakehead is no Nemo.

Movie producers caught the scent. In “Frankenfish,” a human-eating monster is eventually killed in a plot reminiscent of Beowulf, except here the spinning blades of airboat perform the coup de grace rather than a magic sword. In “Snakehead Terror” fish pumped up with human growth hormones eat people and anything else in their way. The trailer: “They hide in the depths. . .they feed on your fear. . . and they are coming for you.”

In Swarm of the Snakehead, genetically engineered monster fish got tired of eating dogs and cats and went upscale to human flesh. (Reader beware: This film was billed as a comedy.) Any resemblance of its title to the previously published German science fiction thriller “Der Swarm,” (also about really angry fish) is undoubtedly a coincidence.

Wanted dead, not alive. Local fisheries biologists joined in. A Maryland Natural Resources website tells fishermen to kill any snakeheads they catch by “decapitation, evisceration, cutting out its gut or pulling out its gill arches,” raising the question who we should fear the most, snakeheads or fisheries biologists. Federal law imposed penalties for transporting or importing live snakeheads, including fines up to $200,000 and prison sentences up to five years. Authorities nailed wanted posters at waterway access points.

Nevertheless, snakeheads continue to extend their range. One Maryland biologist described a section of the canal that runs along the Potomac a “snakehead nursery.” From here, the fish could breach the inlet lock and invade the entire river system.

Tactical baseball bat. This same section of the canal became code yellow ground zero at a Snakehead Derby held last year by the state and its federal partners. The idea was to catch snakeheads and kill them.

The 100 or so fishermen I saw at the derby didn’t look much in a code yellow mode, although one did carry an aluminum baseball bat in addition to his fishing gear. They were just curious and eager for a chance to catch this now-famous fish. Only one succeeded, goading the fish to strike by fluttering a live worm in front of its nose in an imitation of an artificial plastic worm.

I walked upstream to the canal’s inlet lock. Down below my feet was a pair of massive wooden doors, the canal on one side, the river on the other. Across the river I saw a giant American flag ruffling grandly in the breeze. This is the Trump National Golf Club, the same Trump who vows to build a wall to keep out immigrants.

The wooden doors certainly looked formidable, solidly attached to fortress walls of stone and resolutely closed. But staring at the murky water below I could picture two small snakeheads—probably young dreamers (those Mexicans again)—moving slowly but determinedly against the gentle current. They approach the gate and hesitate for a moment at the spot where the two mighty gates come together—though not completely together. One fish winks to the other, and through the crack they go, up into a new waterland of opportunities.

A tiny fish story

I strongly believe in local knowledge. If you want to know where the fish are, when to catch them, and what to use for bait, ask a local.

That’s me, a local, at least here on my Potomac River. But the problem was that, up until recently, my kind of knowledge was only good for catching small fish. So I joined the local smallmouth bass club to try to find out what I wasn’t getting right.

At my first meeting the guest speaker had gotten stuck in traffic, so they quickly improvised an “experts panel.” The presenters were just club members whose names regularly appeared in the newsletter’s fishing contest column as winners of the biggest fish, the biggest five fish, and so on.

It was an eye-opener. I found out that my fishing tackle was mostly outdated and much of it was junk. Not using ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene instead of good ol’ monofilament? Shame. Not casting with the latest high modular graphite rod costing upwards of $200? Actually, I mostly fished with a rod I had found in the river. It was clearly time for a makeover.

A question of size. How about lures? I learned that my collection of baits had long been rendered obsolete by a menagerie of molded plastic creatures with names out of a grade B horror film: Strike King Rage, Chigger Quad, Boss Dog, and so on.

OK, I got that. But I still suspected I was still missing something. So after the presentation I sought out one of the speakers, a big man with friendly eyes, and told him my problem about only catching small fish.

“What do you fish with?” he wanted to know.

I told him I mostly use the venerable Mr. Twisters, maybe two inches long, mostly in chartreuse.

“Well, you probably only catch little fish,” he replied.

I felt myself flush as I told him he was right. Only little fish. He took me to the table in the back where one of the club members sells plastic fishing baits. They were big, ugly things packaged in plastic bags that squished between my fingers like pieces of viscera. He helped me picked out a selection, most of them the color of different kinds of manure.

Big lure, big fish. And guess what? I started catching big fish. The big lures were working, or at least seemed to. It was not long before I got confirmation, of a contrary sort.

The day was sunny and the river was lovely, but the fishing was slow. I pulled my kayak up on a little spit of land on the Virginia side of Watkins Island. I needed to try something different. I opened my little box of fishing tackle, and there under a snarl of rusty hooks was a relic from my former life as a little-fish guy. It was a Mr. Twister in chartreuse, two inches long.

The right lure and a well-tied knot
ensure angling success.

The action was almost immediate, although I didn’t realize it at first. I reeled in my first cast, but just before I prepared to flip my lure out again I noticed something moving on my hook.  I had snagged a tiny fish, the smallest I have ever caught.

I don’t remember the biggest bass I ever caught, but I’ll never forget the tiniest. Memories aren’t necessary made of local knowledge.