Freaky Fish Story Flourishes
Anglers Crowd Tiny Crofton Pond Seeking Elusive Prey

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 3, 2002; Page B01

A sheen of green scum obscures the water's edge, poison ivy lines its banks and the fish aren't biting in this abandoned gravel pit behind a suburban Maryland shopping center.

But in little more than a week, the no-name watering hole in Crofton, has become the most popular -- and famous -- fishing spot in the Washington region, not for its ambience but because of the strange and exotic prey that scientists believe lurks beneath its weed-choked surface.

This week, an angler brought state biologists a strange-looking fish with a toothy maw and powerful fins. Experts yesterday identified it as a northern snakehead, an alien species with a voracious appetite that can make short work of a pondful of sunfish, crappies and pickerel -- and then shimmy on to other ponds on its belly and fins. Native to southern China, the fish also can survive for days out of water if it stays wet.

Get rid of it, experts said. You don't want it.

It isn't every day that the government issues "WANTED" posters urging the public to bring in a fish dead -- not alive. The challenge of catching a trophy fish that also is an alien invader has proven irresistible to young and old, who have flocked to the pond with gaggles of media in their wake.

There's the couple who brought a bucket of goldfish to lure the beefy predator. The skateboard rats who tried to hook one with doughnuts, night crawlers and even a hot dog before getting bored and giving up. Biologists played around with rubber mice, minnows and cat food, then waited in the heat for something to bite.

And television cameras, boom-carrying mike-men and radio reporters recorded it all.

"You get a fish as weird as this in Maryland and it turns into a rodeo," said Mike Slattery, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who checked fishtraps yesterday that had been baited with 9 Lives kibble. Nothing.

The lack of hits did little to dim the public's enthusiasm for the strange fish, whose notoriety spread this week from coast to coast.

"Save the Fish!" broadcast one local rock music station yesterday morning. "Freakish Fish Festival!" the deejays exhorted, urging listeners to come to the pond behind a doughnut store off Route 3.

"There's no one down here but reporters!" complained Ryan McDonald, 18, who arrived with three buddies in hopes of joining the fray. "I'm down here at the Freaky Fish Festival and it's dead! Where's the barbecue? Where's the party?"

"If we had got here at 6:30 this morning like we planned . . . " said his friend Derek Boyer, 18, who actually seemed to be interested in fishing. "Last time I fished here a few years ago, I got a hit on every line I cast. Now there's nothing. These fish have seen every kind of lure there is this week, and they're not taking any of it."

It was probably the heat, not the lack of interest in lures, that was keeping the fish away, experts surmised. Although snakeheads can breathe in the open air and have no problem surviving in shallow ponds with little oxygen, all the small fish it preys on were probably lying low, just trying to breathe.

Biologists think there was more than one snakehead lurking beneath the lilies. In addition to the one caught Sunday by a Crofton man, state officials have a photo of another fish caught in May that was about eight inches smaller. Since there is no way the fish could have grown that fast, biologists suspect that there is another in the pond.

And there have been sightings of another fish with a girth as big as a golf bag -- not unheard of for snakeheads, but worrisome for those who want to keep the critter from hiking to other bodies of water.

Although snakeheads are illegal to own in 13 states, they are permitted in Virginia, Maryland and the District and are readily available at area fish markets, officials said. The fish are sought after as an Asian delicacy and are sometimes used as offerings by those who practice Eastern religions. Investigators are looking into whether the Crofton snakeheads may have been intentionally released into the pond.

The options for ridding the pond of the beasts are simple, though they may sound extreme: draining the pond, setting off a net of explosives or poisoning the pond to kill all the fish.

Biologists acknowledge having reservations about all of the options, and fish literature has several ugly chapters on pond poisonings gone bad.

Which makes it more likely that they may just opt to wait and see what the amateurs turn up. As long as there are hooks and bobbers in the water, there's a chance of smoking out the creature, Slattery said.

An Annapolis newspaper offered a $100 reward for whoever caught the first snakehead, but more bounties are unlikely. Because snakeheads are readily available for sale, state officials point out, anyone could go out and buy a couple and try to turn them in for rewards.

"From our perspective, we need to know what's coming out of that pond, and we don't want to be confused by things that people say are coming from the pond," Slattery said.

Which leaves die-hard thrill-seekers such as Mary Sinclair, and her 14-year-old nephew and his friend, sweating it out on the fringes of what locals now refer to as Snakehead Pond.

"This wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I told Michael I'd take him fishing this summer," she said, lugging coolers of cold drinks, bait and snacks to sustain them. "I was thinking of a nice lake with a pretty view and a breeze . . . not somewhere like this, where you have to douse yourself with bug spray and sweat all day."

2002 The Washington Post Company