Snakehead

Fall is a great time for fishing! As the water begins to cool, many fish seem to go on a feeding frenzy that can make for some memorable days on the water. No matter what kind of fishing you like to do — fly, spin, bass, trout, or what-have-you — it really is a great time to be on the water. 

But occasionally your catch may be surprising, as happened recently to an angler in Gwinnett County. I don’t know if the intended quarry was bass or catfish or what, but what turned up on the other end of the line was a potentially troublesome fish known as the northern snakehead (Channa argus), an invasive species native to China, Russia and Korea.

These invasive snakeheads have been found in waters in 14 other states, but according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division this is the first time a snakehead has been found in the wild in Georgia

How do invasive fish become established? It usually starts when exotic species are released from aquariums (moral: don’t release your aquarium fish into a lake or stream!) or escape from live food markets. 

Why is this discovery a big deal? The fact is that non-native invasive species such as the northern snakehead can adversely impact native species. The invaders compete with the natives for food and habitat, and the outcome is often not good.

We sure don’t want the aquatic equivalent of kudzu to mess up Georgia’s lakes and rivers and streams.

Northern snakeheads grow to nearly three feet in length and are described as “voracious predators” on other species. Should they become established in Georgia waters, that could be bad news for native fish populations. In other states where the northern snakehead has turned up, the effects have been described as “undesirable, but not extreme.” Exactly what its impact on native Georgia species might be is not known

There is, however, some good news. The fact is that anglers across the state can be instrumental in keeping the northern snakehead out of Georgia waters. 

First, learn how to identify the northern snakehead. That’s important because its appearance is similar to that of the bowfin, a native Georgia fish that’s found throughout the state. In Georgia, bowfins are good guys. Northern snakeheads are not.

Then, if you think you have caught one, DO NOT RELEASE IT. 

Georgia DNR puts those words in all caps and bold, and I do too. Instead of releasing it, DNR adds, kill it immediately. That sounds harsh, I know, but this invader has the potential to be that big of a threat. However, don’t just throw it up on the bank. The northern snakehead it is an air-breather and can survive for quite a while (some say for as long as four days) on land. Juveniles are said to be able to migrate over land too. 

If you can, take a photo of the fish (including close-ups of its mouth, fins, and tail) and make a note of where it was caught. Then share that info with Georgia DNR. It’s easy to find the contact info at georgiawildlife.com/aquatic-nuisance-species by clicking on the “Report it to your regional Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Office.” 

That same page also has a link to a fact sheet which describes and illustrates the northern snakehead to help you in your identification; it also shows what the native bowfin looks like so you’ll be able to tell the difference.

“Our first line of defense in the fight against aquatic invasive species, such as the northern snakehead, is our anglers,” notes Matt Thomas, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Resources Division. 

He adds, “Thanks to the quick report by an angler, our staff was able to investigate and confirm the presence of this species in this water body [the pond in Gwinnett County]. We are now taking steps to determine if they have spread from this water body and, hopefully, keep it from spreading to other Georgia waters.”

For more on the northern snakehead, visit georgiawildlife.com/aquatic-nuisance-species.

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