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ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Snakeheads not monsters of myth

By Bryan Hendricks

This article was published May 1, 2008 at 3:16 a.m.

— You think fisheries biologists in Mississippi and Louisiana are cussing Arkansas today?

Thanks to us, it's almost certain northern snakeheads will someday colonize their waters, too. Louisiana's shallow, muddy lakes, streams and rivers are especially hospitable to these invasive eating machines, as are the lazy waters of Mississippi's coastal plain.

In Arkansas, the potential for damage is huge. Northern snakeheads are voracious, aggressive and prolific. Mark Oliver, assistant chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, fears they could disrupt the aquatic ecosystems throughout the lower White River and Arkansas River basins. They're the marine equivalent of the house cat.

The good news for us is that snakeheads probably will not make it into our highland waters, which should limit their capacity for mischief in our state.

Don Cosden, chief of Inland Fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has been dealing with northern snakeheads in the Potomac River since 2004. He said saltwater prevents snakeheads from moving downstream, and since they don't like fast current or rocky habitats, they don't move out of the coastal plain, either. Perhaps that means snakeheadswon't move very far up the Arkansas River or into its western tributaries.

We can also thank the national outdoors media for some of the snakehead's mythic aura. We've been told they'll eat every bass, bream and crappie they encounter. Why, even alligators flee in terror. Snakeheads certainly won't improve any neighborhoods, but Cosden said there's no proof snakeheads have done any real harm in the Potomac, which happens to be one of America's great largemouth bass fisheries.

"We have not been able to determine any major loss in some of the other fisheries," Cosden said. "We have a good bass population in the tidal Potomac, and that's our biggest concern. We do an annual bass survey there, but there's so much annual variation, it's hard to determine their effect. Numbers were down the last year or two in bass surveys, but there's a lot of imprecisionand inaccuracy in us going out to sample every large river in electrofishing boats. There's a wide margin of error in our sampling."

No biologist would ever admit such a thing. This had to be an impostor. A northern snakehead in disguise, hmmm?

"I don't want to give them [the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission] any advice for freaking out or otherwise, but we've read a lot of literature," Cosden continued. "There was one large reservoir in Japan where they introduced largemouth bass, and there was concern that the bass were eating their snakeheads."

And while it's true snakeheads can live a long time out of water, they don't exactly sprint cross country. In fact, Cosden said their ability to move on land has been greatly exaggerated.

"I think that's overrated," he said. "I haven't seen that in the northern snakehead. They're just not that good at it. I've seen them jump out of buckets, and they basically stay there. They don't get away."

Cosden calls them "obligate air breathers." They have a crude lung that allows them to gulp air, which allows them to live in habitats with really low levels of dissolved oxygen, but again, their ability to travel overland is limited. In Arkansas, of course, it probably wasn't necessary.Prolonged flooding might have distributed them throughout the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

Anglers can help to some degree. Cosden said that northern snakeheads are very protective of their young. The fry, he explained, form tight schools guarded by both parents. The fry feed frequently on the surface, and Cosden said it looks like a fine mist rising from the water. The adults attack anything that gets close. Two casts with a crankbait is usually all it takes to catch the adults, and when they're gone, bass and other fish swarm the school and devour it.

One thing for sure is that we've got 'em, and they're here to stay. Hopefully, they won't behave too badly.

Sports, Pages 26 on 05/01/2008

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