On June 5, which was the first Monday of the month, local fishermen Brad Baugh, James “Bubba” Steadman and Steven Hugley, along with Steadman’s son Trace, were enjoying an evening of bowfishing on Lake Whittington in Benoit.
Late that evening at around 11 p.m., Baugh shot a fish with his bow. The fish that was captured was a northern snakehead. The northern snakehead that was captured marked the first time the invasive fish had been found in Mississippi, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
“We were fishing on the Northern end of Lake Whittington in the flood waters,” Baugh said. “We realized what it was after we saw it. It took us a few seconds to figure out what it was because we’ve seen them in pictures and on videos and TV. We realized it was a northern snakehead. We shot the fish and put it in the boat.”
The MDWFP reported last week that northern snakeheads are native to China, Russia and Korea. They are normally found in shallow, backwater area and can breathe air, which allow them to survive when they’re out of the water for extended periods of time.
Baugh said when they realized it was a northern snakehead; they knew it was quite a find.
“We were like ‘Wow, we’ve never seen that before,’” Baugh said. “We looked at it, took a few pictures, threw him in the bucket with the rest of the fish and kept on fishing. I kept it on ice on my truck all day. Every one came to see it, game wardens, biologists and everybody. I took pictures to send to the people and they positively identified what it was. It was the first one recorded in the state.”
According to Nathan Aycock, fisheries biologist for the MDWFP, a snakehead eats mainly fish but also eat frogs, crayfish, insects, and other things.
“They are very aggressive feeders and are top predators in a lake, similar to bass and gar,” Aycock said. “They are going to be competition with your bass and gar because they’re going to be eating the same stuff.”
Aycock said what has allowed the snakehead to end up in Lake Whittington is the high waters on the river. The river stage was 36 feet at Arkansas City on June 5, which was just below the flood stage of 37 feet.
“The river had been very high, above flood stage, for almost all of May which allowed oxbows like Whittington to connect to the river and allowed the snakehead access to get into the lakes,” Aycock said.
“Snakeheads have been in the White River Basin in Arkansas for almost 10 years and have been continuing to expand their range each year,” Aycock added. “The high water of the Mississippi River has allowed these fish to further expand their range into Mississippi waters. We know they are in Lake Whittington, and it's possible they are also in Lake Beulah and Log Loader Lake at thistime.“
According to Aycock, there are populations of a snakehead fish in Florida, North Carolina and other states along the Atlantic Coast.
“People like to fish for them, especially in canals, ditches and shallow ponds,” Aycock added. “They are supposed to taste really good.”
The National Invasive Species Information Center defines invasive species as,” plants, animals or pathogens that are non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem whose introduction causes or is likely to cause harm.”
In an article published by The Washington Post in 2015, the northern snakehead was listed as one of the 12 most destructive invasive animals in the United States.
Aycock said only time would tell what type of impact northern snakeheads will make in Mississippi.
“We are not sure at this time as to their effects on the native fish populations,” Aycock said. “It's likely they will not cause immediate and dramatic changes to our fish populations.”
The MDWFP plans to keep the northern snakehead preserved in its fish collection at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson.
It is illegal to transport, sale or possess live snakeheads in Mississippi.
Northern snakeheads appear similar to Mississippi’s native Bowfin, also known as grinnel. MDWFP encourages anyone who thinks they caught a snakehead to keep the fish, photograph it, and call the MDWFP office at 601- 432-2200.
For more information regarding fishing and invasive species in Mississippi, visit www.mdwfp.com or call the office at 601-432-2200.