If Stephen King were to write a novel about a terrifying, monstrous fish, he might create something not unlike the snakehead.

Its large mouth is filled with razor-sharp teeth. It is a voracious predator, feasting on anything from worms to small mammals. It can survive hostile conditions: It effectively hibernates when the water surface freezes and becomes dormant in mud during drought. It can even survive up to four days on land, using its fore flippers to propel itself along in search of new ponds, streams or rivers to inhabit. It naturally hails from Asia, where it serves as a catch-and-release fish for sport or is served salted and stuffed with lemongrass, or fried and tossed with chili peppers and peanuts in a salad.

But dead is the only way fishery officials in the United States want to see the northern snakehead. This species of snakehead has spread along the Eastern Seaboard, with the bulk of sightings in the Potomac River/Chesapeake Bay region of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, but some also occurring in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina and Florida.

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The snakeheads’ arrival followed the simple script of a King novel, as well, with a careless mistake by an unthinking man, as detailed in a 2007 article in the Washington Post Magazine:

Around 2000, a man who lived in Crofton [in Maryland] had ordered two live snakeheads from an Asian fish market in New York, wanting to make his sister, who was ill, a pot of snakehead soup. But the sister got better before the fish hit the pot. The snakeheads, a male and a female, were set free in the pond. They made babies.

In 2002, an angler found a snakehead in a pond in Crofton, and local wildlife officials immediately pressed the nuclear button, poisoning the pond’s waters in an attempt to make sure none of them wriggled their way to any other locales. The original two snakeheads had, in two years, multiplied to 800.

At last, the officials could exhale — the snakehead invasion had ended before it began. Or had it? Two years later, more of the fish showed up in a Maryland lake, and then others were caught in the Potomac River. Panic ensued, with lurid tales of giant Asian, air-breathing fish striding across land and devouring babies. The snakehead earned all manner of epithets (as if being called ‘snakehead’ weren’t bad enough): Frankenfish. Fishzilla. The fish from hell.

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For ecologists, the greater concern was not the rather improbable notion of snakeheads sneaking through cat doors and snatching pot roasts from kitchen counters; rather, because of its extraordinary adaptability and lack of natural predators, there were fears it would eat and out-compete resident species of aquatic life.

Regional wildlife authorities encouraged anglers and others to report sightings of snakeheads and, if possible, to kill any they found; but still the snakeheads spread. Last year, John Odenkirk, a district fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, conceded that there was “absolutely no question the range of the snakeheads increased phenomenally more than we expected.”

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Officials in Maryland are now offering bounties for the fish, giving out $200 gift cards for Bass Pro Shops, among other prizes, for anglers who catch and kill a snakehead and post a picture of themselves on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. But one angler with experience warns that nobody should expect to make easy money:

“These fish clobber any type of moving bait you throw,” Rodney Hose said. “When they smash into your lure, be prepared for a fight.”


Top photo: Snakehead. Credit: Mohd Fahmi, Flickr;

Middle photo: Northern snakehead, Channa argus. Credit: USGS.

Bottom photo: Dead Snakehead in Florida. Credit: Pete McDonald, Flickr