STEVENSVILLE — It’s the latest in seafood, but an unlikely suspect to see on a fine dining menu. Snakehead fish, more commonly associated with its threatening, invasive species status, is now being fished commercially. While its existence is a bane to the Chesapeake Bay, the flavor and texture can’t be beat. Amalfi Coast Italian + Wine Bar in historic Stevensville is embracing the piscis, featuring it on their menu in a pistachio crust with a delicate sauce. The new item immediately gained interest.
Although the snakehead fish has been found in Maryland for several years, it has only recently gained popularity as a desirable dish. On the menu at Kentmorr Restaurant, also in Stevensville, as a fried fish basket — the item quickly sells out.
The meat is reported to have a firm texture and a pleasing taste — some say that surpasses even the acclaimed rockfish.
Want to try your hand at catching this creature? Notorious for its ability to live on land and water — the fish uses its fins as legs of a sort to traverse dry land between bodies of water. It is frequently found in low lying areas of water including ditches, ponds and creek and river shallows. Not surprisingly, the fish is extremely prevalent in Dorchester County. The regulations question is fairly easy. There is no season, no size limit, and no possession limit for snakeheads. However, if someone takes a snakehead into possession, such as putting it in their cooler or car, with the intent to keep, then that fish must be immediately euthanized. That declaration comes straight from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as they strive to eliminate the fish that has the potential to cause a disruption of the balance of life in the Chesapeake Bay.
Fishing snakehead has become a sport of its own, some taking the challenge to the next level and using a bow and arrow or bowfishing to catch. This involves a certain amount of patience, good eyesight and skill, but by all accounts, it is an awful lot of fun. With the prevalence and beginning acceptability of its edibility, some fisherman are eyeing the sport as a source of income.
If someone wanted to sell snakehead, then they have a few options, according to Joseph Love, program manager for the DNR’s Freshwater Fisheries. Love said waterman may be licensed under a finfish or tidal fish commercial license, which would enable them to possess and sell snakeheads, but those licenses are often expensive and difficult to obtain as there are a limited number. Another option, the state also has a specialized snakehead commercial license, enabling a person to catch for sale, snakeheads with a bow and arrow or a fishing rod.
Watermen may sell snakeheads to people who are licensed dealers, or they can obtain a dealer’s license on their own and sell to people who are not licensed dealers, Love said.
Kent Island resident John Hand has fished up and down the coast for recreation and is an impressively skilled bowfisher. Hand recently applied for and received a commercial license allowing him to fish the snakehead and sell to a retail store.
Hand said, “With rockfish the management is way stricter with state and federal regulations for harvest and quotas. Plus you have to take into account seasons and size limits. (Rockfish) spawn once a year and are not as prolific as snakeheads. Snakeheads in Maryland typically spawn up to three times a year and can spawn at the size of 12” versus a rockfish, which has to be almost 36” or more. That is a very old fish.”
Hand said snakeheads typically live in hard to reach locations and most are smart enough to avoid gill nets.
“They’ll forage are anything that can fit in their mouth. They’re territorial and protective over their young, and both parents protect the fry. Rockfish however do not. So the success ratio for breeding (snakehead) is very high. They are fickle with their feeding behavior and not always willing to bite a lure. So that makes it tough as well,” Hand said.
His solution is to bow fish them, which he said is costly but effective.
“It’s not really profitable due to the supply is higher than the demand,” Hand said. “Many people are scared to try it. Maybe the name is off-putting, but the fish is far better tasting than rockfish and it’s far more sustainable.”
The Cranky Crab in Queenstown is one of the outlets where Hand sells fish; prospective customers can find them at 6307 Main Street.
Fish and wildlife encourage harvest to protect our local waters from over population and native species since they eat anything, Hand said. And he doesn’t think the species will ever be eradicated.
“They just breed too often and there are far more than you’d think in every river in the state. Some areas are untouched by man and they roam with no boundaries such as Aberdeen Proving Grounds. It’s protected federally so the fish have no check and balance which is not good,” he said.
“However, with folks like me, we make a small dent, just not enough. People need to realize how delicious they really are. It amazes me how good they are. There’s not a bad way to cook it.”