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Plenty of action in the Delaware River; be on lookout for snakeheads

The northern snakehead fish an invasive from China is thriving in the Delaware River and threatening native species.
The northern snakehead fish an invasive from China is thriving in the Delaware River and threatening native species.
Image by brian.gratwicke

Trout season has been open for a few weeks now and there have been plenty of them being caught in the upper Delaware River, but spotty action in its tributaries here in the Lehigh Valley. The shad are beginning their annual run up the Delaware River with good reports in the Easton area. The daily limit is 3. In the Lehigh River, shad are catch and immediate release only.

The Fourth Annual BI-STATE SHAD FISHING CONTEST will be held at Phillipsburg, NJ on April 26 – 29. Visit their website for more information. For recorded updated information on the shad run call the Shad Hotline at 610-954-0577 or 610-954-0578.

Note: May 3rd is the statewide opening day of walleye season in the state. But, walleye fishing in portion of the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania is open year-round. The portion of the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania runs May 4 through Dec. 31

Remember bass season is closed, catch and immediate release only. The regular season begins on June 14th.

A 6 foot 3 inch long Atlantic Sturgeon was found dead after washing up along the Delaware River shoreline in Northampton County last week. The Atlantic Sturgeon is an endangered species which can grow to 15 feet long, weigh over 100 pounds and live to be 60 years old. Like the American shad, sturgeon are anadromous; meaning they live in saltwater but return to freshwater to spawn. Spawning grounds for Atlantic sturgeon are believed to be near Chester just south of Philadelphia, but young males sometimes wander farther upstream. Overfishing for sturgeon, prized for its eggs which are used to make caviar and water pollution has severely depleted their population. The federal government designated the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species in 2012.

But anglers need to beware of the invasive northern snakehead fish in the Delaware River. There were 12 separate confirmations by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission of the fish being caught or killed in the Delaware River and its tributaries in 2013.

In August, a snakehead was found north of Easton on the New Jersey side of the river across from the mouth of Martins Creek in Northampton County. In May, 10 to 15 snakeheads were taken in a bow-fishing tournament near Trenton Falls. Also, in June there were reportedly about 20 fish at the Fairmount Dam spillway area on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Plus, there were two other August reports of snakeheads in the Tohickon Creek at Tohickon Park, Bucks County and another August report on the Delaware came from one mile upstream of the I-95 Bridge at Scudder Falls. In September there was a snakehead reported again on the Tohickon Creek at Meyers Dam.

Also, a single snakehead was spotted in the Delaware Canal near Wy-Hit-Tuk Park in Northampton County in 2011.

The northern snakehead is native to China’s Yangtze River, and was first discovered in a Maryland pond outside of Washington after an illegal introduction. To date they have been confirmed in a number of waters in Arkansas, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The snakehead a toothy mouthed fish is considered very hearty and aggressive with the capability to live in low oxygen brackish water along with an occasional travel through a mix of fresh and salt water. Plus, it has the ability to adapt to new environments so it can quickly flourish wherever it becomes established.

It is illegal to possess a live snakehead in Pennsylvania – there already have been some successful prosecutions for this violation – but anyone who catches one should kill the fish immediately. They are considered excellent eating so harvesting them is fine. But snakeheads should always be removed from the water, killed and then reported to the Fish & Boat Commission about time and place of catch.

In New Jersey, the Division of Fish and Wildlife states that the possession or release of live, potentially dangerous fish is prohibited. These species include Asian swamp eel, bighead, grass (diploid) and silver carp, brook stickleback, green sunfish, flathead catfish, oriental weatherfish, snakehead and warmouth. Anglers MUST destroy these species if encountered while fishing and are directed to submit specimen(s) or photos to a Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries biologist for verification. To reach a biologist, call (908) 236-2118 for North Jersey or (856) 629-4950 for South Jersey. These nonnative species are likely to cause environmental harm to the state’s fisheries resources by out competing preferred game fish species.

There is also another significant concern regarding snakeheads, and that is one of identification. Because snakeheads look similar to bowfins and burbot, there have been several occasions where anglers have killed the wrong fish thinking they were snakeheads. Since bowfins are a candidate for the endangered list, and burbot a native species, the PFBC has designed and printed numerous posters which have been placed at different access points on the Delaware that will help anglers identify the three species.

One thing that seems to stop the spread of snakeheads is dams. They do not do very well when on land so a dam would halt their movement up a waterway.

Snakeheads can breed anytime in the summer. They are aggressive nest guarders, both the male and female, and with their nests formed in shallow water or cleared patches of weed beds; they are easy for anglers to locate.

Crankbaits, the same ones used for bass fishing, work best targeting these nest areas, and when both the female and male are removed from guarding the nest, the eggs and fry become easy prey for panfish such as bluegills.

Snakehead can be taken legally by bow and arrow, but again it is imperative that absolute positive identification as to being a snakehead is made before shooting.

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