Northern Snakeheads: New Burke Lake Residents

Northern snakeheads are in Burke Lake.

Northern Snakehead

The invasive fish drew substantial attention and concern when it first was discovered in local waters in 2004, and there were fears that it could cause an ecological nightmare. So far, snakeheads are fitting in and playing somewhat well with others, however that does not mean we are out of, so to speak, dangerous waters. U-S Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies indicate that Northern snakeheads do prey on and compete with native species. The fish is listed as an injurious species, which means that by law it cannot be imported or transported between states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or any territory or possession of the U.S. by any means without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, releasing any creature into a park violates the Fairfax County Park Authority policy that reads: No person shall abandon, release or cause to be released into a park any animal or other organism without the express written permission of the Park Authority.

You’re not going to get that written permission just to dump them into a local lake on a whim. Policy exceptions are sometimes made only for bona fide scientific, medical, educational, or zoological purposes.

Discovery of snakeheads

The first known catch of a Northern snakehead in Burke Lake was in the late spring of 2014. Burke Lake Park Duty Manager Keith O’Connor says that first one was about 18 inches long, adding that someone likely illegally dumped them into the lake. Despite efforts to inform people about the bad things that can happen when a non-native invasive species is introduced anywhere in the world, this invasive fish continues to spread through Fairfax County waters. Park Manager Charlie Reagle says that people caught them on a regular basis in 2014. It’s possible that snakeheads had been in Burke Lake for more than a year prior to their discovery.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) says snakeheads have become common in the Potomac River from Great Falls to the Chesapeake Bay, including all of the river’s tidal tributaries. The VDGIF web page on snakeheads says that 2014 surveys indicate the fish’s population may have stabilized and possibly even declined a bit from its peak in waters where they first appeared. VDGIF cites Burke Lake as one of several Virginia lakes in which there have been recent illegal stockings of Northern snakeheads. USDA says snakeheads also have been found in the spillway at Lake Accotink.

Staff at Burke Lake monitors snakehead catches. So far, most of the hauls have come from the deep water weeds at the dam end of the lake. Park personnel keep state officials informed about the catches, and state fisheries biologist John Odenkirk, who monitors Northern Virginia waters, says VDGIF plans annual spring surveys of the lake to determine if the snakeheads have any impact.

Odenkirk says that although there’s nothing in writings about Northern snakeheads that suggests the fish has had any negative impact in places where they’ve been introduced, they “potentially could alter the eco-system.” He doesn’t eliminate that possibility because environmental circumstances differ from place to place. Although invasive species can sometimes introduce parasites and disease or virtually wipe out a native species in a competition for food or living space, evidence suggests that snakeheads might not be as big a problem as once feared. However, VDGIF says problems still could arise, and state officials emphasize that snakeheads should not be released into the wild.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe monitors snakeheads in his park’s wetlands. “Although no specific data has been collected showing an adverse effect on local ecosystems from snakeheads, they have been here for a relatively short time, and we don’t know yet what their full effect will be,” Munroe says. “There have been anecdotal reports that local fish populations appear to be unaffected, but very little info is available on how they have affected amphibian populations. There are several species of locally rare frogs and salamanders whose breeding success could be affected by snakeheads if this fish decides it has a taste for tadpoles and juvenile salamanders.”

As more is learned about the fish and the role it is forging for itself in local waters, state officials adopt strategies for dealing with them. Odenkirk says to treat them like any other fish. Catch them and eat them. That’s not bad advice, because snakeheads have gained a reputation as a very tasty fish. Reagle says many fishermen tell him they like snakeheads better than walleye, one of North America’s premier freshwater fish for eating.

VDGIF’s guidelines for snakeheads are:

  1. Know how to identify the fish.
  2. Report any unusual fish to VDGIF.
  3. There is a hotline for reporting snakehead catches: 804-367-2925.
  4. There is a website for reporting observations of snakeheads.
  5. You do not have to report or kill snakeheads if you catch one, however….
  6. VDGIF asks that you do report and kill them if possible.
  7. If you wish to keep a legally-caught snakehead, it must be killed immediately. You cannot have a live snakehead in your possession. If you keep one to eat, VDGIF says you must kill the fish and then call the hotline and report the angler’s last name, date of catch, location of catch and size of the fish.
  8. Kill the fish by removing the head and separating the gill arches from the body, or by removing the internal organs. Put it on ice as quickly as possible.

Remember to monitor fish consumption advisories from the Virginia Department of Health for fish caught in Virginia waters.

Odenkirk says Northern snakeheads have a long spawning period that begins in April, peaks in early June, and can last into August. If you catch one, handle it carefully. They have teeth, so don’t lip them in the manner commonly used by bass fishermen. Odenkirk says they can be caught on virtually any bait. They are almost always deep in weeds, and can be found in very shallow water in spring when topwater or weedless lures will take them.

More information:

Written by David Ochs, Manager of Stewardship Communications, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

5 thoughts on “Northern Snakeheads: New Burke Lake Residents

  1. Pingback: Snakehead fish | walter sanford's photoblog

  2. JH

    Several months ago in the early Fall, my son and I were walking around Burke Lake. As we stood watching birds by the Northwestern corner of the lake right by Burke Lake Road, some teenaged boy Jude out of a car and quickly dumped a plastic bag of little fish into the lake. We asked him what he was doing and he said they had too many fish at home in their aquarium. We politely advised home this could be ecologically damaging, but he just ran off (do I imagine he smirked at us?) and his Dad roared off from where he had been idling by the side of the road. dad acted like they had just robbed a bank, they must have known they were doing something wrong. We couldn’t get the fish out (son and I tried, as did a very concerned and educated jogger). They looked like tropical fish –guppies and some bright blue fish — so hopefully they have died in the cold water by now. Some people are so uneducated and dense. Bonehead kid and even dumber Dad.

  3. Glenda Booth

    Exotic Snakehead Fish Is Focus of February 22 Meeting
    2 p.m., Huntley Meadows Park Visitor Center
    The Friends of Dyke Marsh, the Northern Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Assawoman Fishing Unlimited Club and the Friends of Little Hunting Creek and will host a meeting on Sunday, February 22, at 2 p.m. at which fish biologist John Odenkirk will explore the non-native northern snakehead fish, its characteristics, potential impacts and future. The snakehead fish has been seen in the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers, Dyke Marsh, Huntley Meadows Park, Hunting Creek, Little Hunting Creek, Dogue Creek and other northern Virginia waterways. Virginia scientists have been studying it since 2004. Odenkirk is a fish biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
    The meeting will be at the Huntley Meadows Park Visitor Center, 3701 Lockheed Boulevard, Alexandria 22306. It is free and open to the public. Directions: In case of inclement weather on February 22, please check and the Friends of Dyke Marsh on Facebook for updates.

    To see a video of Odenkirk’s team working in Dogue Creek near U.S. 1, visit


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