Whether you like it or not, invasive species are coming to a lake, river, or bay near you — so why not make a meal of them?
All across the nation, invasive species cause problems for fisheries, those who manage fisheries, and the environment. To the angler looking for a challenge, many of these incorrigible intruders also create new fishing opportunities, and a chance to proudly vanquish a few invaders. Even better, some of the species scientists and authorities would like anglers to catch — and not release — make for a tasty dinner, all while doing the environment a solid. Now that we've whetted your appetite, consider adding these five finned invaders to your menu.
The appearance of invasive carp in America (recently rebranded "copi" by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources) is a well-documented and much-rued event with roots that can be traced back to the 1970s when they were intentionally imported to the United States to control algae blooms in wastewater treatment plants and aquaculture ponds. While no one knows exactly how or when they made it from those ponds to the Midwest's river systems, either via flooding or intentional release, the carp began spreading by the 1980s. Soon after escaping confinement, they became a dominant species in the Mississippi River complex, and many parts of the Missouri and Illinois Rivers.
"Invasive carp" actually refers to four species: bighead, black, grass, and silver carp. But it's the silver carp that captures the imagination of those setting out to capture dinner. An unusual trait of these fish is that they jump out of the water in a rather spectacular fashion, sometimes to 10 feet high, at the slightest provocation. A running boat often triggers such behavior, and at some times in some places, it's common for hundreds of these fish to leap out of the water all around a boat as it cruises down the river.
Unlike many other carp species, silver carp live on a diet of plankton, which gives them a firm white meat that's said to be quite tasty (although they do have numerous small bones and must be deboned or prepared in ways similar to shad or other bony fish). Unfortunately for anglers, as these fish are filter feeders, they won't take baits or lures. That doesn't mean, however, you can't go "fishing" for them. Thanks to that crazy leaping ability and their prolific numbers, it's not unusual for the carp to jump right in a moving boat, and some crafty carp hunters have taken to cruising down the river armed with hoop nets, scooping them right out of the air then depositing them in a cooler.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Rio Grande river basins, the blue catfish has been stocked in many different areas of the nation as a sportfish. Since they make good table fare and grow astonishingly large — the world record is a 143-pounder caught in Virginia — many anglers consider them worthy opponents. As is often the case, however, when they escape into areas they were never meant to be, they can create havoc.
Blue cats were intentionally released into the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers in the 1970s and '80s to establish a new recreational fishery, a move once thought to be a smashing success. For decades, anglers enjoyed catching these creatures, which seemed to double in size and number at a blindingly rapid pace, while everyone believed them to be held prisoner in those waterways by the salty waters of Chesapeake Bay. The salinity in the Chesapeake, however, can vary quite a bit, and during years of heavy rainfall, the blue cats began to roam. So much so that they're now in every tributary river system connected to the Chesapeake.
Today, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources encourages anglers to pursue and keep blue cats wherever they find them, and it even produces weekly fishing reports which usually offer plenty of advice on where and how to catch them. The state legislature and the Department of Agriculture have worked to make blue catfish more accessible to watermen, and the stated goal of the Chesapeake Bay Program's invasive catfish management strategy is to "reduce the fish's abundance and mitigate its spread." It's time we anglers all grab a rod, pitch in, and help.
Banned From The Kitchen: Blackened Blue Catfish
Warning: Either try this outside on a griddle heated by the grill, or be sure to open all your windows and remove the batteries from your smoke alarms before attempting this recipe. In either case, you may want to give the neighbors a heads-up before proceeding, lest they come rushing over with a fire extinguisher.
For every 2 pounds of blue catfish fillets (feeds up to four), melt a half stick of butter, then mix in:
2 tsp. chile powder
1 tsp. each of cayenne pepper, black pepper, and crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
Liberally coat all portions of the fillets and allow the butter/spice mix to solidify on the chilled fillets. Heat an iron skillet until hot enough that a drop of butter placed on it sizzles and boils the moment it hits. Then drop on the fillets — and stand back. The fish will immediately begin sizzling and billowing smoke as the butter burns. Wait 90 seconds, hold your breath, duck into the cloud, and flip the fillets. In another 90 seconds, your Banned from the Kitchen blackened blue cat fillets will be ready.
— From "Off the Hook" by Lenny Rudow, $19.95 | Amazon.com
While saltwater fish freely roam the oceans, and it would seem that they could travel anywhere they'd like, most species respect the boundaries created by temperatures, currents, and continents. Not so when it comes to lionfish. This Indo-Pacific native somehow made its way into the Caribbean and Southeast U.S. Atlantic and Gulf waters, an invasion usually blamed on intentional release by aquarium hobbyists — though no one can trace the lionfish's appearance to any one event or cause with assuredness.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) the arrival of lionfish in local waters has a potential negative impact on native wildlife and habitat, and in 2019 FWC created a lionfish control plan that includes prizes and incentives for commercial and recreational fishermen targeting lionfish.
Lionfish aren't commonly caught on hook and line, which is probably a good thing for the average angler since their venomous spines can deliver a neuromuscular toxin that causes extreme pain, respiratory distress, and may even trigger paralysis. Anglers can, however, spearfish for them. Doing so has not only become incredibly popular, it's triggered an avalanche of lionfish spearfishing competitions. In one tournament, the 2020 Emerald Coast Open, a four-person team dubbed "Florida Man" captured an eye-popping 2,241 lionfish in a 48-hour period. That's a lot of lionfish for the table, and fortunately they're said to be delicious with a firm white meat similar to snapper.
While most anglers consider the northern pike to be among the top tier of freshwater gamefish, fishermen in some parts of Washington are asked to catch and keep all they can. Northern pike are native to a large swath of the Midwest and parts of Alaska, and have been widely introduced in nearly every state in the union. So what's the problem? Pike are rather voracious apex predators, and when introduced into waters where less aggressive and less prolific fish such as salmon, steelhead, or trout sit at the top of the food chain, pike can devastate the natural fish populations.
Of particular concern to Washington is the pike's introduction into Box Canyon Reservoir and the Pend Orville River system. The Pend Orville feeds the Columbia River, which has Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife concerned for salmon and steelhead. The concern is valid — fish have a habit of traveling downstream despite minor hindrances like dams and spillways, and the northern pike arrived in Box Canyon after being illegally introduced in Montana and traveling west through the Clark Fork River, then into Lake Pend Orville, and then the Pend Orville River.
Even in Alaska, most of which has native pike populations, the spread of this species raises hackles. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the pike's spread to non-native south-central areas of the state has resulted in the elimination of salmon and trout from some waterways, and in a PSA video, the department calls the northern pike "a killer stalking the waters of south-central Alaska."
Although most people would agree that pike are quite tasty, they do have an inordinate number of bones. Cutting out the "Y" bones and rib bones is a must before prepping them for the table. Thanks to YouTube and the multiple pike deboning videos found there, learning how is easy.
The northern snakehead, dubbed "Frankenfish" by the media upon its initial invasion in the Mid-Atlantic region about two decades ago, may well be the poster child of invasive fish species. When the first "wild" snakehead, believed to have been released by an aquarist, was discovered in a Maryland pond in 2002, the authorities went as far as to poison the entire pond. Six adults and more than 1,000 fry turned up dead, but within two years snakeheads were discovered in the nearby Potomac River. Shortly thereafter, some pioneering snakeheads ventured into the Chesapeake Bay, began turning up in virtually all of its tributaries, and soon started appearing in large numbers as far afield as New Jersey. More recently, northern snakeheads have been found in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, California, and Illinois, and established populations have been documented in Arkansas and Mississippi.
The northern snakehead not only presents a threat to some native fish populations; it also presents a conundrum to fisheries managers. Snakeheads thrive in shallow, low-oxygen waterways where other gamefish generally can't live. They attack with ferocity, often creating heart-stopping wakes as they chase a lure at lightning-fast speeds before exploding on the bait. And though it certainly has proven surprising to many fish aficionados, their meat is so tasty it often gets compared with premium food-fish like walleye or yellow perch. As a result, northern snakeheads are incredibly popular with recreational anglers.
In some waterways they appear to coexist with native fish populations without causing an imbalance, but in others, the arrival of snakeheads has thrown the resident fish populations out of balance. Add their popularity to the unpredictable environmental impact, and "managing" snakeheads becomes a delicate balancing act. Initially several states imposed "must-kill" regulations, and some still have them. But as their popularity as a sportfish grew, most areas shifted to "kill or release" regulations, allowing anglers to harvest all they like or release the snakeheads back from whence they came, just as long as no live snakeheads (which could be spread to other waterways) were in an angler's possession.
There are, of course, many other types of invasive species that cause havoc in the environment. Whether you're considering the North Carolina hillsides choked by kudzu or the $800 million in crop damage caused annually by European starlings, there's no doubt that nature's creatures can become rather problematic when introduced beyond their range. So grab your gear, and prepare for battle. Help rid America's waterways of these undesirables and catch your own dinner at the very same time — as if you didn't have enough excuses to go fishing already!
Snakeheads may be the most loved and most hated invasive fish species in America's waterways, but just about everyone agrees that their meat is shockingly sweet and tasty. Many people enjoy eating the fillets after being fried into nuggets or as fish tacos with corn salsa and chimichurri. But when it comes to providing a dramatic presentation along with your delicious meal, baked or grilled whole snakehead is tough to beat.
Historically a Vietnamese specialty, the fish was simply roasted for around 20 minutes in a heap of burning straw then eaten on banana leaves. However, a modern oven or grill gets the job done just fine and reduces the chances of lighting your backyard on fire. Simply gut the snakehead, leaving the scales, head, and tail intact. Baste the fish with garlic butter and top it with lemon slices, then bake or grill it until the meat flakes. Use a fork to lift up and slide off the skin (the scales will go with it). Once exposed, the meat will slide right off the bones. Sprinkle with a pinch of Old Bay if you feel the need to add some spice, and enjoy.