The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently developed a video to help anglers properly identify a native bowfin versus the invasive snakehead fish. This video, produced in collaboration with Michigan-Out-of-Doors Television, should help prevent the destruction of native bowfin through cases of mistaken identity.
Snakeheads, native to China, Thailand and Southeast Asia, have recently been introduced to some areas of the eastern United States. The snakehead is becoming established in the rivers of Virginia, Maryland and many waterways in Florida (where the subtropical climate more closely resembles that of the snakehead’s native land). They have even been found in Wisconsin (one confirmed case). While these introductions likely result from the release of fish by owners (as pets), or from fish purchased at live food markets, the eventual result is the same. Snakeheads can survive in a wide variety of habitats and are capable of breathing when out of water for long periods of time. As an invasive species, the snakehead has no natural predators in the U.S. and it’s pugnacious feeding habits give it an innate ability to out-compete native species for food and space.
At this time, no snakeheads have been identified or confirmed in Michigan waters. However, due to media attention and similar appearances, anglers can and do mistake the native bowfin (dogfish) for a snakehead. While vigilance and early detection are considered critical to prevent the deleterious effects on the Michigan fisheries by the snakehead, cases of mistaken identity usually end with a dead bowfin, and rumours that the snakeheads have arrived.
Bowfin, also called swamp musky, are opportunistic predators that feed on bluegills, frogs and other small critters in lakes and ponds. The thick, powerful body sports a rounded head and wide mouth with large teeth, giving the appearance of dragon fry. While difficult to target specifically, bowfin strike hard and put up a savage fight when hooked. They can provide good sport on a regular fishing gear or a fly rod, provided your leader is clear of their teeth. In Southeastern Michigan, your best bet for tangling with one of these beasts could be fishing to tailing carp. Bowfin often shadow carp that are feeding in weedy bays or shallows, picking off crayfish and small fish that the carp kicks up while rooting along the bottom.
The DNR video highlights two key characteristics to help differentiate the bowfin from the snakehead; namely, the length of their anal fins and the “eyespot” on the tail of juvenile male bowfin. This video can be viewed by clicking here, or by visiting the DNR’s website at www.michigan.gov/fishing.
“Although snakeheads aren’t curently established in Michigan, we would like anglers and concerned members of the public to watch this video to learn how to distinguish between them and our native species,” said Seth Herbst, aquatic invasive species coordinator in the DNR Fisheries Division. “Public awareness is a critical component of our efforts to prevent invasive species from significantly affecting the state’s fisheries.”
You can also learn more about other native Michigan species that are often mistaken for snakeheads (mudpuppies, burbot and longnose gar) by visiting the DNR’s “Managing Michigan’s Fisheries” webpage and clicking the Snakehead Fish link.
Anglers who think they’ve caught a snakehead are advised not to put it back in the water. Instead, contact the nearest DNR Customer Service Center (contact info can be online here).