The Tale Of The Cobra Snakehead

You better not mention the word “Cobra Snakehead” to a “crazy snakehead hunter” like myself! For over a decade now, I have been absolutely hooked on fishing with top water lures for all Snakehead species. And that Cobra Snakehead, above any other one of those matchless snakehead fish, is a very special friend in the tales of my Thai jungle fishing adventures. So it wouldn’t be good to talk to me about that particular fish. I know I would be immediately thinking of having a break right now with my angling guiding service work to head straight away for the deep jungle of the Kanchanaburi province. A part of countries like Pakistan, India to China or Cambodia, it is in that precise area of Thailand, the land of smiles, that most of these rare serpent-heads can be found. At least I thought it was. Until I learned not so long ago from a fellow angler in the States that they inhabit Florida waters now too!

In any material published by the Thai Fisheries Department, the true English name given to the Channa marulius is in fact Great Snakehead. Because of its long and thin reptile body and its cobra-like head, the Thai people call that fish in their language “Pla Chon Gnu Hao” which means “fish-cobra”. That is also why local anglers referring to that fish use the English name of “cobra snakehead” rather than “great snakehead”.

I do too. I feel it is in a way much proper, not to mention it sounds to my ears much better. A funny thing about it is, because of its serpent-like head, most Thai people still erroneously believed the cobra snakehead has a poisonous bite.

The Channa marulius has red eyes and is gold-tinted brown to pale gray in younger fish while older fish are generally dark brown with large black blotches. The most distinctive marking is the black spot rimmed with orange near the base of the tail fin, known as an eye-spot or ocellus.
When doing research about that unique fish I found out that it was exhibited alive for the very first time at a fair in Bangkok in December 1933. It is said that fish has inspired various other beliefs and myths through the centuries. Mason, a western scientist studying these species in 1878, wrote how the Karen people of Burma regarded this fish with “superstitious awe” and refrained from eating them. Mason stated: Karens have a legend that they were formerly men, changed into fish for their sins, and the Karens of Tavoy say, “if people eat them, they will be transformed into lions”.

Because of its scarceness and its habitat, frequenting aquatic weeds or snagged territories such as submerged fallen trees close to the bank, the Cobra Snakehead could be compared in a way to his Malay counterpart, the Toman Bunga (Channa marulloides).

Nowadays the population of that distinctive Thai serpent-head species is alas becoming quite rare in Thailand. Even though I combed every single inch of water with top water lures where I thought a Cobra Snakehead might be hidden, it took me many years myself to fulfill my dream of seeing at least one of them striking at one of my lures.
Its flesh, like its cousin the Striped Snakehead (Channa striata), is exquisite and very much sought after by local people living by the water.

No one is caring at all how rare the Channa marulius is. Any specimen of any size is sadly considered as a potential “tom yum” (famous Thai soup cooked with lemon grass). Just after the spawn, it is known that it is not very difficult to make a female Cobra snakehead fish protecting its baby fry to bite at anything. What a pity for such an elusive predator fish to end that way!
Because of that kind of pressure from locals, it explains why nowadays most of the Channa marulius specimens caught by anglers are too often not exceeding the 3.00 Kg (6.6 lbs.) mark, even though it can reach a maximum weight close to 10.00 Kg (22 lbs.). The two biggest specimens ever caught with rod and line in Thailand that I have heard of were landed a decade ago. Both catches weighed 8.00 Kg (17.6 lbs.) and were hooked by two of my present team guides, Khun Sanghop and Khun Oot. One fish was caught at the Khao Laem dam, the other one at the Sri Nakharin dam. As for the current IGFA All Tackle world record for that species, it is held by my friend Gerard Cittadini (France) with a fish of 2.55 Kg (5.6 lbs.), caught in July 2001 at the Sri Nakharin dam.

At the beginning of July 2002, I received an email from Scott Nelson, an American angler from Tampa Bay, Florida. A month before, I had guided him on a Snakehead fishing expedition at the Khao Laem dam with 5 other US anglers from Quest! Global Angling Adventures. Since that first Thai jungle experience, he was getting seriously hooked on Snakehead fishing, archiving everything he could find about them. Scott was forwarding me some really interesting news releases from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is so far the most serious and accurate report I have read through the garbage of too many media press stories published because of the actual snakehead phobia in America.
Here are some good extracts of that report entitled

WEST PALM BEACH–An Asian fish commonly known as a snakehead is the most recent addition to Florida’s list of reproducing exotic fishes, scientists reported this week. “However, it’s far too early to know or even speculate on what effects the presence of this snakehead will have,” according to Paul Shafland, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s (FWC) Non-Native Fish Lab in Boca Raton.

There are now 31 documented exotic fish species reproducing in Florida’s fresh waters. Some of the better-known exotic residents include the walking catfish, Asian swamp eel, and oscar. The snakehead is an air-breathing fish similar in appearance and behavior to the native bowfin (or mudfish). Shafland said angler Bob Newland of Sunrise caught the first documented snakehead on October 5, 2000 while fishing a residential pond in Tamarac, Broward County. The angler initially thought it was a bowfin until noticing the ocellus, a distinctive dark spot rimmed in brilliant orange near the base of the tail fin. The fish measured 26 inches long and weighed four pounds.

The fish was tentatively identified at the lab as a snakehead by Shafland, who then sampled the catch site the next day, assisted by fisheries technician Murray Stanford. The researchers visually observed two large snakeheads measuring from 20 to 24 inches and collected a smaller specimen around 12 inches long using electroshocking equipment. More than 100 snakeheads from 6 to 28.5 inches long and from one ounce to six pounds have been collected so far. FWC is sharing information with other agencies studying exotic fishes, including scientists from the United States Geological Survey. Specimens of this fish have been given to Jim Williams and Leo Nico of the USGS in Gainesville for positive identification. ?

“There is relatively little information on the life histories and ecology of most fish species from tropical Asia,” Shafland said. ” As a result, useful information about how these fishes may interact with native species is sparse and some of it, especially in older sources, is suspect. Snakeheads have been described as being extremely aggressive and voracious, but based on our personal observations the species collected in Florida appears to be one of the less aggressive species of snakeheads.

We hope the public doesn’t over react as was the case with the media inspired hysteria regarding the appearance of the walking catfish back in the 1960s and even the swamp eel a few years ago,” he said. “The presence of this species immediately places it into the unwelcome and undesirable category, but more importantly it clearly demonstrates that illegal introductions of exotic fishes continue in Florida. “In fact, this is the sixth exotic fish that has been documented reproducing in Florida waters since 1992.” Shafland said.

“Obviously we need to do more to educate the public about the serious ecological consequences that the illegal release of exotic species represent.” Shafland pointed out that once a fish species is reproducing in the open water systems of south Florida, it is impossible to eradicate them. Preventing the illegal introduction of exotics in the first place is really the only viable tactic along with educating anglers, aquarists, and others about the illegality of dumping and/or transferring exotic fish from one water body to another. Shafland praised Newland for taking the time and effort to report catching what appeared to be a rather strange looking bowfin.

The Boca Raton scientist stated that the cooperation and assistance of knowledgeable anglers in identifying exotics is invaluable. “Our agency just doesn’t have the staff and the resources to monitor every square foot of fresh water contained in Florida’s numerous lakes, streams, rivers, canals, and impoundments,” he said. “Anglers are often the first to detect the presence of an exotic fish, and we often depend on their reports.” Since the first snakehead was caught in October, FWC scientists at the Boca Lab have initiated a comprehensive effort to determine their distribution, relative abundance, temperature tolerance, and associations with native fish. Food habits, habitat preferences, and reproduction will also be closely studied.

“Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes once an exotic fish begins reproducing and these studies will require several years to complete,” Shafland said. “We have already completed some preliminary temperature tolerance studies that indicate this snakehead cannot live in water temperatures below 50 degrees. “This is good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is that snakeheads will be largely limited to the southern half of Florida due to lower winter temperatures farther north. The bad news is that much of southern Florida likely provides suitable habitat for this undesirable fish to establish a permanent home in.”

“Our initial stomach content evaluations showed that more than 50 percent of their food consisted of crayfish,” said Kelly Gestring, an FWC research scientist at Boca Raton. “Now that could in the long run have an effect on other species that feed on crayfish, but it’s far too early to know what, if any effects this new exotic fish will ultimately have.”

Shafland explained that exotics can sometimes adversely affect native species and habitats by changing the energy flow in the ecosystem, introducing parasites and diseases, genetic pollution of closely related species, and by competing with native species for food, shelter, and space. At the very least, even an otherwise innocuous exotic takes up space and energy that might someday be used more beneficially by a native species.

When forced to speculate on what effects the snakehead might have on native fishes, Shafland said that, “If there are any effects, these would most likely involve the bowfin (mudfish) since snakehead and bowfin share more than just general appearances. Both of these species are also predators that seem to have similar habitat and food preferences, and both can utilize air to survive in waters with little to no oxygen.” Some of the literature on the snakeheads suggests this fish can reach lengths of four feet, although Shafland is skeptical.

There is no question, however, that the snakehead is highly valued throughout Asia for its food value and taste. “I have eaten a few snakeheads since we began our research into this species, and can attest to their excellent taste,” Shafland said. “Their popularity as food within the Asian cultures in south Florida may even explain the presence of the snakehead in Florida waters.” Although not the same species reproducing in Florida waters, FWC Wildlife Inspectors Lts. John West and Pat Reynolds, Division of Law Enforcement, found another species of live snakehead for sale in two oriental food markets in late February. Some customers apparently believe that in addition to tasting good, snakeheads have a medicinal benefit.

Chung Hing Oriental Market, NW 167th St., Miami, and P. K. Oriental Market, Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines were both charged with possession of a prohibited freshwater fish. All species of snakeheads are illegal to possess live in the state of Florida. Possession of live snakeheads is a second degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail.

West said six live snakeheads were seized at the Pembroke Pines market and eight at the Miami market. The fish all measured approximately 12 inches long. Florida law also makes it a crime for anyone to release any exotic fish into state waters.

The Tale Of The Cobra Snakehead

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