After exploring the NSLM’s collection of sporting books for the last four and a half years I’ve learned that while many sporting volumes were produced with commercial success in mind, many more were simply passion projects authored by true lovers of sport for the sake of celebrating a given activity and perhaps sharing their enthusiasm for it with readers, themselves likely also disciples of the sport. A lot of these volumes are quite elaborate as well, making commercial success even more unlikely. One such work is The Fishes of North America that are Captured on Hook and Line by William C. Harris (1830-1905).

Original half-title page of volume 1, published in 1898. Image from the New York Public Library.

Harris was an editor of American Angler, and a well published author of angling books. His intention with this project was to create a comprehensive work on the game fishes of North America, including not only textual information but also accompanying color illustrations. To achieve this goal he teamed up with artist John L. Petrie (19th century) and the two of them traveled the continent. Harris would fish and lay out his catch for Petrie to paint on the spot “before the sheen of their color tints had faded.” The preface of the book clearly describes their dedication to the project:

“I have been engaged nearly a quarter of a century in gathering the notes from which the text of this book has been written, and twelve years in procuring the oil portraits of living fish, caught from their native waters, that I might obtain lithographic facsimiles … The aggregate distance travelled was 28,558 miles, and the days occupied in transit and in catching and painting the fishes numbered nine hundred and seventy-two, or eighty-one working days of each angling season during twelve years. Mr. John L. Petrie, the artist, has been my steadfast companion during this protracted but pleasant task. He has painted the portraits of each fish represented … from living specimens caught on my own rod, with the exception of the Pacific Salmons, which were taken alive in traps.”

william C. Harris, In the preface to The Fishes of North America that are Captured on Hook and Line (1898). From Donald A. Heald RAre Books, Prints & Maps.
How the Work was Done by J. L. Petrie. Illustration facing the introduction. Image from Case Antiques.

Harris had planned to publish the final work in two volumes each featuring 40 color plates. Unfortunately he died before the second volume was completed and only the first was ever published. The NSLM does not hold a copy of this work but we do have a wonderful collection of the illustrations by J. L. Petrie which were created for a planned deluxe subscription edition of The Fishes of North America that are Captured on Hook and Line. This set was sold under the title Portraits of Fishes in Natural Colors and included 38 color lithographs made from Petrie’s paintings of both fresh and salt water fishes.

Sales sheet included with the set of 38 color lithographs. The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The Fresh Water set: The Small-Mouth Black Bass — The Large-Mouth Black Bass — The American Brook Trout — The Unspotted Muscollonge — The Brown or German Trout — Winninish-Land-Locked Salmon — The Rocky Mountain Trout — The Michigan Grayling — The Rock Bass — The Eastern or Banded Pickerel — The Pike — The Common Sunfish — The Fresh Water Drum or Sheepshead — The White or Silver Bass — The Rocky Mountain Whitefish — The Montana Grayling — Hybrid Trout-cross of the Lake and Brook Trout — The Kern River Trout of California — The Common Bullhead or Horned Pout — The Mirror Carp — The Cisco of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin — The Sacramento Pike, Squaw’s Fish or Yellow Belly

Brown or German Trout. Specimen weight 1 lb. caught at Caledonia Creek, NY. The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.
The Common Bullhead or Horned Pout. Specimen weight 3/4 lb. caught at Greenwood Lake NY. The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The Salt Water set: The Striped Bass — The Weakfish or Squeteague — The Blackfish or Tautog — The Kingfish, Whiting or Barb — The Bluefish — The Spanish Mackerel — The Porgee or Scup — The Spot or Lafayette — The Dollar or Butter Fish — The Mangrove Snapper — The Striped Mullet — The Spotted Sea Trout — The Sea Bass — The Pompano — The Red Drum or Channel Bass — The California Redfish

The California Red Fish or Fat-Head. Specimen weight 3 lbs. caught and painted off Catalina Island, coast of California. The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.
The Pompano. Specimen weight 1 lb. caught and painted at Naples, Gulf of Mexico. The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The illustrations are lovely to look at but I enjoy imagining Harris and Petrie road-tripping around the country fishing and painting year after year during the late 19th century. It would be interesting to hear what it was like. Perhaps the NSLM will acquire a copy of The Fishes of North America that are Captured on Hook and Line in the future and maybe Harris put a small anecdote or two about their journeys in an introduction or afterword.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 450 years of the history of equestrian sport, fly fishing, wing shooting, other field sports, and country life.

The “killer fish,” “X-Files Fish”, “frankenfish,” “fish from hell” or, as some Korean anglers have dubbed it, the “fresh water tyrant” is actually called a channa argus – the Northern Snakehead.

U.S.G.S. “Drawing of Channa Argus, 1933, Wikipedia, https://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channa_argus#Subesp%C3%A8cies. Accessed 27 March, 2020.

If you look up images of the Northern Snakehead you will quickly see why it has the nickname the “fish from hell”. It is ugly, some species can walk over land, it can breathe air for up to three days, it has a set of dagger-like teeth, and it isn’t native to our waters – which makes it extra scary.

So, why would the NSLM be interested in this non-native species? There are a few good reasons why we would want to talk about this fish and it isn’t just for the great X-Files references. Northern Snakeheads are considered to be an invasive species with possible negative effects on local waterways. These waterways are where the game fish that we love, like the beautiful rainbow trout, thrive and more competition for them could negatively impact their population. For these reasons the NSLM, which promotes and supports angling, finds it important to discuss any potential threats and it is just a fascinating fish!

“Editorial cartoon on dangers of exotic snakehead (Channa), in Burnaby Pond,” Arnould, The Georgia Straight, 2012. Fishes in the News, https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~etaylor/fishinnews.htm. Accessed 27 March, 2020. 

Originally John Odenkirk, the Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries (VDIGF) District Biologist and all-around Northern Snakehead expert, was going to give a presentation about the Snakehead population in Virginia and a demonstration on the proper way to clean and prepare the fish for consumption at the NSLM on April 23rd. He is an advocate for not only catching the fish but for consuming it as well. He has informed me that, despite their appearance, Northern Snakeheads are actually tasty. But, as we all know, times have been different with the affects of COVID-19 being seen globally. Educational programs, including Odenkirk’s talk, have been canceled to help flatten the curve of the virus. While the program is no longer taking place, I still wanted to provide some interesting facts about this creature and hopefully ignite a curiosity to cook the fish as well.   If you want to hear from the expert himself about Northern Snakeheads check out John Odenkirk’s work HERE.

Walker , Lee. John Odenkirk Studying Northern Snakeheads. Courtesy of the VDIGF . 
 

Snakeheads have been compared to the “monster from the black lagoon” and other terrifying science fiction references that conjure up images of a monster fish walking on land and eating everything in sight. Since they were first discovered on U.S. soil back in 2002 at a pond in Crofton, Maryland, there have been a lot of myths, horror stories, and interesting facts spread about the Northern Snakehead. The first place that I looked for information on the species was, of course, our Library. Out of 20,000 volumes only one book had any information on the fish! I even poured through our cooking books searching for any signs of the fish, but with no luck (though I did find a porcupine stew recipe). The sole book found was Snakehead: A Fish out of Water by Eric Jay Dolin and I highly suggest you come to the Library when we open back up to hang out and read about the media frenzied 2002 summer of the Snakehead.

Dolin,Eric Jay. Snakehead: A Fish out of Water. Smithsonian Books, 2003. National Sporting Library & Museum, Main Reading Room.

Snakeheads: A Fish out of Water along with the online resources listed at the end of this post, helped me compile a short list of facts on the species. This is in no way an exhaustive list of all the unusual aspects of the Northern Snakehead, but just some of the more interesting ones to me. If you like fun lists of facts then you will like the rest of this blog post!

  1. Snakeheads get their name from the distinctive snake-like shape of their body, their large scaled head, and from the location of their eyes near the top and forward part of their head.
  2. There are 28 species of Snakeheads.
  3. Some species of Snakeheads can “walk” for short distances over land, but the Northern Snakehead (thankfully) is not one of those.
  4. If their skin is kept moist they can survive out of water by breathing air for up to three days.
  5. They are native to China, southern Siberia, South Korea, and North Korea.
  6. They can grow up to three feet and weigh up to 19 pounds.
  7. Their bottom jaw is full of sharp teeth
  8. Insects, small amphibians, and other fish are their favorite foods.
  9. They protect their young.
  10. The Potomac River drainage of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is home to the largest Northern Snakehead population in Virginia.
U.S.G.S. “Caught by Live Bait in Panama City Beach.” Northern Snakehead, Wikipedia, 28 Dec. 2019,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_snakehead#/media/File:Northern_snakehead.jpg. Accessed 27, March 2020.  
“Baby Northern Snakehead.” Northern Snakehead, Animal Spot, https://www.animalspot.net/northern-snakehead.html. Accessed 29, March 2020.  

So, what should anglers be prepared to do if they catch a Northern Snakehead?

The VDIGF recommends that you kill the fish, but you can release the fish back into the water if you wish. You are required though, no matter your decision, to call the Snakehead Hotline in Virginia to report the fish at (804)-367-2925. All anglers should remember that it is illegal to have a live Snakehead in your possession. Since 2002, some anglers have sought to purposely catch the fish to help both with population control and for good sport. In Korea, Snakeheads, known as Sogarli, are a native game fish and are highly prized. This makes for a interesting discussion on Northern Snakeheads as a new game fish in our area because, lets face it, they are established here and are not leaving anytime soon so we might as well make good sport of it!

Hagerty , Ryan. “NAS – Nonindigenious Aquatic Spcies .” NAS – Nonindigenious Aquatic Spcies , USGS, 21 Mar. 2020, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?speciesid=2265. Accessed 31, 2020. 

How do you catch one?

For catching a Northern Snakehead, Odenkirk suggests that tidal rivers are best, but there are several lakes that have the invasive population near us including, Lake Brittle near Warrenton and Pelham Lake in Culpeper. Try fishing for Northern Snakeheads as you would for a Large-Mouth Bass, but fish a bit shallower, near vegetation, and be sure to use weedless artificial baits.

You caught one – so now what?

First, you must report the catch to the Snakehead Hotline and then you have a few options of what to do next. You can release the fish back into the water, you can kill the fish and remove it from the waters, or kill the fish and bring it home for a very tasty dinner.

There are several ways you can cook a Northern Snakehead and, according to Odenkirk, there is no wrong way to prepare the fish. The meat of the fish is a firm, mild, and dense white meat that is very similar to several saltwater species such as grouper or a swordfish steak.

Perillo, Joseph. “Image of Northern Snakehead.” Northern Snakehead, Sea Grant: University of Wisconsin, https://www.seagrant.wisc.edu/our-work/focus-areas/ais/invasive-species/invasive-species-fact-sheets/fish/northern-snakehead/. Accessed: 31, March 2020. 

Once life returns to normalcy, I want to try my hand at Northern Snakehead wrangling, cooking, and consuming. Until then, I asked Odenkirk for two of his favorite recipes that we could share with everyone.

The first recipe is devilishly simple and sounds divine. All you need is a filet of fish, your favorite dry seafood seasoning, and olive oil.

The second recipe incorporates some Asian flair with freshly shaved ginger, soy sauce, Thai chili flakes, scallions, and a filet of fish.

Research on the impact of the Northern Snakehead on local waterways and native fish continues. Odenkirk has written many papers on the topic and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his visit to the NSLM at some point in the future. The more research that comes out, the more informed anglers can be. Whether you are actively luring a big Northern Snakehead or accidentally catch one on your line, be sure to call the hotline and consider taking it home to make a nice meal for the family.

Send us your pictures, recipes, and what you thought of the Northern Snakehead when you tasted it! We love to hear good angling stories!