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Northern Snakehead

Snakeheads caught in most major Virginia river drainages – Potomac, Rappahannock, York and now James Rivers, and many reservoirs:

Northern Snakeheads were discovered in Virginia in 2004 and may be found in the Potomac River almost anywhere – from above Great Falls downstream to Chesapeake Bay. Although verified in non-tidal sections of the Potomac and its tributaries above Washington, D.C., most snakeheads are still found primarily in tidal waters from D. C. downstream to Colonial Beach (and in tributaries of D.C., Maryland and Virginia within this reach). They are very abundant in all of Virginia’s tidal tributaries to the Potomac River within this reach (e.g., Little Hunting Creek, Dogue Creek, Pohick Creek, Occoquan River, Neabsco Creek, Quantico Creek, and Aquia Creek). Data collected through 2018 suggest relative abundance has stabilized and even declined in many waters where populations have been established longest.

Snakeheads were documented in 2012 in the Rappahannock River system – they apparently colonized several creeks in the lower portion of the tidal Rappahannock (below Port Royal) via natural dispersal from the Bay (they appear to be using freshets to ride less dense fresh water over saltwater during storms as a dispersal mechanism) but were also illegally introduced to Ruffin’s Mill Pond south of Fredericksburg. The resulting colonization was likely the source of fish captured in Massaponax Creek and upper portions of the tidal Rappahannock. Anglers should expect to encounter snakeheads almost anywhere in the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg but at lower densities than currently seen on the Potomac.  They have recently been encountered in greater abundance in areas of the fall line and at barriers in the watershed (e.g., Rapidan Mill Dam) following spring, pre-spawn migrations upstream.

Ruffin’s Mill Pond has been joined recently by Hunting Run Reservoir (Spotsylvania County), Pelham Reservoir (Culpeper County), Abel Reservoir (Stafford County), Burke Lake (Fairfax County), and Occoquan Reservoir (Fairfax/Prince William line) as all waters receiving illegal stockings of northern snakeheads. An individual was arrested and prosecuted for illegally stocking snakeheads in Lake Brittle (Fauquier County) in 2015.  A bill was passed during the 2017 Virginia General Assemble providing for increased penalties for persons illegally moving (stocking) snakeheads.  Anglers are encouraged to visit these lakes and harvest all snakeheads caught. They are excellent table fare.

Snakeheads were found to be self-sustaining in Lake Anna (York drainage) in 2017. Thus far, none have been found downstream of North Anna Dam. However, as of May 2018; they were reported from multiple reservoirs in the James River watershed – undoubtedly a result of callous, illegal stocking from short-sighted individuals.


What should someone do if they think they’ve found a snakehead fish?

Before going fishing, anglers should familiarize themselves with the fish species found in Virginia. There are several native species including bowfin, lamprey, and American eel that look similar to the northern snakehead. For more information and assistance with learning the identifying differences between snakehead fish and native species, please see our “Do You Know The Difference?” information page. Any unusual fish needs to be reported to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. We have established a snakehead hotline that anglers can use to report snakehead fish (804-367-2925). There is also a new, easy-to-use web application for reporting observations. Anglers are required to report snakeheads kept but are not required to kill them if caught and immediately released.  Snakeheads must be dead if in possession (contained in live well, cooler, etc.)  However, the Department asks that all snakeheads be killed if possible. If an angler wishes to keep a legally caught northern snakehead, the fish must be killed to be in possession, and the angler must call the hotline or other DWR contact and report the angler’s last name, date of catch, location of catch, and size. Kill the fish by:

  1. removing the head,
  2. separating the gill arches from the body, or
  3. removing the internal organs and put it on ice as quickly as possible.

Is it illegal to own a snakehead fish in Virginia?

Yes, it is illegal to own one without a permit. In 2002, the Board of Wildlife Resources added the snakehead fish to the list of predatory and undesirable exotic species, making it illegal to possess a snakehead fish in Virginia without a permit issued by the Department of Wildlife Resources. Federal regulations enacted in October 2002 prohibit the importation of snakehead fish into the United States and prohibit interstate transport of these animals. Individuals who still own a live snakehead need to contact the Department of Wildlife Resources immediately for proper disposal of the fish. Effective July 1, 2005, anglers who legally catch a snakehead may keep the fish to mount or eat providing they:

  1. immediately kill the fish using one or more of the alternatives listed above and
  2. notify the Department at the number listed above or by calling an office.

What will the Department do now that snakeheads have been found in Virginia?

Biologists continue to sample snakehead-colonized waters in an effort to learn more about the ecology and biology of this exotic fish in Virginia. Migration, exploitation, food habits, growth, and behavior of northern snakeheads are being studied; and attempts are being made to determine what impacts, if any, are occurring to aquatic communities as a result of colonization.

The Department has membership on the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Snakehead Control and Management Plan (SCMP) Work Group. This group assembled and submitted recommendations to the U. S. Congress.

What kind of impact could a snakehead population have in Virginia?

Exotic species like snakeheads can disrupt natural aquatic systems and may have significant impacts by feeding on and competing with native and/or naturalized fishes. In addition, they may transmit parasites and diseases to native wildlife in those systems.

Do we have to be concerned about snakehead fish appearing in other waters in Virginia?

Yes. While snakeheads are freshwater fish, it has been determined that they can tolerate a fairly high level of salinity (this is especially true for juveniles with lower water temperatures). They may be able to colonize additional drainages through extreme storm events riding freshets or by illegal introductions.

Are snakehead fish dangerous?

While northern snakeheads do not attack humans or small pets, they may present threats to our native and/or naturalized wildlife and ecosystems.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources wants anglers to be aware of the identifying features of the species they are catching and to report any unusual fish caught. Call the Department at (804) 367-2925. Anyone who still has a snakehead fish needs to contact the Department of Wildlife Resources immediately and SHOULD NOT to release it into the wild. Call (804) 367-2925 and DWR will assist in the proper disposal of the fish.

For additional information:


  • Odenkirk, J.S., and M. W. Isel.  2016.  Trends in abundance of Northern Snakeheads in Virginia tributaries of the Potomac River.  Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 145: 687-692.
  • Odenkirk, J., C. Lim, S. Owens, and M. Isel. 2014. Insight into age and growth of northern snakehead in the Potomac River. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 33:4, 773-776.
  • Odenkirk, J. and S. Owens. 2007. Expansion of a northern snakehead population in the Potomac River system. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 136:1633-1639.
  • Odenkirk, J. and S. Owens. 2005. Northern Snakeheads in the tidal Potomac River system. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 134: 1605-1609.

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Updated 5/11/2018