Musky Hall  of Fame Hayward, WI

Toby James 20 lbs:  Musky 68 lbs

The Roanoke Times      Monday, September 20, 2004

Just when you thought it was safe to go
So far we don't have to fear the snakehead fish, but what could be lurking in a local lake...
by Beth Jones


Does "Open Water" have you thinking you'll never, ever vacation at Myrtle Beach again?

     Here's some news: Sharks aren't the only fish with a taste for human sushi.
     Consider the fate of 11-year-old Mason DeRosier: According to an Aug. 28 report in the Duluth News Tribune, the kid was minding his own business, hunting frogs at Island Lake in Minnesota, when out of the blue a fish, likely a northern pike or muskellunge, tried to turn him into dinner. DeRosier escaped with his life, but required eight stitches in his left hand and three in the bottom of his right foot. 
      Think such perilous fish reside only in the land of 10,000 lakes? Think again.
     "There are fish with teeth out there," said Julia Dixon, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
     Specifically, Virginia has muskies, also known by their scientific name of Esox masquinongy. And though we haven't yet found one of the frightening snakehead fish in this part of the woods, an even more ravenous carnivore with fins may be lurking in a local lake.
     First the muskies:
     While not native to this area, the fishies are stocked in bodies of water around the state, including the New and James rivers and Smith Mountain Lake.
     For those of you who aren't fishermen, here are a few identifying traits about muskies:
     Enormous size. The state record, according to the inland fisheries folks, went to a 45-pound muskie caught in the New River. 
     Steak-knife sharp teeth.
     A diet consisting of fish, frogs, ducklings, muskrats and, it seems, people parts.
     It's not that muskies are man-eaters, said Brian Heft, manager of Smith Mountain Lake State Park. It's that human appendages look like fish to them. "A muskie is a muskie," Heft said. "They're a big fish, they're going to eat big bait."
     "Then again, what if that Minnesota muskie wasn't confused? Maybe he attacked the little boy on purpose. Maybe muskies have evolved to be more aggressive against their human predators.
     Renee Godard, associate professor of biology at Hollins University, quashed that theory with a definitive, "No."
     "I doubt highly that evolution would steer fish ... to become more interactive with their dominant predators," she wrote in an e-mail. "If anything, it would steer them away as obviously the ones that survive are the ones that limit interactions with humans."
     OK, so they only bite by accident, and they don't bite often. While there's a handful of reports of muskie wounds in the upper Midwest, Heft hadn't heard of anyone being bitten by a muskellunge or any other kind of fish at SML park.
     Most outdoorsy types would likely make fun of anyone who admitted to having a fear of muskies, but John Ney, professor of fisheries and wildlife science at Virginia Tech, understands the phobia.
    Ney grew up in Hayward, Wis., home of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum (which, it should be noted, is housed in a half-block-long, 4 1/2 -story replica of a muskie) as well as the famous Moccasin Bar, which displays a frightening mounted muskie of 67 pounds.
    Ney still remembers having a snack at the bar as a boy, staring up at the muskie and wondering whether its mate was still in the lake.
     "I wouldn't go swimming for a week," he said.
     Still, Ney said, muskies probably aren't worth losing sleep over. He estimated that the chance of getting bitten by one is considerably less than the risk of getting struck by lightning (which happens to about one person in 700,000).
     Hearing tales of biting muskies wasn't enough to chase off Benjamin Elliott, who traveled from Richmond to swim at Smith Mountain Lake State Park on a recent September day. "I'm not really scared of fish," the 21-year-old said.
 


      In the end it was feathers, not fins, that kept Elliott out of the water. A flock of geese had caused the amount of fecal coliform bacteria in the water to exceed state recreation standards, meaning no swimming allowed.
      If Elliott does get to swim in Smith Mountain Lake one day, though, he should be prepared to have his man-nipples nibbled by the smaller, gentler sunfish, who aren't as reclusive as the muskies.
       Lake veterans Andrew Nulrich and his dad, Doug, often get nipped by those fish.
     "It hurts but it's not that scary," said 14-year-old Andrew.
     "I get scared," Andrew's dad disagreed. "They leave little bite marks."
     Still, Doug Nulrich figured he has it coming to him. "I love to fish."
     One thing we don't have to worry about at Smith Mountain Lake (knock on wood) are northern snakehead fish.
     Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton called this fish "something from a bad horror movie." And indeed, a low-budget flick called "Night of the Snakehead Fish" was released in 2003.
     Sometimes referred to as "Frankenfish," the snakehead caused a commotion in the media and around water coolers when it was found in Crofton, Md., in 2002 and in the Potomac River this spring. The unusual fish can live out of water for three days and even move short distances on land. Native to parts of Asia and Africa, the snakehead has no known predators in this country, a fact that causes scientists to worry whether it could hurt the ecosystem with its voracious appetite for other fish and even frogs (it hasn't gobbled any humans, thus far).
     The folks at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries were so worried they formed a committee that sounds like something out of a science-fiction novel: the Snakehead Fish Incident Management Team.
      If an angler were to find a snakehead fish in Smith Mountain Lake, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries advises killing the sucker with "a blow to the head" - a technique that seems a little more dramatic than the usual method of leaving the fish to flip and flop on the lake's bank.
     Dixon said snakeheads are actually quite difficult to kill, and that it could take several whacks with, say, a pair of pliers, to cause the little buggers to conk out.
     While no one has found a snakehead at Smith Mountain Lake, there are non-native species in the water.
     First of all, there's all the fishermen from New Jersey. There might also be the occasional piranha.
     You heard right, piranha, the razor-toothed carnivorous fish of South America.
     Though the fish are prohibited in Virginia without a permit from the game department, Ney said folks still occasionally manage to obtain one for their fish tanks. The owner later moves or simply tires of cleaning the tank and dumps the piranha into a river or, say, Smith Mountain Lake, because he's unwilling to flush the former pet down the toilet.
     But, Ney said, there's no cause for alarm even if there is a piranha somewhere in Smith Mountain Lake.
      Experts say the fish's reputation for gobbling up humans is highly exaggerated. Besides, Ney added, the piranha would never be able to withstand Virginia's cool winters.
     Ney did say, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that some version of the Loch Ness monster could be hiding within the depths of the lake.
      "Undoubtedly," he said, "there's something lurking out there.