- The Washington Times
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It was already a special day for Caleb Newton and Phil Wilcox — the two friends enjoying a bass-fishing bachelor party on the Potomac River. But when the men spotted a long shadow swimming among the reeds, they knew things were only going to get more interesting.

Gliding among the grass was a northern snakehead, a gruesome animal known as a “Frankenfish” by some. And it was big. But it wasn’t until they wrestled it into the boat that they realized it might be the biggest anyone has ever caught with a hook and line.

“I knew it was a good fish, but I didn’t know how good,” Mr. Newton, 27, said Tuesday.

The two men have been fishing partners for years, and they know the Potomac River and its tributaries like the back of their hands. On Saturday, they joined friends and family for the Big Bass Bachelor Fishing Tournament in honor of Mr. Wilcox’s upcoming wedding.

“We pulled up to the spot, put the trolling motor down on the boat, and I saw the fish in the water,” Mr. Wilcox said. “It was absolutely huge.”

Mr. Newton said he “could just tell by the reaction and tone of his voice,” that his buddy had spotted a keeper.

After a few attempts at luring the fish to bite, the animal finally latched on and took off.

“It went crazy, the water got to boiling, the grass was coming up, so I let the line go on its own,” Mr. Newton said. “With this fish you had to let him play his game.”

After about two minutes, the fish was reeled in close enough to the boat for Mr. Wilcox to scoop the beast out of the water.

Weighing in at 17 pounds, 6 ounces, the fish that Mr. Newton hauled in could be declared the largest snakehead caught on hook and line in the world, a title currently held by a fisherman in Japan for a snakehead only 2 ounces lighter.

News of the haul was first reported by the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance-Star.

Mr. Newton must send in pictures of the fish from various angles, along with photos of the rod and reel used, to the International Game Fish Association. The Dania Beach, Fla.-based organization handles records for hook-and-line-only catches.

He also has to submit the tackle he used, as well as verification of the scale that was used to weigh the fish.

“Thank God he doesn’t have to send the fish,” said Jack Vitek, the world record coordinator with the International Game Fish Association.

Mr. Newton must also fill out an application, asking what he was using to catch the fish and the location.

Mr. Vitek and several other association members review the application along with staff biologists. The process is supposed to take place within 60 days of the catch and could take a few weeks to verify.

If the fish is a record-breaker, the fisherman is sent a signed certificate. There’s no monetary reward, Mr. Vitek said, but certainly a lifetime of street cred.

“It’s not the prettiest fish, but it’s still a big catch,” Mr. Vitek said.

Just how the northern snakehead made its way into the Potomac River has yet to be confirmed. The species, which first appeared in the United States in a Crofton, Md., pond in 2002 is a native of Asia and recognized for the large scales on its head, long dorsal fins and large, protruding mouth chock full of sharp teeth.

“The fish topped out at about 12 or 13 pounds in 2006, and that was only about three years after we knew they were there,” said John Odenkirk, a researcher with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries who helped identify Mr. Newton’s catch. “We didn’t see a change for the last couple years, but they’ve been inching up just a little to about 17 or 18 pounds.”

After early attempts to stamp out the fish as soon as they were discovered, the snakehead established a habitat and lived up to its reputation as an adaptable, aggressive and all-consuming predator. While not generally considered a popular entree, chefs say the fish is surprisingly palatable and has been the subject of local catching and cooking events.

Virginia does not have a state record for snakeheads — though Mr. Odenkirk said the hope is to one day include the fish — so it’s now up to the International Game Fish Association.

Last year, an Annandale man caught what many said was a snakehead weighing more than 18 pounds. The problem was that it was cut up and eaten before record officials could bestow the honor.

Mr. Newton, a plumber, said that rather than eating the fish he plans on mounting it as a reminder of the day. His 8-year-old daughter has already shown her class the picture of her father in the local paper. Now Mr. Wilcox, 35, is being referred to as a celebrity at his auto body shop in Fredericksburg.

And while the fight was over quickly, the men said they’re looking forward to years of good memories.

“This is kind of history in the making,” Mr. Wilcox said. “A world record is something of a lifetime. Records are made to be broken, but Caleb will have this for the rest of his life.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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