LAKE WYLIE -- Gary Upton did exactly what he should have done after catching an illegal fish in Paw Creek, off the Catawba River in North Carolina, just north of Lake Wylie. He kept it, froze it and reported it.
"The main thing is don't release them," said Faye Andrews with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "What the man did was absolutely the right thing."
The McAdenville resident caught the fourth reported northern snakehead in Lake Wylie April 19, the first reported since a 13-pound snakehead was pulled in May 2007 near Belmont. Two more snakeheads were reported in 2002 from Lake Wylie.
Snakehead feature sharp teeth, prey on game fish and even can move for short periods of time on land. Like any non-native fish, said N.C. Wildlife fisheries biologist Jake Rash, snakehead have the "potential to disrupt resident fisheries."
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Andrews said Wednesday Upton's fish weighed 12.7 pounds and stretched 31 inches.
Rash said snakehead are historically popular in aquariums and cuisine, but are illegal to have or transport in North Carolina. Therefore, he said, the fish was "most likely illegally introduced into the system." Rash could not say whether there are more snakehead in the lake.
"At this point it would probably be premature to speculate," he said.
The 2007 catch was identified by a picture after the fish already had been released back into the lake. Often anglers catching snakehead mistake them for the similar looking and native bowfin. Snakehead are differentiated from the native bowfin by their long and continuous anal fin, wildlife experts says.
"It's real easy to confuse the two if you're not familiar," Rash said.
Ross Self, chief of freshwater fisheries for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said that so far snakehead sightings have been limited to the North Carolina waters of Wylie.
"We have not had any reports of fish being caught on the South Carolina end of the lake," he said.
According to S.C. DNR Web site, dnr.sc.gov," staff from the DNR, Duke Energy and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will continue to sample the 13,400-acre lake over the next few weeks to identify the extent of the snakehead infestation, as well as develop an appropriate future northern snakehead management strategy.
Fortunately, Self said, Upton's decision to keep the fish should help biologists since previous reported catches were released, leaving investigators only pictures.
"This is the first time we've had a specimen to look at," Self said.
Anyone who catches a snakehead in North Carolina should keep it, freeze it and call 919-707-0220. For more information, visit ncwildlife.org.