Biography of the Carp
They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!
May 27, 1977
The school kids of Illinois chose the bluegill as the state’s official fish. Anyone who had more than nine or ten years’ experience of the place would have opted for an altogether more representative piscine—Cyprinus carpio, the common carp.
For all the complaints made about the common carp by sport fishermen, the bighead or silver carp, which have infested certain Downstate waterways since this piece was written, make the common carp look positively cuddly.
The carp [Cyprinus carpio] is the quintessential American fish. Like the American, the carp is an immigrant. (The name "carp" is found in Romantic, Slavonic, Celtic, and Teutonic texts. It is occasionally spelled "karp," which hints at a German origin, but the actual origin of the word is unknown.) It comes in many colors. It first landed on this country's East Coast, then spread westward until it occupied every corner of the continent, displacing native species as it went. It is adaptable, hardy, more strong than subtle, and often guilty of spoiling its environment to the detriment of other creatures whose misfortune it is to share space with it.
Along with politicians, the carp is one of central Illinois' most common—and least appreciated—creatures. Even to its fans, the carp is not one of nature's noblest creations. The average carp—and there's nothing quite so average as an average carp—measures some fourteen inches from snout to tail, and is covered with large, rough scales. Most carp weigh from two to five pounds, though some have been known to get as large as fifty, sixty, even seventy pounds (that was the biggest one ever caught on a hook and line in Illinois, hauled out of the Kankakee River in 1928 by Clarence "Dick" Heinze). Its back is usually the color of bronze, lighter underneath, but the color can range from a pale yellow to almost black. It has a small, poutish, downward-turning mouth that has earned it the nickname "bugle mouth." That mouth, together with the barbels (actually fleshy sensory organs) that protrude moustache-like from its upper jaws, give the carp a nervous, furtive look, like a small-time gambler who just made a bad bet he knows he can't cover.
But species don't survive on look alone. The carp is a hardy animal, admirably equipped for the business of survival. It is able to live, indeed to thrive, in waters that would gag more delicate piscines. It is omnivorous, able to live on diets of algae, insects, worms, minute crustaceans and plants. It can tolerate high concentrations of silt in the water, and It can survive in oxygen-poor, stagnated summer waters because its blood hemoglobin is nearly three times as efficient at absorbing oxygen from the water than that of more fastidious cousins like trout. Carp can survive—barely—in water in which oxygen is scarcer than 4 parts per million; the brook trout suffers when levels fall below 7 ppm.
The Chinese are known to have raised carp in ponds for food as long as 2,500 years ago. Traders introduced him to Europe sometime in the thirteenth century. If the carp has traveled farther than most fish, it is because it is so much better equipped to stand the journey. As Englishman Izaak Walton observed in his classic, The Compleat Angler, "the carp endures most hardness, and lives longest out of his own natural element. And, therefore, the report of the carp's being brought out of a foreign country into this nation is the more probable."
In Europe the carp found a new home. The fish was considered a delicacy, and the Europeans, like the Chinese, began raising them in ponds for food. European anglers took to the carp too, finding it a worthy adversary, especially on light tackle. The carp is a bullish fighter, making up in brute strength what it lacks in acrobatic skills. My fishing partner once tied into a carp when we were in an unanchored boat—a 14-foot kayak—and that carp pulled us all over the water on a sort of a Sangamon sleigh ride. We thought we had a lunker, until we wore it out and brought him in; it was ten inches long.
Walton might have added that the carpe is a useful fish to boot. The galls and stones taken from carps' heads were held to be "very medicinable" by physicians of Walton's day, and in Italy merchants did a brisk trade in carp spawn which was sold as red caviar. "The Carp is the queen of rivers," Walton enthused, "a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish."
But it was as meat that the carp made its name in Europe. It was not so much for taste that it became so popular; American fishing writer Arthur Cone once said, "Dry and bony, they taste like sawdust unless you know some culinary trade secrets." (Cone recommended a good European cookbook.) No, the carp was raised because of the efficiency with which it converted meal and worms into carp meat. Biologist Robert Coker explains that, "If one were interested only in pounds of fish meat, the carp has, long since, been found to be an ideal fish farm animal."
It has been claimed that more animal protein can be produced per unit of land as carp flesh than in any other form. In 1941, for example, Polish fish farms were reporting yields of 200 pounds of carp per acre of pond per year, and one expert claimed that the yields could be boosted to twice that if the fish were fed with artificial foods like waste cotton seed or "Arab beans."
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European fish farmers aimed to get a pound of weight gained per fish per year in their ponds, but in the warmer weather of India a weight gain of a pound per fish per month was common. (By the way, carp are harvested and sold when they weigh a little more than a pound, since the fish put on weight less efficiently as they get older.) To rid carp of the muddy taste that sometimes characterizes pond-raised fish, Hungarian fish farmers got into the habit of starving their carp for a couple of weeks before harvesting.
Americans, too, took kindly to the carp when it was introduced here. At first, that is. Carp were brought from Holland to Newburgh, New York, as early as 1832, and to Baltimore's Druid Hill Park in 1877. The Baltimore bunch consisted of 345 fish which, showing the fecundity for which it is both praised and damned, combined to produce no fewer than 12,265 new carp in only two years. From there carp were sent out by the U.S. Fish Commission, somewhat in the manner of the Forestry Service handing out seedlings (or, depending on your view, the Army giving smallpox-infected blankets to the Sioux) to anyone who requested them. The carp took to American lakes and rivers like, well, a carp to water, and by the turn of the century the fish was as common in the West as mosquitoes in the summertime.
The carp's easy conquest of American waters dismayed many fishermen. The fish has some bad habits. Arthur Cone states the case against the carp with laudable succintness: "Carp tend to root at the bottom of a lake like pigs, muddying the waters and causing silt to settle on and kill the eggs of other fish." Those "other fish," it should be pointed out, are often the species most prized by sports fishermen—the largemouth bass, the bluegill, the crappie. It is not true, as many of these fishermen believe, that the carp eats the spawn of other fish, but then he doesn't have to do so in order to kill them. His poor table manners have earned him a few more nicknames to add to bugle mouth: mudhog, waterhog, river hog. It's so unpopular in some places that it is poisoned or netted by the thousands.
It should be noted, however, that the carp is often unfairly blamed for water conditions caused by siltation or other types of pollution. Because carp can live in bad water where other fish can't, it is easy to assume that the carp was the cause of their decline rather than the happy beneficiary of an empty, muddy ecological niche.
In foul waters, like the lower reaches of the Sangamon River, the carp is right at home and frequently multiplies until it becomes one of the dominant species. It's not that it prefers dirty water, exactly. It's just that it doesn't mind it. Carp, when they are found in rivers, are found in slow-moving, muddy streams.
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In cleaner water, like that of Lake Springfield, the carp is still just one fish among many. In October of 1972, the Division of Fisheries of the state's Department of Conservation took a census of the fish living in the lake. The fish were zapped with a strong electric current; the stunned fish floated to the surface, where they were netted and counted. The results show (and subsequent recounts confirm) that only nine percent of the lake's fish population of six million are carp. The carp, in fact, is only the fourth most numerous species of fish living in Lake Springfield (after the bluegill (24 percent), the largemouth bass (22 percent), and the crappie (12 percent). The largest carp to surface during the census measured 29 inches from his nose to the tip of his broad, forked tail (Walton saw one 23 inches long and called it a "great and goodly fish") and 47 percent of the 316 sampled were more than 15 inches long. (This last figure revealed that the average carp, true to its history of making the best of things, had grown; in a similar survey taken in 1963, only ten percent of the Lake Springfield carp measured were bigger than 15 inches.)
There are plenty of fishermen in these parts dedicated to relieving the lake of some of its half million carp. In many parts of the country, especially where pollution has ruined natural gamefish habitats, the carp is fished only because it is the only fish available. A few individualists, however, turn stony faces to the scorn of their fellow anglers and fish the carp for its own sake. In any of the commercial fishing lakes in Illinois, in fact, people pay money for a chance to catch a carp.
The carp is wary—"like an old maid, he suspects everything and everybody," says one expert—and very strong. Western anglers have been wetting their lines for carp for three centuries, and in that time the technique has changed hardly at all. Though carp will, on occasion, take June bugs and other insects off the surface (they can even be fooled by a fly), it is natural baits, sent to the bottom, that make the surest way of hooking him. Canned whole-kernel corn, threaded on a hook so it covers it from eye to tip, is one common bait; sometimes peas, lima beans, parboiled potatoes, parsnips, mulberries, marshmallows, hominy, minnows, mussels, or crawdads will do. It doesn't take much, gastronomically speaking, to make a carp happy. A fussy eater, after all, is not likely to have survived as widely or as long as has the carp.
Doughballs, however, are the chief weapon in the carp fisher's arsenal. There is no commonly accepted recipe for doughballs. Anglers were arguing about it 300 years ago, when Walton observed that "there are almost as many sorts as there are medicines for the toothache." It is agreed, though, that a good dough bait has to do two things; it must be gooey enough to hold together under water and it must smell.
Walton himself had a favorite. He took "the flesh of a rabbit or a cat cut small" and mixed it with bean flour and honey, working them together by hand or with a mortar; to give it body he threw in a little wool. That brew strikes most modern anglers as more trouble than a carp is worth. And even Walton realized that. "I shall tell you that the crumb of white bread and honey, made into a paste, is a good bait for carp," he admitted, "and you know it is more easily made."
The trouble and mess of cooking up one's own carp bait has led, inevitably, to the development of mass-produced commercial baits. The Uncle Josh Bait Company of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, for instance, markets a blue paste (carp are attracted to color when they're in water clear enough to allow its detection) flavored with caramel.
No matter what bait is used, getting a carp to bite at even the most delectable bait is tricky. He tends to mouth a bait, tasting it, checking it out. As Cone puts it, "While a catfish will eagerly bite on a hook tied to a tarred rope, carp are really finicky." He'll nibble once or twice, leave, come back, nibble some more. If he feels any unnatural weight on the line or the steel of a hook, he'll leave for good. Carp fishermen can go cross-eyed staring at the nervous jumping of the pole tip that signals a carp at the other end. Sometimes a carp can work a bait clean off the hook by pecking at it; there's many a carp in Lake Springfield grown fat dining on doughballs. For the carp, meals are often catered affairs.
Walton, whose fund of advice to the novice carp fisher is as ample as some of it is fanciful, offers other tips. "My first direction is, that if you will fish for a carp, you must put on a very large measure of patience," he writes. Carp fishing is not for the nervous. And, besides being a picky eater and naturally suspicious, the carp, like many fishes, has a keen sense of hearing. (It is said that a carp can be called to a certain spot to be fed by ringing a bell or beating a drum, like a dog answering his owner's whistle.) The "compleat angler," as defined by Walton at any rate, will "forbear swearing, lest [he] be heard, and catch no fish." It's good advice that carp fishermen should follow but rarely do.
Carp eat most heartily in the spring, when they come off their long winter fast, and it is in that season that one is most easily caught. When the weather turns cold the carp stops feeding; its metabolism slows, it grows sluggish, it sinks to the mud bottom to sit out winter.
In the spring, if it survived, the carp spawns. Says the alert Walton: "When the sun hath warmed both the earth and water"—something that happens in central Illinois in April or May—"three or four male carps will follow a female and . . . she putting on a seeming coyness, they force her through weeds and flags"—cattails—"where she lets fall her eggs or spawn, which sticks fast to the weeds; and then they let fall their melt upon it, and so it becomes in a short time"—four to eight days—"to be a living fish." If the carp fry survive the predations of dragonfly nymphs, bluegills, and bass, he will repeat the cycle three years later when he reaches sexual maturity.
A teacher friend of mine who is no fan of the carp offers a far less complex explanation for why there are so many carp. He says they are the products of spontaneous generation, arising miraculously from old tires and beer cans the way maggots were once thought to be borne of rotten meat. Carp, of course, have to listen to this sort of thing all the time.
The carp discharges his annual duty to survival of the species with more energy than grace. Spawning groups of as many as half a dozen thrash and splash about in the shallows, stirring up mud until the water is the color of hot chocolate. The clumps of grass through which the carp pass come alive as the fish bump against their stalks. Carp often spawn in water so shallow it doesn't even cover their bronze-green backs. The flats come alive with carp, their long dorsal fins waving slowly back and forth like bedsheets on a clothesline as the amorous beasts slither over the mud.
Not surprisingly, spring is the time when the carp is most vulnerable to fishermen, or, more precisely, hunters of fish. The carp, like its cousin the buffalo and others, is officially classified as a "rough fish" by the state conservation department. Because of this there are no limits to how many carp a fisherman can take, and very few limits on how he can take them. The carp may be taken legally on a hook and line, netted, snagged, speared (with a gig, pitchfork or spear gun), or shot with a bow and arrow—just about anything, in short, this side of thermonuclear weapons.
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Carp may be taken by hand, too—a means of catching fish that has an elegant simplicity other methods lack. Example: In mid-April, the Lake Springfield carp were spawning, and every brush pile, every half-submerged log, every bunch of reed grass in the Lick Creek shallows was jumping with fish. Near the Illinois Central Gulf railroad bridge, three men slogged around in water up to their knees, grabbing carp and shoving them into big gunny sacks. The men shouted when they spotted an especially fat catch, and the three of them darted back and forth across the flats like pond skaters cruising for a meal. It may not have been fishing, it may not even have been sport, but it sure looked like fun.
Once a carp is caught, of course, a brighter sort of fisherman asks, "What do I do with it?" To some, that's like asking what to do when you've caught a bad cold: You get rid of it, as soon as possible. But to others the answer is, "Eat it." There are as many recipes for cooking carp as there are for cooking carp baits. They are more properly the subject of another essay, so it is on the table that the story of the carp, like its unfortunate subject, comes to an end. ●