In the spring of 2007, I accidentally hooked a carp while bass fishing in a Nebraska farm pond. It fought hard, peeling line and bending my rod deeper than any bass I’d ever caught. When I drug it to the bank, I had no idea it would inspire a personal investigation that would lead me from the farm ponds of my youth to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes.
This is the first installment in a three-part series about all things carp. Part One covers the history of carp in North America. Part Two will explain how to find and catch carp using a variety of methods. Part Three will describe an assortment of ways to prepare them for the table. The series will help readers take a fresh look at carp despite their lowly reputation.
Maligned by anglers and non-anglers alike, common carp are generally seen as a “trash fish” in America. Nearly everywhere else in the world, however, carp are the premier sport fish.
In Europe and Asia, carp have been celebrated for over 4,000 years. Dignitaries presented them as gifts to kings, and carp were regarded as refined table fare by high ranking members of the Roman Empire. So, why are carp held in such low esteem on this side of the Atlantic?
Carp carry a number of negative connotations in the U.S.: they live in polluted waters, they are bottom feeders and prolific breeders, and they destroy habitat used by more sought-after gamefish. Finally, their capital offense—they are inedible, not even fit for a dog. Some of these beliefs are rooted in truth, while others are complete nonsense. Before we interrogate the validity of these grievances, however, it’s important to know the history of carp in North America.
Carp for the Masses
In the middle of the 18th century, immigrants flocked to the U.S., carrying their preferences in cuisine with them. Imagine their surprise upon realizing that their new homeland lacked their favorite fish. How could the land of milk and honey be devoid of the glorious carp?
Those with the means to do so imported them. Julius A. Poppe, a wealthy German immigrant, brought carp from home and raised them in ornamental ponds on his California estate. People like Poppe envisioned an America where every farm contained a well-kept carp pond, “whereby this sumptuous fish may be readily eaten at all times of the year.”
At the same time, burgeoning U.S. cities were consuming millions of pounds of native gamefish. Bass, sunfish, pike, walleye and trout were rapidly declining. In response, the federal government created the United States Fish Commission in 1871. The commission believed the easily farmed, high yielding carp could replace native gamefish in the American diet, and they promptly imported 345 different carp varieties. Once on American shores, carp were cultivated in guarded holding ponds along the East Coast and distributed throughout North America.
Carp caught on quickly. High-end hotels, like the Waldorf and Astoria in New York, featured them on their menus where they fetched the same price as halibut.
The Home Cook, a popular cookbook printed in 1880, contained an entire section of carp recipes and advice for selecting the best carp: “If the gills are red and full, and the whole fish firm and stiff, it is good.”
With the demand for carp on the rise, the U.S. Fish Commission distributed 2.5 million pounds of carp from 1879 to 1896.
Once Prized, Now Despised
The fish commission was so successful that carp soon reached all of the Lower 48 states. Carp’s ability to reproduce and live in almost any body of water allowed them to infiltrate lakes, rivers and estuaries across the country and proliferate. In 1893, an Illinois fisherman caught 27,000 pounds of carp from the Illinois River in just two seine hauls. Stocking had only occurred eight years prior.
The demand for carp peaked in 1908 when commercial fishermen caught over 40 million pounds. High availability made carp inexpensive and affordable for the lower classes—becoming “poor man’s food.” This, along with their growing association with polluted water, quickly ushered them out of high society. Thirty years later, the commercial catch had decreased by more than 97%, but carp populations continued to grow.
The blame leveled against carp—that they were responsible for unclean water and fish die-offs—was largely misplaced. In their book, Fishing for Buffalo, authors Rob Buffler and Tom Dickson give an eloquent description of this misdirected condemnation:
“Standing on clear-cut hillsides with a bucket of garbage in each hand, they looked down on the rivers, saw carp swirling happily in the mess humans had created, and made a correlation—albeit the wrong one—between the rise of carp and the fall of game fish. Either ignorant of or blind to the damages they themselves had wrought on the landscape, people looked past the dredged and straightened channels, drained wetlands, eroded riverbanks, and waters laden with human and industrial waste, saw carp roiling in the shallows, and accused them of wrecking the water.”
Carp weren’t destroying American fisheries—they were surviving where other fish couldn’t. For example, in an experiment where fisheries biologists exposed groups of carp to 1,600 chemicals commonly found in US waters, only 135 killed all the fish. Because of their resilence, carp became the scapegoat for a slew of human-created problems.
That’s not to suggest carp never harm sensitive ecosystems. Carp not only adapt to a body of water, they’re capable of transforming it in their favor. Carp root up mud and sand as they feed, clouding the water and making it difficult for predatory species to hunt. This murky water also blocks the sunlight required by aquatic vegetation. Moreover, the silt released from feeding often contains nutrients that cause algae blooms, dropping oxygen levels lethally low for species that feed on carp.
In most fisheries, however, carp reach a balance with other fish. Changes in land use have had a far greater impact on water quality than the introduction of carp.
With both anglers and the general public complaining about carp, the U.S. Fish Commission (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) completely reversed their policy and began targeting carp with poison, seining and trapping, sometimes completely draining lakes to rid them of carp. Carp proved to be a tough opponent, and despite millions of dollars and the best efforts of state and federal wildlife agencies, carp are here to stay. Yet generations of anglers were taught to hate carp and they have largely been ignored as a fish for both sport and food. That is, until recently.
I’m just going to say it—carp may well be the most underfished, overlooked resource in North America. That’s a big statement, but in the coming weeks I will show you what it’s really like to fish for and eat (that’s right, eat) carp. In the end, you can judge for yourself whether carp deserve more of your attention.
Keep an eye out for Part Two of The MeatEater Guide to Carp, everything you need to know about how and where to catch them.