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The World According to Carp

The state's love/hate relationship with this not-so-gentle giant stretches back to 1881 when the first hatchery was created in Austin.

By Mukhtar Farooqi

Someone once told me that the best way to cook common carp (Cyprinus carpio L.) is by a technique known as planking. This works best with carp in the 2- to 10-pound range. The carp is attached to a plank, basted with olive oil and cooked over a slow-burning fire for about 50 minutes. After applying the seasoning of your choice, throw away the carp and eat the plank. Carp cuisine may have a long way to go, but there are a growing number of people who believe carp fishing is poised to hit the big time. All it needs is a good public relations manager to revamp its image.

The carp belongs to the minnow family, a name that tends to conjure up an image of baitfish, but that’s better than some of the other choice terms that are often used to describe it. Don’t be fooled by such talk, because there’s more to this fish than meets the eye. In terms of the size to which it can grow (world record is 82.3 pounds), its general level of awareness and its fighting ability, it would perhaps be more fitting to recognize this much-maligned fish for what it really is — an intelligent and powerful game fish. Would you believe that European anglers are traveling to the United States in the quest of our largely untapped carp resource and that guide services are springing up to cater to them? What do they know that we don’t? If you need an endorsement, here’s one from Izaak Walton, a guy who’s in a league of his own: “The carp is a queen of rivers; a stately, a good and a very subtle fish; that was not at first bred, nor hath been long in England, but is now naturalized.” OK, so the man considered the father of angling (author of The Compleat Angler), who is the inspiration for the conservation group known as the Izaak Walton League, was British, and they like carp anyway. Well, how about this quote from In-Fisherman magazine: “Carp — one of the toughest, most intelligent, and most powerful pure pullers in fresh water”?

Would you believe that European anglers are traveling to the United States in the quest of our largely untapped carp resource and that guide services are springing up to cater to them? What do they know that we don’t?

Right, but what has all this talk about carp got to do with Texas? Well, for one thing we have been “blessed” with what is considered to be a world-class carp fishery right in the middle of our capital city. It would be churlish not to recognize it. Austin’s Town Lake is a standard bearer for carp fishing in the U.S.

The carp is indigenous to Asia, being introduced to Europe by the 13th century, the east coast of the United States by 1877 and to Texas by 1881. Surprisingly, the introduction of carp to the United States was not illegal or unintentional, but was federal government policy at the time.

Under the auspices of the Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant, the idea of distributing carp throughout the United States was envisioned and subsequently carried out under successive Republican administrations (Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur). It was reasoned that the introduction of carp would provide a cheap and readily available food source for the country’s growing population. In carrying out this plan, Republican leaders inadvertently laid the foundations for an exciting new fishery. Future generations of carp anglers will remain forever indebted to these founding fathers of America’s carp fishery. As for the carp, it had no say in the matter and probably deserves a presidential pardon for any impact it may have on our ecosystem as a result of its introduction. On the plus side, it could be argued that the common carp spawned Texas’ freshwater fish hatchery program, because the first hatchery in Texas was the carp hatchery established at Barton Springs in Austin in 1881. Also, it should be remembered that it’s in times of adversity that you really find out who and what you can depend on. During World War II, the smoked carp stepped up to the (dinner) plate and served our nation well — helping to lower the country’s wartime food bill.

Jerome Moisand of the Carp Anglers Group points out that “many of our grandfathers have a lot to owe to this introduction of carp as a food source — 36 million pounds of fish every year at peak time. That’s a lot of meals.” Even so, the popularity of carp as a food fish began to wane, and it started to acquire a reputation as an undesirable species. Two main reasons have been cited for this. The first was the negative effect that large numbers of carp can have on a fishery by churning up the bottom in search of food. The result can be reduced water clarity and a reduction in light penetration, which restricts plant growth and generally makes conditions less favorable for bass and sunfish. As a consequence, biologists do not recommend stocking common carp if a quality bass and sunfish fishery is desired. Having said that, problems can occur when any species overpopulates a fishery. The second reason was more circumstantial. As America became more industrialized and pollution of the waterways increased, the carp was able to tolerate these conditions better than most other fish and hence was able to do reasonably well. Unfortunately, carp soon became synonymous with pollution in the minds of many people.

In contrast to some of their cousins across the Atlantic, the angling communities in the United Kingdom and other European countries have a tremendous respect for carp. Carp anglers always bring in a fish using a knotless landing net and invariably place it on a moist mat while removing the hook. Etiquette dictates that if an angler wants to have his photograph taken with the fish, the angler should kneel or crouch to lessen the fall, in case the fish is dropped. Carp aficionados might consider kneeling to be an appropriate gesture of respect for the “queen of rivers.” American carp anglers use similar carp care practices, and some even apply a dab of antiseptic to the hook wound.

Carp fishing in the United Kingdom is traditionally catch-and-release. Any attempt to market carp as food is looked upon with disdain. By contrast, in other parts of Europe anglers routinely harvest the fish; e.g., in the Czech Republic people enjoy eating carp and some even believe that it helps them live longer. In fact, in some Czech homes you may be surprised to find that carp is part of the Christmas dinner. Similarly, Germans are known to serve up carp as a traditional holiday food. In South Africa they prefer to bake or barbecue their carp. In many Asian countries, carp is revered as a food fish and is considered a symbol of strength. Carp are still commercially exploited in the United States, but on a limited scale, primarily for restaurants of the central and midwestern states, where a cold beer and a carp sandwich are local delicacies.

In the United States, there is a growing interest in carp fishing. Two of the early key players promoting carp fishing were Bud Yancey of the Carp Angler’s Group (CAG) and Bob Williamson of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. According to Williamson, “The common carp is the most popular freshwater sport fish in the world. It is also cultured and eaten in more areas of the world than any other freshwater fish.” CAG holds carp fishing tournaments (in the Chicago River and the tidal basin of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.), organizes special events (the First Fishing Folly and CAG Invitational) and disseminates a wealth of information about carp fishing. Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, supports these efforts and believes that carp fishing is a thrilling way of introducing youngsters to the sport of fishing. Just ask any kid who’s participated in the carp fishing event at Joe Pool Reservoir in Cedar Hill State Park near Dallas.

According to Bud Yancey, traditional American tackle and fishing techniques are adequate for catching carp of 8 to 12 pounds, but to consistently catch big carp (20 to 40 pounds), specialized “English style” tackle is required. David Moore of the American Carp Society indicated that if you were to buy new tackle specifically for carp fishing, you could get all the equipment you need for about $400. For the best gear, you could spend $500 for a rod, $400 for a reel, $450 for a rod holder, and more than $1,000 for the state-of-the-art bite alarm/pager/flashlight system.

Last year was an eventful one for carp fishing in the United States and is indicative of the growing interest in carp. In Texas, we had the Austin Team Championship, and, for the first time in this country, we had the World Carp Championship (St. Lawrence River, New York) with a $100,000 top prize package (two Chevy Colorado pickup trucks and the remainder in cash). In addition, $1,000,000 was available to anyone who broke the New York state record for carp (50 pounds, 4 ounces). Even The Wall Street Journal took notice and published a front-page story about carp fishing and the World Championship. Finally, there was the St. Lawrence International Junior Carp Tournament ($20,000 minimum in cash and merchandise).

The 4th Annual Austin Team Championship at Town Lake was coordinated by Brian Nordberg and Neil Stern of the Carp Anglers Group. Twenty-nine two-person teams competed at this event. The average cost to participate in the tournament was about $700 for each competitor (including travel, lodging, food and equipment). In addition to the representatives from Texas, there were anglers from 12 other states taking part in the tournament: California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. On this occasion, carp anglers from overseas did not attend, probably because they were busy preparing for the World Carp Championship. However, it is not uncommon for British carp anglers to come to Austin specifically for this tournament.

Many of the anglers at the tournament had been carp fishing since they were children, being introduced to carp by relatives or friends, while others saw people carp fishing and became interested that way. Among this group were Frank and Narda Walters, who have accomplished the feat of fishing for and catching a carp in each of the 50 states. It took them 12 years to do it. Another competitor honed his carp-0fishing techniques in the pay lakes of the southeast. At these privately operated facilities, anglers are charged a fee to fish for carp and enter money jackpots that are paid on an hourly or half-hourly basis.

All these anglers rated Town Lake and the St. Lawrence River as the two best trophy carp fisheries in the country, and both are considered world-class waters. Town Lake has been mentioned in dispatches to the world’s carp fishing community on a number of occasions. The chance of catching a carp that weighs more than 40 pounds is the main reason for drawing anglers from such great distances.

By the end of the two-day tournament, the top three teams had netted 890 pounds of carp. Jim Kirkman and Moses Lopez from Dallas took the top honors with 18 fish and a total weight of 350 pounds. Vaughan Osmond broke the Texas state record with a 41.5-pound carp. The spectacle of such large fish being caught was enough to stop cyclists, joggers and passers-by in their tracks.

As you can see, carp fishing has the potential to add a new dimension to the sport of angling in the United States. The carp is worthy enough to be included in the repertoire of The Compleat Angler. Why not give it a chance? You may be surprised to learn how rewarding it can be. Does anyone know of a good public relations manager?

The 5th Annual Austin Team Championship (March 24-25) will be followed by the Texas Carp Challenge (March 26-31). Anyone lucky enough to break the state record for carp at the Texas Carp Challenge will pocket $250,000. For additional information about carp fishing, check out the following Web sites: Carp Anglers Group <www.carpanglers group.com>, Texas Carp Anglers Group <www.texascag.com>, the American Carp Society <www.americancarpsociety.com>, Carp Fishing Network <www.carp.net>.

Fishing Euro-Style Many anglers at carp tournaments use European-style tackle. The typical setup consists of a rod holder (rodpod) that allows for three rods with a “swinger” and a bite alarm on each rod. The swinger and the alarm are located between the reel and the rod tip. David Moore of the American Carp Society explains that the swinger “keeps the line on the roller part of the alarm, and if a fish picks the bait up and swims back towards you (sometimes referred to as a drop-back bite) it will take the slack out of the line and set off the alarm.”

Carp Facts The carp is an omnivore that can feed at any depth, but prefers the bottom. It can be found in most major ponds, lakes and rivers throughout the contiguous United States. There are a number of varieties of common carp, i.e. mirror carp, linear carp, leather carp, Israeli carp and koi carp, but they are all the same species. Spawning occurs in shallow water from late March to September. The eggs hatch in a week or so, and the fry are planktivorous. The life expectancy of carp can be in excess of 40 years.

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