Fly fishing is fundamentally a very traditional sport and often a very nostalgic pastime, even when it comes to its fish. It’s hard to imagine trout and charr and salmon ever losing their association with flies and fly rods. But alongside these old standards fly fishing has gradually enveloped all sorts of other freshwater species, as well as venturing into brackish estuaries, coastal waters and the deep blue sea with an enthusiasm that makes conventional gear fishing seem almost staid by comparison.
Sitting in a position somewhat outside the normal “game fish club” is a species that has had topsy-turvy relations with anglers in the United States. It’s now regarded as a fly target requiring stealth, skillful presentation, lots of backing, and in some places a certain disregard for one’s surroundings. That fish is, of course, the carp, a fish revered in Europe but treated, at least by the majority of fishermen, with some indifference in North America.
The carp’s rise to a central role in human affairs has ancient origins. The wild ancestors spread east and west from their post-Pleistocene refugia in the drainages of the Black, Caspian and Aral seas. Those that travelled east evolved into the subspecies, Cyprinus carpio haematopterus, and became part of the two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old carp cultivation history of China. Our carp in the west (Cyprinus carpio carpio) pushed up into the Danube River with the retreat of the ice cap where, much later, the Romans bumped into them. Forts built between modern Budapest and Vienna in the second century A.D. brought the legionnaires and their camp followers into direct contact with the large populations of wild carp swimming in the river. The Romans promptly ate them and, as the numerous bones unearthed in archaeological digs attest, ate them in large quantities.
It has been suggested that the Romans not only ate carp while keeping an eye on those naughty German and Celtic tribes across the Danube, but were also the first to deliberately bring them into man-made ponds, their ‘piscinae.’ Consuls like Lucullus (a famous gourmand), Marcus Crassus (who apparently kept a bejeweled eel which came to his call), and Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (whom Cicero chided for neglecting politics in favor of his fish) all had elaborate fishponds. But sadly, though the thought that the Romans kept pet carp is one to savor, it is almost certainly not true.
Carp don’t authentically appear outside the Danube basin until about the 11th century. Increasing population and intensifying agriculture began to cause an all too familiar decline in both water quality and populations of migratory fish. Needing to husband aquatic resources, people turned to fish farms as a way of providing for the table. Carp, ideally suited to these silty, shallow waters, begin to show up in mid-12th century France. They spread from there to east central Europe and then to England where they arrived in the 1460s. In England, unlike continental Europe where carp became staple fare (a Christmas dish and the subject of numerous recipes), access to the sea and the development of a marine fishery effectively limited their wider adoption as a food fish. As one historian noted: “..carp […] never achieved a major economic role there. Nor did fish culture, which in England always kept a strong tinge of aristocratic ostentation or dilettantism.”
If the English didn’t take to the carp as a source of food, they did appreciate their sporting potential. Izaak Walton included a long section on the fish in his famous book. Amongst some interesting anecdotes is the first description of a bait recipe that presages the modern carp angler’s “boiled bait” by some 330 years. Walton also pointed out that he had known “…a good fisher angle diligently four or six hours in a day, for three or four days together, for a river carp and not have a bite.”
This sense—that carp were tricky, cautious, wise even—persisted right through to the 1950s,when ‘B.B.’ (the pseudonym of the country sports writer Denys Watkins-Pitchford) produced the marvelous volume, “Confessions of a Carp Fisher”—the allusion to de Quincy’s illicit substance eater likely no coincidence. B.B. invoked a fishing idyll in which carp moved sedately through old, lily-strewn estate lakes all the while presenting a taxing, yet wholly edifying, challenge. To fish for them one need great patience and considerable application. One also needed a great deal of luck, because the tackle of the time was usually inadequate for holding such large, strong fish. Arthur Ransome, a very popular children’s author, writing twenty years before B.B., describes the problem well. “To hold them safely,” he wrote, “you need a stout gut, but to use a stout gut is to throw away most chance of having a carp to hold.”
All this changed in 1952 when Richard Walker caught a huge, forty-four pound carp from a small three-acre pool called Redmire. He and like-minded anglers through the 1950s and 60s showed that big carp could not only be caught, but also caught deliberately and with some regularity given the right tackle and a certain amount of effort. Newer, stronger rods, larger capacity reels, electronic bite alarms, and eventually a whole catastrophe of peripheral gear were developed. And if this new tackle contained neat innovations, they were nothing compared to the effort put into the novel baits and mental gymnastics applied to designing the rigs used to present them. And the carp these modern anglers are after are not small. Centuries of selective breeding have changed many of the original riverine fish’s wild characteristics. The modern carp is deeper in body and faster growing, achieving higher weights for its age as well as much higher absolute heft. Ancestral carp may have averaged a few pounds, and early records from England talk of big fish in the teens. Now the current English record stands at over sixty pounds, and the world record, a fish from Hungary, weighed in at a little over 101 lbs.
The carp ranks as a favored food fish and a lauded sport fish then. Yet the adoration of carp in Europe has not always translated well in other countries. Far from it. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has placed carp in the world’s top eight worst invasive species. The attributes causing the fish to be handed this dubious honor are not hard to find. Carp tolerate a very wide range of conditions, surviving in water temperatures as low as 35F (2oC) and as high as 97F (36oC). They can cope with low levels of dissolved oxygen as well as brackish water. Large females are particularly fecund, releasing up to two million eggs when they spawn, and they are “fractional spawners,” able to release portions of their eggs over time to circumvent temporarily unfavorable conditions. Eggs can hatch within a couple of days and the young fish grow fast. Their food preferences are eclectic too. They are as happy sucking on soft-bodied worms as they are crushing hard mollusk shells and crustaceans. They have been observed herding small fish for slaughter and eating fruit off the surface.
Although these features alone can make carp successful invaders, it is their role as “ecosystem engineers” that brings the most concern. Ecosystem engineers are animals that significantly modify habitats through their actions. Carp fit this description because one of their major feeding behaviors involves sucking up a load of bottom sediment, sifting it for food, and expelling the unwanted dross. Mudding carp sort what is good to eat by both filtering food particles between their gill arches and gill rakers, and by using a specialized tissue called the palatal organ, which can separate larger food particles from the gunk. It is a very neat system but also one that allows the carp to indiscriminately suck up and blow out large volumes of substrate, sometimes destabilizing aquatic plants and even uprooting them. The fine mud particles blown out hang around in the water column and can significantly increase turbidity, so reducing the water’s photosynthetic productivity and impacting other sight-feeding fish.
So carp can be a considerable problem. But while they are easily painted as villains, their villainous nature is not exhibited in all waters all of the time. Whether they are the scabrous creatures some claim them to be is largely determined by factors such as the nature of the substrate, the size of the water body, and the actual biomass of carp in the water.
Nowadays ‘ambivalent’ may be the best word to describe the reception of carp in America. But it was not always so. Carp arrived in America with European settlers around 1830, though culturing was confined to New York. Their spread across the country took an entrepreneur called Julius Poppe and the beneficence of the U.S. Fish Commission. In 1872 Poppe moved a handful of fingerlings to California and set about promoting and selling their offspring in the west.
About the same time, the Fish Commission, astonishingly enthusiastic about the fish’s potential to alleviate declining game populations, went about it on a much grander scale. Carp imported from Germany were cultured in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, and by 1879 congressmen were vying with each other to see who could send out the most carp to their constituents. Demand reached its zenith in 1883 when more than a quarter of a million fish were distributed to 298 of the 301 congressional districts. Throughout this period carp dominated the Fish Commission’s activity, yet the project was ended only twenty years after it started—this partly was because the enterprise was a great success. In 1899 the Illinois River harvested more than eight million carp, and the fish had spread to all the contiguous states. But also part of the reason the program stopped was because the initial enthusiasm quickly eroded.
To many for whom carp were not part of their culinary tradition the fish was a bland and bony meal. More insidiously the increase in carp occurred when other sport fish were declining and their habitats becoming badly degraded. Carp were often the only fish left visible in the increasingly murky water. The association of the fish with the muddy water led to the belief, erroneous in many cases, that carp were causing the decline in water quality and so also responsible for the decline in game fish. As a consequence they became the archetypal trash fish. In their subsequent zeal to exert some control over them, a number of States passed laws prohibiting the return of caught carp to the water and organized carp hunts at known spawning grounds. The fish’s fall from the vaunted position to which Poppe and the U.S. Fish Commission had elevated them may also have caught up other “non-game” species, like suckers, chub, and pikeminnows, bracketing them too as undesirable. Some massive extermination campaigns were conducted, like the one in 1962 on a 450-mile section of the Colorado and Green rivers. A piscicide, rotenone, was used to empty the river in anticipation of restocking with more ‘acceptable’ fish. The operation only partially met its goals. The native fish populations did decline but it took the construction of the Flaming Gorge dam to put the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and humpback and bonytail chubs on the federal endangered species list. Carp on the other hand, still thrive in the Colorado River.
Despite these eye-catching attempts, organized campaigns against carp gradually declined. But in the face of this indifference they have continued to prosper to such an extent that they have been suggested to be the most abundant fish in the inland waters of North America. Still, the very obvious presence of carp doesn’t seem to excite the majority of fishermen. I spent last summer fishing almost exclusively for them and chatted with numerous fishermen in an attempt to glean some local knowledge of carp size and whereabouts. The most common response was a shrug. Yes, the anglers clearly knew that carp were in the water, and they might even admit to sticking a spare rod out armed with some corn. But when they stooped to such a confession they’d rapidly distance themselves from the fish: “We don’t really fish for them, ya know?”
This attitude no longer applies across all fishing disciplines. Fly fishers are finding that carp are rather cool in the America of the 2010s, as has been shown by the increasing number of commentaries about them in print and other media. And though carp are a novel fly target in U.S. it is not the first time they have been the attention of fly fishers. Comments on fly-caught carp pop up in the older literature, and one small fly fishing volume from the 1970s claimed: “[I]n fact.. [fly fishing for carp] …is a very old practice, and in sporting magazines dating from as far back as the early years of the 19th century are to be found remarkable engravings of artificial flies specifically designed for catching carp.”
Of course, pursuing carp won’t take you to many pristine alpine lakes or crystal clear cold-water streams. But importantly it will take many fishermen to waters just down the street from where they live. A carp’s ability to get by in pools often too uncouth for an adipose or even a bass provides the opportunity for some exhilarating fishing where none might otherwise be found. Carp are, as the inimitable Keith Barton, author of the blog Singlebarbed, recently described, “a brawling cockroach of a fish,” little thought of for their beauty but admired (albeit grudgingly) for their tenacity, strength and most of all their size. Carp are also known for being quick studies and having strong memories,facts that have long inspired the arcane bait and rig development of European anglers. It will be interesting to see how carp and angler deal with their increasing familiarity on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps fly fishers will begin to talk about the “educated carp” in future years, and study its food and eating habits with the same frenzied determination that hit US trout fishing in the last fifty years.