Bluegill and bullheads got me started. But long before I became a semi-skilled bass angler, common carp educated me. They pulled drag. They broke line. They made my heart pound and my pulse race. And one of them stole my Johnson spincast outfit as it rested in a forked stick on a creek bank.
As I pursued them, I learned the benefits of subtlety and finesse and the importance of tying good knots. And I gained valuable experience combating double-digit carp hooked on Wheaties, dough balls, and worms long before I encountered my first five-pound bass on an artificial.
Many anglers who grew up in the Midwest and Mid-South, where common carp are especially common, shared similar experiences, I suspect.
What I didn't know then and what thousands and thousands of still don't know today is that the common carp also has altered, degraded, and even destroyed sport fisheries in every state except Alaska. They've been in our waters so long that most just think of them as natives, which they are not.
Rather, they are arguably the most destructive aquatic species every introduced into the United States. But, as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) points out, because they have been present in some areas since the first surveys were taken, their impact can't be definitively determined.
Long before political favoritism, poor judgment, illegal acts, and under-regulated pet and shipping industries led to the introduction and spread of other exotic fish, including bighead and silver carp, the federal government championed import of the common carp. A fish native to Asia and Eastern Europe, it had been cultivated as a food fish and water-garden inhabitant for thousands of years.
Pressure on the feds came from immigrants, who could not believe that the waters of their new homeland did not contain carp. Out in California, Julius A. Poppe imported five carp from Germany in 1872, and, four years later, was shipping them by train throughout the country.
"There ought to be one person in every county who would raise choice carp as stock fish to sell to others to fatten for their own tables," he said.
Listening to Poppe and others, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries began to intensively cultivate and distribute carp in 1877, with state fish commissions soon following suit. Additionally, the carp's ability to live and reproduce in most every water condition allowed it to spread on its own as well.
So, what happened? First, the common carp did not prove to be the popular food and sport fish that it was in Europe and Asia. By the turn of the century, in fact, fishermen saw it supplanting the fish that they preferred to catch and eat. Additionally, both anglers and fisheries managers noted that formerly clear lakes and ponds where carp had been introduced were turning muddy.
That's because the common carp is a bottom feeder, not a filter-feeder like silver and bighead carp. It uproots vegetation, as it sucks in mud and other matter, retaining the nutrients it finds, while spitting out the rest. This increases turbidity, which, in turn, reduces the ability of predator fish to see their prey. It also hinders light penetration, which aquatic vegetation requires for growth. Plus, the USGS said, "There is also evidence that common carp prey on the eggs of other fish species."
Now factor in the carp's productivity. A female can lay up to two million eggs during one spawn, and the young can grow as large as eight inches in the first year.
Of course, bottom-feeding carp were not solely to blame for murky water and declining populations of native fish. Their introduction came at a time when we also were oblivious to the impacts that pollution and land-use practices had on our lakes and rivers. As much as anything, carp simply took advantage of conditions that harmed native species while allowing them to thrive.
Today, state agencies spend millions of dollars annually rehabilitating fisheries that have been overrun with carp. For example, Kansas recently contracted with commercial fishermen to catch and remove them from Milford Reservoir, the largest impoundment in the state.
"Agency officials hope that removing carp from Milford will improve water quality and reduce the potential for blue-green algae blooms, while also providing benefits to sport fish," said Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism."
Yeah, the common carp is a great "starter" fish. But who knows what bounty that I and many others might have enjoyed as kids if our waters had not been invaded and degraded by them.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)