HISTORY OF CARP
First published in NACA magazine in 2013
History of Carp in North America
Iain Sorrell / Pat Kerwin / Evan Cartabiano / Craig Parkes / Mario Kok
It is hard to say exactly when the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) first arrived in North America, but it was certainly sometime during the 1800’s if not earlier. Immigration was on the rise, and the newcomers brought many things with them, including a desire for the fish (including carp and the brown trout) that had long been prized as food items in both Europe and Asia.
It should be pointed out that while Cyprinus carpio originated in Asia and was spread throughout Europe as early as the 1200’s it is not the same fish as the headline grabbing ‘Asian’ carp that currently threaten the Great Lakes and often shown in the media jumping high out the water. These are in fact a different species (Hypophthalmichthys family) of plankton feeders that include Silver and Bighead carp. Other non-native species found in North American waters include Grass carp or Amur (Ctenopharyngodon idella) that have been introduced to control weed growth in some waters together with the common goldfish (Carassius auratus) and multi colored Koi carp (Cyprinus carpio haematopterus).
The records of breeding and distribution add up to some staggering numbers; In 1883 alone 260,000 carp were distributed in lots of twenty between 293 of the 301 congressional districts, representing 1,478 counties and 9,872 applicants. On average 150,000 fish were sent out each year between 1879 and 1896, amounting to a total of around 2.5 million carp over 17 years!
The spread of carp was simply phenomenal. Their omnivourous feeding behavior coupled with the carps natural fecundity (spawning up to three times a year) proved to be well suited to life in the New World. Unregulated redistribution of fish, floodwater movements and ability to navigate waterways in search of new areas meant that within a short period of the original stockings carp could be caught in many waters. In fact only two decades after these introductions some 3.6 million pounds of carp were harvested by commercial fishermen on Lake Eire and in 1896 the US total catch was reported at 22 million pounds.
However a perfect storm was brewing that would soon lead to this abundant food source being despised for generations to come. In baseball terms they struck out. Strike one: As is the case with many fish species, their taste tends to be related to the water quality in which they live. A poor understanding of aquaculture combined with more efficient farming practices and food distribution soon led to carp being favored less and less as a food source. Strike two: At the same time a reduction in water quality, primarily as a result of pollution from the rapid growth in industrialization and run-off from deforestation and mining, led to the loss of many native species and natural habitats. Strike three: The carps ability to tolerate poorer water quality allowed it to survive or flourish when native fish, waterfowl and aquatic plants were adversely affected.
This poor understanding of cause and effect soon led to carp being blamed for the widespread destruction of habitats and the loss of native species. Since then they have been routinely despised and persecuted even to the present day. While spawning and sometimes feeding carp do cause local disturbance and turbidity it is rare that this leads to an overall loss in water quality or loss of habitat. In most cases any issues when properly researched and analyzed have more often been shown to be man made. Obvious examples include the high levels of nitrates and phosphates from agricultural and lawn fertilizers that lead to algal blooms that color water and limit weed growth due to inhibition of light penetration. In other areas excessive boating traffic can lead to bank erosion and water turbidity while the over abstraction of water for drinking and irrigation needs leads to higher water temps, lower flows, increased silting and the draining of essential marsh land.
Where environmental standards have been properly enforced the water quality has often improved significantly. As a result then so has the recovery of many native species irrespective of the presence of carp. In fact, and as routinely found in Europe, some of the best waters in North America to catch larger native species such as bass, buffalo and pike etc are often shared with common carp.
There was also the 1877 attempt by Rudolph Hesse, a member of the US Fisheries Commission; during his first attempt to buy fish in Europe all fish were lost. Rudolph went back and bought another lot of fish from a town near Frankfurt, Germany. About 345 carp made it that trip to ponds at Druids Hill, Baltimore (now the sight of the zoo). Of those 345 carp, 277 were mirrors and leathers and 188 commons. However, the Druids Hill ponds were deemed insufficient for the proper care of the carp and with permission from Congress, funds of $5,000 were appropriated to transfer some of the fish to Babcock Lakes on the Monument Lot in Washington DC. At this time, carp were deemed so valuable that the then Governor of Washington even moved the sight of the annual fireworks display in case it disturbed the precious fish! However, these precious carp also became “contaminated” by goldfish and the whole lot were destroyed.
In 1879, a further 6,000 carp were bred at Druids Hill and some 2,750 were distributed to Maryland. Altogether that year 12,265 carp were distributed by Congress to over 300 persons in 25 states, mainly as “political favors”. Further introductions continued to newly constructed ponds at Druids Hill by a German Naturalist, Dr. Finsch. He obtained some 100 small mirrors, of six to eight inches, from a certain Mr. Echardt of Lubbinchen, Germany. Only 23 fish survived the journey.
In 1882 more carp were introduced to the US in return for favors extended to the “Deutsche Fischerei Verein”. A Herr von Behr provided the US Fisheries with 23 “blue carp” or otherwise known as “pure breds”. Four of these were destroyed as hybrids but the remaining 19 reached the ponds in Washington.
Early New England colonists described the Connecticut River thus: “In it swim salmon, sturgeon, carps and eels. Above fly cranes, geese, ducks and teals”, although these ‘carp’ were more likely native sucker species it does give thought to the claims for the presence of Cyprinus carpio even before the 1800’s. However the first documented introductions to the USA began around 1831 when carp were imported by two private citizens: Captain Henry Robinson and later German born Mr. Julius A. Poppe of Sonoma, California. These individuals planned to provide an easily sustainable food source for the growing population. Robinson bought carp either from France or Holland and placed these fish in a pond near New York, as well as the local Hudson River. This batch included several goldfish which are thought to have hybridized resulting in an “inferior” strain only reaching 11″ in length.
In 1872 Poppe procured 83 commons up to two feet in length from Reinfeld, Germany. Only eight fish survived the streamer trip to New York and a further three died before reaching the West Coast. But the remaining five fish bred in a specially prepared pond resulting in some 3,000 fish the following year! Fish were then distributed throughout Southern California, Central America and even as far as Hawaii.
In 1877, in response to both public pressure and in an attempt to raise fish populations in areas where native fish were dwindling, the US Fish Commission began to actively stock carp in lakes and rivers, as well as distribute them to private landowners. In 1873 the commission wrote:
“Sufficient attention has not been paid in the United States to the introduction of the European carp as a food fish, and yet it is quite safe to say that there is no other species that promises so great a return in limited waters. It has the pre-eminent advantage over such fish as the black bass, trout, grayling, etc., that it is a vegetable feeder, and, although not disdaining animal matters, can thrive very well on aquatic vegetation alone. On this account it can be kept in tanks, small ponds, etc., and a very much larger weight obtained, without expense, than in the case of the other kinds indicated. It is on this account that its culture has been continued for centuries. It is also a mistake to compare the flesh with that of the ordinary Cyprinidae of the United States, such as suckers, chubs, and the like, the flesh of the genuine carp (Cyprinus carpio) being firm, flaky, and in some varieties almost equal to the European trout.”
In Europe carp fishing has revitalized the angling economy over the past three decades. In 1990 there were 1.1 Million fishing licenses sold in Great Britain and by 2009 these sales had jumped some 35% to over 1.47 million. The increased popularity in carp fishing was a major contributor to this growth. In the past few decades new waters have been created and many others stocked with carp as well as other desirable sport fish species. Carp of 30, 40 and 50lbs are now caught (and released) on a regular basis and some waters can now boast of carp reaching 70 and even over 90lbs. This rapid growth has continued across Europe creating carp fishing related jobs and businesses that are now estimated to be worth around $5 billion annually.
So what is the future for carp fishing in North America? Well one thing is for certain – carp are here to stay! Carp fishing has been practiced for decades In spite of some States eradication attempts over the past decades very few have succeeded and usually only for a limited period of time. As a result a number of enlightened US States and Canadian territories have now begun to look upon the once lowly carp as a potential resource instead of a problem. The State of Connecticut DEEP working with members from the Carp Anglers Group introduced state wide creel limits for carp that help protect trophy fish. Connecticut also designated Trophy Carp status to 5 waters that limit taking only one carp a day under 28″. Ontario for example has been actively promoting its carp and other fishing opportunities at some of the angling shows across Europe. As carp are not recognized as ‘sport fish’ most states do not impose catch limits or the methods for taking them. In addition to rod and line carp can often be hunted with a bow and arrow or taken with a spear or some other barbaric device. While these methods remain legal and unrestricted the opportunities to develop catch and release carp fishing and the economic benefits that can be derived will be limited. Carp anglers want an opportunity to release their captures so that these fish can grow and provide opportunities for recapture at a heavier weight in the future. The improvements in fish handling with large, knotless nets, unhooking mats and protective weigh slings ensure that these large fish in particular can be returned unharmed. In Europe recaptures of common carp over several decades, recognized by photos of unique scale patterns, are the norm and anglers will often travel hundreds of miles and at great expense to fish waters in the pursuit of these well known, documented and highly desirable carp. It is perhaps worth noting that a 20lb carp in Europe can be valued at $2500 for stocking in a private lake instead of the few $1-2 per pound at a fish market here in the United States. It is also worth pointing out to those who enjoy eating carp that many of the lakes and river systems in North America carry high levels of pollutants such as PCB’s. The eating of carp from such waters carries a significant health risk and especially if larger fish are consumed as they will have accumulated a much higher concentration of such toxins in their flesh. A simple extrapolation from the European data suggests that carp fishing in North America could one day even rival bass fishing. However it will take a leap of faith by fishery bodies to invoke regulations that ensure larger carp are given every opportunity to survive and grow bigger through catch & release education and protection from hunting or taking them for the table.
There have been any number of dedicated anglers over the past decades who have recognized the common carp for its sport fishing qualities. In his book “Fishing in New England” Leslie P. Thompson recounts his experiences fishing the Charles River around Boston and the carp he captures in the 1930’s and 40’s. He describes the use of stewed ‘niblets’ of corn as hook bait and some tactics to introduce free samples that include a method (clay) ball, baiting spoon, rudimentary spod device and even bait wrapped in tissue paper so that it might dissolve as would modern PVA. Today there are now thought to be some 50,000 plus paylake anglers, 500,000 fly anglers and perhaps several thousand Euro style anglers who pursue carp with the same passion and dedication as might be given to any of the great sport fish found across North America. Tournament fishing for carp and native buffalo in North America has become increasingly popular and has even attracted anglers from around the World. The most popular of these events are often staged over several days with up to 50 teams of two anglers camped bankside and fishing non-stop to win cash and tackle prizes for the largest overall weight of fish landed or the biggest four landed. There have also been pay outs in the event of a state record carp being taken with the biggest being some $250,000.
The abundance of carp in North American waters and some changing attitudes have led to an increasing number of anglers giving this big, hard fighting fish a second chance. The result in most cases is that they then become completely and utterly hooked on carp fishing!
Different styles of Carp Fishing in North America.
Paylaking has long been a part of the North American carp angling world. Born independently in the foothills of the Carolinas and in the Midwest, both areas have evolved very similar styles and methods of fishing and have attracted some of the most diehard anglers in the nation. Like the name suggest, money is almost always at stake in the paylake scene, so these boys and gals need to know what to do or they would soon find themselves with empty pockets. Fishing takes place in stocked ponds that range from half an acre to many acres, and payouts can be as large as several thousand dollars for the biggest fish for every hour (or even less in some instances). Here, bait is key and these anglers are masters at hauling fish.
In the Carolinas, paylakes have been around for more than a hundred years. Anglers typically use baitcasting reels (Abu Garcia Ambassadeurs are the reel of choice) on 6-8 foot MH rods, with a metal rod holder that allows you to adjust the angle of the rod tip for max bite detection. The magic though lies in the bait. The Carolinas are where packbait was born. Packbait is some what akin to a European method mix, but the key differences are in the rapid break down time (as fast as 30 seconds) and it being ‘packed’ around the hook rather than the lead. This is essential for getting a quick bite and catching as many fish as possible. Packbaits utilize a variety of ingredients, from oats and grits, to fish chow and soybean. Flavors are also important in triggering bites on these heavily pressured fish, and paylakers are known for having a variety of flavors that they guard with their lives. For the pickup (akin to hookbait), most Carolina paylakers use puffed corn. These puffs are also flavored to trigger bites from wary fish. Rigs consist of stiff mono hook lengths and relatively large (1/0 or 2/0) hooks, which make it hard for the fish to spit out the bait and hook.
Paylaking in the Midwest is similar in most instances, except that this is the birthplace of the flavored doughball. Midwest paylakers have come up with many elaborate (and often secret) recipes for doughballs that are devastatingly effective on carp. In addition, most Midwest paylakers use spinning reels instead of baitcasting reels. Tournaments are usually structured the same, as are payouts. In recent years, packbaits and puffs have been used more and more in these Midwest paylakes with good results.
Paylaking can be fun but sometimes humbling, method for catching carp. The boys and girls of the paylake world have this highly specialized style of fishing down to a science so expect to lose money the first time you go. However, it is a great way to spend a Friday night on the bank and learn about bait and rigs.
There is however increasing concern over the level of fish care in many paylakes and the taking of increasing numbers of trophy carp & buffalo from wild waters to continually stock them. CAG is focused on helping to address such issues. Several paylake owners now recognize the importance of using fish friendly nets and mats to protect their fish stocks as well improving water quality and other key factors.
The term “Euro” mainly refers to the use of advanced tackle and bait that has become available to US carp anglers from Western European countries, primarily England, Holland and France. A typical Euro set up (see picture) will consist of 12ft carbon rods with a test curve of between 2.5 – 3.5lbs, a rod pod to safely keep the rods in place, buzzers (aka alarms) to alert you to a run, freespool baitrunner reels or large big pit reels that can hold anything from 300 – 500 yards of line. At the business end is highly refined terminal tackle set up with specialized lead clips, hook links and what is known as a hair-rig. The hair-rig, developed in England in the late 1970’s radically changed carp fishing and brought these otherwise difficult to catch fish within reach of almost every angler. Instead of being mounted on the hook the bait is suspended on a short thread or ‘hair’ instead. The bait not only behaves more naturally but when the carp confidently sucks it in and suddenly discovers the hook trailing behind on the hair its natural instinct is to rapidly eject the bait by ‘blowing’ it out with some force. As a result the bait pivots on the hair and effectively helps pull the hook into the carps lip. This set up for three rods could costs anywhere between $400 used and $7000 brand new.
Modern baits. At the same time the European tackle market was being represented here across the pond, so was the range of baits primarily used in European carp fishing. Most leisure fishermen who occasionally fish for carp will typically utilize simple canned corn, worms or home made dough balls. However, as the Euro scene’s popularity continues to increase, and at times dominate the carp scene (often as a result of many carp fanatic ex-pats spreading the word and increased ease of access to magazine and video material via social media) the baits being used here in the US are also starting to change. Boilies (highly nutritious flavored dough balls that have been boiled to make them more robust), feed pellets and a wide range of seed particles (such as tigernuts – aka garbanzo beans) are becoming amongst the most popular baits used to catch carp.
Plastic imitation baits, such as those made companies like Enterprise, have also become more popular over the last 10-15 years. There are many imitations of particles like sweetcorn, maize and tigernuts and also breadflake, boilie, pellets and even luncheon meat versions. They offer a number of advantages to the ‘real’ thing including being resistant to attack by crayfish or other unwanted fish species. They are also able to absorb different flavors or sweeteners to increase attraction. They can be fished alone or with natural baits and buoyant versions can be popped up so they sit above any weed or debris on the lake bed. Finally some of these imitation baits are made from bright fluoro colors or even niteglow materials to provide a visual attraction for the carp to home in on.
It has become increasingly clear over recent years that carp do not just move around waterways hugging the bottom, but often travel and also feed regularly in the upper levels. Insects and snails are a part of a carp’s natural diet and especially when hatches occur the carp can become completely focused on feeding on them in the upper water layers. With this in mind it seems more sensible to fish at the depth where the fish spend a considerable amount of their time, rather than just trying to catch them when they decide to get their heads own on the bottom of the lake/river. As a result Zig rigs have increased in popularity especially in the last 5 years or so. The zig rig is a buoyant bait that is floated up from the bottom in an attempt to catch carp that are cruising around in mid or upper water layers. While most anglers seem quite comfortable fishing bottom baits or even something floating on the surface it can take some convincing to try fishing something in between. Initially zigs were tied up using boilies for bait but in recent years simple pieces of foam as well as lifelike imitation bugs and snails have become popular as well. The results speak for themselves and quite often when bottom baits rigs are being ignored by carp suspended zigs provide screaming runs within minutes.
Carp will actively feed on natural food items in or on the surface of the water. At such times they can often become preoccupied and with a suitably stealthy approach become relatively easy to catch. A piece of bread squeezed around the hook and ‘freelined’ along with some free samples is one of the most effective methods and has stood the test of time over many generations. Almost any buoyant bait including sunflower seeds and dried dog or cat food can be used successfully especially if ‘chummed’ so that the carp get a taste for them.
This is probably the least known way of fishing for carp in the US. In Europe however there is a significant group of anglers that specifically target carp by using a pole only without a reel. A large section of elastic hidden in the tip of the rod actually replaces the drag in case a big fish takes the bait. Different caliber rods and elastics are available, depending on the average size of fish you expect to catch. In the US, this way of fishing would allow you to fish for carp and different suckers as well as other species all at once.