The Amazing Jumping Carp Of The Illinois River

By Steve Chapple Fish can jump, but this is ridiculous. These are invasive Asian carp, going ballistic above the Illinois River, near Havana, Illinois, on a recent hot summer day. Asian carp leap out of the water at the sound of outboard motors. Nobody knows exactly why. The carp, which first escaped an aquaculture facility in Mississippi in 1972, when the Mississippi River flooded, have been working their way north. They have become a watery epidemic, reproducing at a rabbit-like pace that shocks most aquatic biologists.Jason Lindsey
Here Kirk Cowen (right) and Eric Harms (left) of the Illinois River Biological Survey attempt to net some crazed leapers. The invaders -- primarily silver and big-head carp -- are plankton eaters, chowing down on the same tiny invertebrates that gizzard shad and other small fry dine upon. Too many carp in the water and they'll suck out the bottom of the food chain. This creates a domino effect that imperils game fish like walleye and bass. "If the Asian carp gets into the Great Lakes we're in serious trouble," says Dennis Schornack, U.S. chair of the Great Lakes International Commission. "We could see a $4.5 billion fishing industry go down the tubes."Field & Stream Online Editors
Incoming! A carp hits Kirk Cowan "right in the mommy-daddy button," as he puts it. Too hard to catch on light tackle, these jumping carp are best approached with landing nets. Just be prepared to duck.Field & Stream Online Editors
The Asian carp invasion began in 1972 (wasn't that around the time Nixon normalized relations with China?), when silver and big-head carp were brought over to clean up the messy eating habits of farm-raised catfish in the South. Commercial cats are sloppy eaters, and their poot can result in algal and plankton blooms. Bright minds thought to import algae-and plankton-scarfing carp from China. The same sort of bright minds once imported daytime mongoose to control the nocturnal rats of Hawaii's sugarcane fields.) But then the Mississippi flooded its banks, as the big river is known to do, and over-flowed into fishponds. All that now stands between Lake Superior and the alien invaders is a buzzing electric barrier erected along the bottom of the Chicago Sanitation and Ship Canal, just south of Chicago's famed "Miracle Mile."Jason Lindsey
That's a lot of airborne fish food. In America carp are not a prized menu item. But back in China they are symbols of great strength and cheerful prosperity. The carp are also considered to be a delicacy. No New Year's dinner is complete without one on the menu, Dr. Yao Yin, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in La Crosse, Wisconsin, tells me, because carp signify abundance--accurately so in this instance.Jason Lindsey
Melissa Smith (left) and Nerissa Michaels (right) attempt to net Asian carp on the Spoon River, a half-mile upstream from its confluence with the Illinois River, near Havana, Illinois. It's not as easy as it looks. The motor on the big metal research boat excites the carp, but the driver, biologist Greg Sass, is also throwing a switch to put an electric charge into the water, which evidently alarms the carp even more.Field & Stream Online Editors
Carp can attain altitudes of 15 feet, though two to four feet is more common. Some have been known to jump into boats.Jason Lindsey
So how do they taste? There are a lot of bones, but I can testify that the flesh is white and firm, and with butter and lemon, not bad. Not likely to replace salmon or walleye anytime soon, however. When Asian carp are not jumping for joy, they are doing the carp thing in the bushes. They wait until the river is high, flooding its banks, to spawn, presumably so that the fertilized eggs will be dispersed better.Jason Lindsey
Here Nerissa Michaels (in the bow) and Kevin Irons (pilot,) both of the Illinois River Biological Station, electrofish below the Peoria Lock and Dam on the Illinois River. For perspective, this boat is 18-feet long, with a Bimini top reaching 7 feet above the water. Talk about a flock of seagulls.Field & Stream Online Editors
Notice the positioning of the eyes on the closest carp. They're a curiously beautiful fish, once you stop laughing. Just don't go boating south of Joliet this summer without wearing a hardhat.Jason Lindsey