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Ten years ago it looked like the fishing on Kentucky and Barkley lakes might be lost to invasive carp. The impoundments of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were once consistently ranked among the top 20 best bass lakes in the country and called things like “Crappie Capital of the World.” 

That reputation changed fast when the carp took over. 

The first Asian carp I ever saw was in the winter of 2004, when I was in college at Murray State. My buddy had gone bank fishing on Kentucky, where he hooked into something big with a Rat-L-Trap. After a fight, he dragged a 40-pound bighead carp onto the rocky shoreline, snagged in the tail. He lined the trunk of his car with newspaper and flopped the fish inside to bring back to the dormitory. I met my buddy in the parking lot, where we looked over the carp’s giant, underset eyes and gaping mouth. It was one ugly critter; alien-like, and just like in the movies, the single dead specimen was a harbinger of the invasion to come. 

Several Asian carp species, silvers and bigheads being the worst of them, were imported for plankton control in aquaculture ponds back in the ‘70s. Their escape story is well known, but the short of it is that they swam into the Mississippi River during a flood, and they’ve wreaked havoc throughout the entire lower drainage ever since. Females of both species are capable of laying a million eggs per spawn, and they grow so quickly that not much can eat the young carp fry. Bigheads can reach 30 inches in four years and top out at 100 pounds. Silvers average 15 pounds, but 30-pounders aren’t uncommon. The carp are plankton eaters, same as shad and other baitfish, and they consume up to 40% of their body weight per day. In areas of the Mississippi Basin where the carp are heavily established, they comprise up to 97% of the local biomass. 

It’s not that the carp eat baitfish; rather, they starve them by being better competitors for the bottom rung of the aquatic food chain. When baitfish decline, gamefish weights and populations suffer. That aside, schools of carp the size of football fields crowd native fish out of their traditional haunts. The carp have other bad habits, too, like jumping out of the water when spooked and smashing boaters in the face. 

But dire as the situation seemed, there are some rays of hope, thanks in large part to recent, intensive commercial fishing efforts supplemented by state fish and wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A lot of this effort is happening somewhat behind the scenes, at least from the perspective of a Kentucky Lake bass and crappie fisherman. Earlier this fall, I set out to see it for myself.  

Onboard a Commercial Boat

Danielle Demello wears the orange slickers expected of a commercial fisherman but she doesn’t match the stereotype otherwise, with bright blond hair, makeup, and plenty of tattoos. Rosie the Riveter is visible on her left arm. Demello’s boat is a barge-like, 38-foot long, 84-inch-wide aluminum vessel powered by a 200-horsepower outboard, and capable of carrying 26,000 pounds of fish. It’s called the M.I.L.F., which stands for Man I Like to Fish. 

The Carp Comeback
Heartland Bowhunters

Demello is a California transplant who moved to Kentucky in January of 2018. A U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, Demello says California was just too crowded when she got back home. “I got out of the military and was in kind of a bad place,” she says. “I wanted peace and quiet, a slower pace, hunting and fishing. Kentucky saved my life for sure.” 

Shortly after getting here, a local invited Demello out bowfishing, and she loved it. “Killing carp is a great way to vent your anger when you have PTSD,” she says. She soon took a job at a local fish market, and when they shut down, she was approached by the owner of Aquatic Protein, LLC., a company that processes carp. Demello was asked to run a new facility in Eddyville, Kentucky, to receive carp from commercial fishermen. 

“I loved it, but I wanted to do more with bowfishermen too,” Demello says. “Giving them a place to donate or sell their fish helps keep the boat ramps clean, and gives all the kids who like to go to the dams and shoot a place to take their fish. I had to work with the state a while to get approval to buy fish from bowfishermen, but it worked.” 

Demello’s boyfriend, Aaron Schmitt, whom she met while in the Army (they were deployed in the same unit), moved to Kentucky as well, where he began driving a truck to haul fish for Aquatic Protein to a facility in Illinois, where they’re ground into fish meal, which is used for things like fertilizer and even dog treats.  

After a few years, Demello decided to try commercial fishing full-time. Aaron is usually on the boat with her, and she still sells her catch to Aquatic Protein, which is now managed by one of her close friends, Star Mahns.   

The entire commercial fishing scene was completely foreign to me. Most times, if I’m out crappie fishing or duck hunting, I give those big commercial boats and their nets a wide berth. But at daylight on Lake Barkley, I drop my 16-foot duck boat into the water and idle along behind the giant M.I.L.F., observing from 30 yards or so as Demello and her crew set nets on two sides of a shallow bay. I assume they’re going to bring the nets together somehow, ensnaring the fish between them, but that’s not the procedure at all. 

“Now we herd them up, and try to spook them into the nets,” she says. “You can park your boat up on the bank, but you better tie it up good, or our wake will break it loose.” 

I don’t know what the hell is coming next, but I board the big boat and, following Aaron’s advice, hang on tight. Demello pins the throttle and runs across the bay, cuts it sharp, and runs back. She’s working the water between the nets as if cutting grass, strips at a time. As she nears the nets on the perimeters, we can see carp jumping against them. “They’re spooked by the noise,” she says. “We just push them right into the nets.” The fish get tangled, mostly by the gill plates. 

The boat ride done, it’s time to pull the nets. It looks like a good pile of fish, but Demello is disappointed in the catch. There’s maybe 1,000 pounds. But like any other type of fishing, not every effort pays off. What’s fascinating to me is there isn’t a single game fish in the boat—in fact, the only bycatch are a few turtles that are quickly released unharmed. 

“It just gets better in the wintertime, when it’s cold and no other boats are on the lake,” Demello says. On a good average day, she’s happy to take 5,000 pounds of carp to the market. The M.I.L.F. record? “Best we’ve ever done with one set was 21,000 pounds,” she says. 

At Market

Early in the invasion, many looked to commercial fishing as a solution for managing the carp crisis. Commercial anglers traditionally targeted native species, like catfish and buffalo, that are popular in southern kitchens. Asian carp suffer from a stigma that’s been difficult to overcome in local markets, despite efforts to rebrand them with names like “Kentucky white fish.” As a result, prices were too low to incentivize commercial fishermen. 

But some entrepreneurs still saw opportunity. Angie Yu, who was born in Heilongjiang Province, China, once worked in the seafood import-export business in Los Angeles. Bighead and silver carp are an important food fish in China, and Yu grew up eating them. When she heard of the South’s burgeoning carp problem, she moved to Wickliffe, Kentucky, and spent her last dime investing in a processing facility called Two Rivers Fisheries, which opened in July 2012. It’s a big facility that buys fish from local commercial fishermen and processes them into various products for export. I toured the plant in 2018, when business was booming and Two Rivers was expanding. Then, Yu said, her biggest problem was getting enough fish for export. Right now, shipping delays and tariffs are posing challenges to the business, but Yu is hoping that will improve—and she’s looking into Asian community markets within the states for product demand. 

There’s been some help from Uncle Sam, too. The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 included $25 million for Asian carp management in the Southeast, under the Asian Carp Eradication Program, and a good bit of the funding has gone to sustaining commercial fishing efforts. Star Mahns—Demello’s pal who now manages Aquatic Protein in Eddyville—talked current pricing with me. “We pay 9 cents a pound for bow-shot fish, and 12 cents for commercially caught fish. It works out great,” she says. “Back in July, bowfishermen dropped off 160,000 pounds. We had one crew from Pennsylvania who pretty much paid for all their travel expenses with the fish they shot.” 

Bringing your fish in is easy. I spent an hour bowfishing below Kentucky Dam and filled up a Rubbermaid tote in short order with silver carp. Mahns and her staff weighed my catch, documented my fishing license, and recorded some paperwork. Had she been paying me I’d have made about $10, and she’d have set me up with a W-9 form and later mailed a check. But just as many bowfishermen see the place as a handy drop-off that’s not as offensive as a festering pile of carp in a ditch (or worse, at the boat ramp). As we were talking, a couple commercial netters who’d been out on the Ohio all day showed up with a boat loaded down with 13,000 pounds—a $1,560 payday, minus expenses. 

A Crappie Morning

I’ve lived here my entire life and for the past 20 or so years, I’ve hunted and fished from a boat on Kentucky and Barkley lakes 12 months of the year. I knew there were a few commercial fishermen around, and I knew they were catching some carp. I just didn’t grasp how many, or how cool the behind-the-scenes cast of characters is. It’s safe to say that many recreational anglers have an unspoken animosity toward commercial fishermen—or rather, perhaps, they’re intimidated by them. But in the case of the carp crisis, it might be the commercial anglers who are saving the sportfish. 

The bass and crappie fishing on both lakes has had a few especially tough years. Fisheries biologists are quick to point out, when you ask, that a few seasons of poor spawning conditions are to blame for a lot of that. The lakes have been more stable in recent springs, leading to better spawning conditions. But that’s also been in conjunction with the intense carp removal efforts. 

Tony Sheppard has lived in western Kentucky his whole life, and he crappie fishes for a living. He’s an employee of Jenko Fishing, a local tackle company with a footprint that includes products on shelves at places like Bass Pro and Wal-Mart. Sheppard designs products ranging from jigheads and soft plastics to rods. When he’s not doing that, he’s on the road fishing crappie tournaments. He has watched the fishing in Kentucky and Barkley rise and fall and right now, he says, it’s rising. 

I join him for a few hours of crappie fishing, and shortly after daybreak we see schools of flickering gizzard shad—the lake’s most important baitfish. It’s a site I haven’t seen much of in a few Octobers. Gizzard shad feed on phytoplankton, same as Asian carp, and their numbers have been noticeably low for years. But this fall? “We had a heck of a good shad spawn this year, and maybe even two of them,” Sheppard says. 

Sheppard specializes in fishing with real-time sonar (Garmin LiveScope), and on that screen, schools of carp are easy to see, and almost ever present. Make no mistake, the lakes are still full of them. Still, Sheppard says, the problem isn’t as bad as it was. “The commercial fishermen are making a real dent in them, especially the big ones,” he says. “The biggest thing that I notice is, the carp are small now. They’ll never get rid of them, but they’re catching the adults by the ton. The management is helping.” 

Sheppard shows me a phone pic he snapped a few weeks ago of a school of carp on his screen. He shared a waypoint to the spot with a commercial fishing buddy of his, who came in with his equipment and filled his boat with tons of carp. “Anytime I can find a school like that, that he can come in and clean up, I do it,” Sheppard says.  

We fill a livewell (well, Sheppard does) with 20 thick, slab crappie, and we clean them right there on the tailgate of the pickup. “Man, the fish are fat this fall,” Sheppard says, admiring a couple slabs with swollen guts. “They’ve been eating well.” 

Sheppard lets me have the fillets, which has always been one of my favorite things about fishing with him. That night, I eat well, too. Maybe the fillets didn’t come from the Crappie Capital of the World … but lately, the fishing here has still been pretty good. 

The Carp Comeback

The All-New 2022 Nissan Frontier

I was driving a Nissan Frontier back before they were called Frontiers. When I graduated high school my dad gave me his pickup—a 5-speed 1997 model Nissan XE—as a gift. I drove it all through college and was in my mid-20s when I finally sold it. It had just over 200K miles, and it was still running like a top. My next Frontier was a step up, with a little V6 and an automatic transmission, and with it I towed my boat all over Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana. I sold it, too, when it had just over 200K miles. It was also still running just fine.

In 2012 I purchased the first new vehicle of my life … and that one was also a Frontier. I still have it and, equipped with a good set of A/T tires, it’s still my go-to hunting rig and work truck. I’ve driven it nearly across the country, from western Kentucky to western Colorado, twice. With 170K miles on the odometer, I figure it’s just now broken in good.

Do these trucks have any problems? Well, my first one had manual locking hubs (I loved stepping out and locking them in before diving into a mudhole—one of which finally broke at about 200K miles). The second truck’s water pump gave out at 190K. Aside from that, I’ve never had a Frontier in the shop for a repair of any sort. And though I’ve had them in more mudholes than I can count, I’ve never had one stuck for long.

That’s why I was especially excited to try the All-New 2022 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X while working on “The Carp Comeback.” The new rig retains some of the utilitarian lines of the classic, but simply put, it’s a way nicer, more capable truck. I’m a hunting writer, not an automotive writer, so I’ll save most of the technical stuff for someone else. But I can tell you that I was impressed with the new pickup’s 310-hp engine and 6,720-pound towing capacity, which more than capably pulled my boat around. Features like the Intelligent Around View Monitor (I-AVM) with touchscreen capabilities made it easy to hitch the truck to a trailer and back a boat, and I was able to power an electric fillet knife and clean fish on the tailgate, thanks to the 120-volt power outlet in the bed. I wish I’d had the time to wring this out in a good mudhole because, like its predecessors, I’m betting you’d have a hard time getting it stuck.

If you’ve priced new pickups lately, then you know the sticker on the Frontier—starting at $27,840—is a bargain. If history is any indication, I’ll probably be buying one for myself. — W.B.

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