F&S Classics: Carp Crazy
Around the world, anglers go nuts for carp. Except in America. But that might be changing, thanks to an underground of fishermen who love to catch these big, ugly fish
This story was published in the April 2008 issue.
CARP FISHING is like soccer. The rest of the world is stark-raving mad about the sport “football” to the other 6.3 billion people on the planet), and the World Cup packs the promotional punch of three Super Bowls (the other “football”) and two Olympics combined. But in the States, soccer rates somewhere between bowling and cow tipping-or, for that matter, alongside carp fishing.
Likewise, the golden grail for anglers from Europe and Asia isn’t the brown trout, or the blue marlin, or even the largemouth bass. It’s none other than the common carp. Not that Americans being out of sync with world opinion is a new phenomenon. Still, I was surprised to learn that our fish-crazy nation is so disconnected from what many anglers would argue is the globe’s hottest piscatorial pursuit. Apparently, we just don’t get it. In America, we consider carp trash fish. Bottom-sucking, rubber-lipped, fatso underachievers in the food chain. Pigeons with scales. Water hogs. The unworthiest of all fish adversaries. Or so I believed. After a chat with a friend of mine, who also bass fishes professionally, I discovered that there’s a growing hardcore carp underground right here in the U.S.A. What’s more, these guys aren’t just dragging cheese balls on river bottoms. They fish multiple rods and pair them with bite alarms, and they stock their gear kits with stuff like “spods,” “glugs,” and Frenzied Monster Tiger Nuts. Maybe I had this carp culture all wrong. Curiosity for the better of me, and I decided to investigate to see if carp fishing really is the wave of the future, or if it’s just a niche occupied by a cult of semi-deranged anglers who share a fetish for dirty fish. So, I set out to attend the American Carp Society’s annual Tournament of Champions.
The World According to Carp
It was still pitch-dark in northeastern Oklahoma as I drove my rental car through a maze of house trailers and twisting roads to a pavilion on the banks of Lake Hominy-tournament headquarters. A sweep of the headlights revealed a few picnic tables littered with tackle boxes, a coffeepot, a laptop, and a lantern. At the far end of the pavilion, I noticed a long black blob that looked like a pile of laundry on a park bench. No people.
I turned off the car and went inside. The blob spoke. “You must be Kirk,” said the gravelly voice, in a drawl.
I had roused David Moore, who climbed out of his sleeping bag and popped up from his “bed-chair.” (I would soon learn that a bed-chair is one of the carp angler’s most prized possessions. As the name implies, it converts from lounger to cot, doubling as a fishing chair and a bed for when anglers wait around the clock for the carp to bite.)
An imposing figure, Moore, 42, looks like he could play tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. He has a graduate business degree and runs a successful financial consulting business. But bitten by the carp bug 13 years ago, Moore decided to roll back his client list, grow his hair long, and chase carp the world over. He has fished throughout North America and as far away as France and Romania. He is, by many accounts, the leading American-born authority on all things carp.
“You’re going to like this carp deal.” Moore said. “I spent my whole young life chasing bass and crappies. But I tried carp fishing as kind of a joke, and when I went home with an aching arm. I decided this was a lot more fun than catching little fish that fight for 10 seconds. I’ve sold all my bass gear. I’m never going back.”
As tournament director, Moore is sitting this competition out. He’s the organizer and head referee. I asked him how the tournament worked, and he walked me through the basics.
The Tournament of Champions involves to elite two-person teams from throughout the country, including anglers from Florida, Texas. Ohio, and Illinois. Many of the anglers have immigrated from countries like Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, bringing with them their native love for traditional carp angling.
Upon arrival, each team draws a “peg-a spot along the lakeshore, maybe 30 yards wide-where they will set up camp, sleep, eat, and base their fishing for 100 consecutive hours, day and night. By the time I met Moore, the teams had been on the job for three days.
Once a team sets up on their peg, they spend a few hours plumbing the lake bottom, taking depth measurements with specialized marker float lines, looking for good, carp-friendly flat spots. They also cast thermometers to take temperature readings. Moore told me the ideal water-temperature range for carp is between 55 and 75 degrees, with 65 being best.
Then the baiting game begins.
The idea is to set a series of carp traps by concentrating piles of stinky, slimy, gritty goo-concoctions of com, grains, and other unmentionables-on the lake bottom in spots as big as a bathtub.
To do this, the anglers employ a variety of methods, ranging from the medieval to ones that would make James Bond proud.
On the simple side, the anglers pack grainy, snowball-size hush puppies called method balls, which they fire with giant surgical-tubing catapults into the bait zones. If you use a consistent trajectory and tension when you fire, the balls land in the same general vicinity in the lake. This isn’t the most accurate means of baiting, but it’s the most fun. When the fishing is slow, you can always declare “Food fight!” and launch cornmeal a hundred yards through the air
A more sophisticated approach involves a toy rocket-shaped thing called a “spod.” which anglers fill with their own mixtures of carp goop. They tie the spod to a special casting rod and hurl it out into the lake. The spod flies through the air-centripetal force holds the crud glob in place until splashdown-then the rocker rights itself, raining a sloppy food cloud onto the lake bottom. Assuming you can cast straight and these people can). you can put the spod on the money spot more often than not.
If you’re really slick, you can use a remote-controlled miniature speedboat to drive your bait to the desired target, at which point you flip a switch and watch as the boat smart-bombs your bait into the carp hot zone.
When the traps are set, the anglers prepare hooked baits, such as Tiger Nuts and “boilies,” which get their name because they’re made by boiling egg with grain to create solid bait balls the size of marbles. Sometimes boilies are scented or “glugged” by marinating them in syrups that reek of flavors like chocolate and pineapple. Once you tie your boilie on, usually with a hair rig (which puts the bait on a line, or “hair,” behind the hook bend), you cast it into the carp trap with a 12-foot spinning rod (each angler is allowed three rods). Then you rest the rod on a rod pod, set the bite alarm, and wait.
When a carp starts snacking on the bait trap, it will eventually move on to your hooked bait. At least, that’s the idea. The bite triggers the alarm, you pick up the rod, and it’s game on. Battles with 20-plus-pound fish can last a half hour or longer.
A carp must be to pounds or more to count. Moore weighs the fish and records it on a certified scale, then the angler releases it unharmed (also mandatory for a fish to count) and goes back to fishing. The team with the most pounds at the end of 100 hours wins. At this tourney, first place fetches 37.500.
After listening to Moore’s breakdown of competitive carp fishing, there was one detail that I still couldn’t quite believe.
“So, these people have been here for three days and nights, sitting in the same places, trying to catch carp?” I asked.
“That’s right.” Moore said.
“And they don’t move?” I asked. “They just sit, eat, sleep, and presumably bathe there?
“Bathing is optional.”
“But some of these teams have only caught one or two fish this entire time,” I said, “What else do they do?”
“I don’t really know.” Moore said. “Tell stories, drink beer, throw more bait. I guess it just gets in your blood. Carp fishing is a more cerebral type of fishing. It’s not just sitting on your ass. It’s tactical warfare.”
The Bite Alarm Sounds
Moore suggested we pick up the portable scale and walk down to Peg 4, where Tommy Riley, a construction worker from downtown Chicago, and his partner, Al St. Cyr, a 20something fish pro from Austin, Texas, had been working with limited success thus far.
“I heard a bite alarm go off at about 3 A.M.,” said Moore. “Sounded like a big pull.”
We stumbled down the hillside, tripping over a few empty beer cans outside St. Cyr’s bivvy, a one-person tent. Riley was already standing at the lakeside, beaming
“She’s a real beauty-a mirror carp!” Riley said. “She put up one hell of a fight. She’s gotta weigh right around 25 pounds.
His fish was tucked safely in a black, water-permeable bag. Apparently, a landed carp is comfortable and less prone to flail when bagged and tied to the dock. If you catch one in the middle of the night, you bag it, tie it off, go back to bed, and wait for the morning weigh-in.
The battle with the mirror carp, Riley told me, began at 3:15 A.M., when Riley’s eyes opened after a single, loud beep sounded from his bite alarm. After a short pause, another beep. He sprang to his feet and watched the rod and listened.
Beep, beep. Pause. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!
The alarm rang steady like a flat line on an EKG. The carp ripped 100 yards of 15-pound-test monofilament off Riley’s reel at the start of what became a 20-minute fight.
Now, hours later, Riley and St. Cyr worked together to hoist the fish onto the dock and remove it from the bag. Careful to keep the fish coated with water, they cradled it in the sling and placed it on the scale: 25 pounds 9 ounces. The mirror carp, with its irregular and patchy scaling, is a genetic mutant of the heavily and evenly scaled common carp. The scales on Riley’s catch looked like elongated, shiny-golden plates. They snapped a few photos. then gingerly released the golden glob back into the water.
“Man, that was worth the whole tournament, right there,” Riley said after exchanging high-fives with his teammate. “The drive from Chicago and all. That was a personal quest fulfilled.”
“I caught a fish just like that one here about 10 years ago.” piped Moore. “It had the same markings. It was about 25 pounds, too. It might even be the exact same fish.” He explained that carp can live for as long as 50 years. Treated properly, they reach their full growth potential and can subsist for many years past maturity.
“In England, that fish Tommy just released is a $30,000 fish,” Moore said. “If you had a lake or a pond, and you knew a fish like that lived there, you could charge good money every day, year after year, and people would gladly pay you to have a chance to catch something like that. Americans, by and large, just don’t realize how good we have it.”
Carp History (Abridged)
Truth is, there was actually a time when the common carp was king of America’s inland waters. The species, Cyprinus carpio, originally came from the Caspian Sea region of central Asia. They have long been revered as an extremely hardy. fast-growing fish, making them an ideal food source-at least back in the days when taste took a backseat to more practical issues like filling bellies.
Ironically, we tend to criticize carp for the very features that have helped the species spread throughout the four corners of the world. Carp can live in temperature ranges that would make most other species turn upside down. Their armorlike scales make them nearly impervious to predators, parasites, and diseases. Prolific at reproduction, they can live in both flat and moving water. They do not rely on live food sources (baitfish) for chow; they are omnivores, eating everything from algae to crayfish. Like cattle or hogs, they grow to great weights in confined spaces.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the demand for fish as a food staple in the United States blossomed. Bass, crappies, pike, walleyes, lake trout, catfish, and other species were harvested by the millions, leading to declining stocks in lakes and rivers. In an effort to boost the supply, the U.S. Fish Commission sought to find a super fish that could thrive in limited waters and end up on the dinner plates of a growing population. That fish, for the characteristics mentioned above, turned out to be the carp.
The commission imported several hundred of these über-fish from Germany to a pond system in Baltimore. From there they were relocated to Washington, D.C., where they began to reproduce. The government then launched an ambitious stocking program, moving carp via railroad to waterways throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest. The program was a success, and carp even found its way onto the menus of fine restaurants.
By the early 1950s, commercial carp harvests topped 30 million pounds annually. Only when improved processing and packaging methods concentrated commercial fishing back on the coasts did carp begin to fall out of favor. The carp is no total American success story, however. Its bottom-grubbing habits muddy water, destroying aquatic plants and the habitat of native gamefish. Eradication programs were carried out in many areas. Carp also were reviled for their association with the polluted waters they had been left in. Hence our inclination to consider carp “trash fish.”
The New Largemouth?
I spent next 24 hours hanging around, boating from peg to peg with Moore, and meeting the anglers. I even worked on my spodding technique and tried learning to power-cast heavily weighted carp baits into the nether reaches of Lake Hominy.
At one point, St. Cyr took me out on the dock for a casting lesson. I clumsily arced the 12-foot rod overhead, lobbing the bait 40 yards away where it landed with a wobbly, pathetic thud.
“No, really chuck it.” St. Cyr coached. “Give it a heave, and stop the rod tip at a 45-degree angle from the surface. Let it sail. You’re not going to break it.”
This time I wound up as if I were trying to throw a discus, and let fly. It’s pretty fun casting a line that stays airborne long enough for you to hum a good portion of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
By the competition’s end, team Plesiewicz-Kolodziejck had won the 87.500 first-place check with a haul of 331 pounds 6 ounces. Compared with most tournaments, this one had been slower on action but had produced bigger fish. It isn’t always this way. At a recent tournament on the Seneca River in Baldwinsville, N.Y., anglers caught and released an unprecedented 28,544 pounds of carp in a 50-hour window.
To go along with the big weigh-ins, there’s big money in this sport, too. St. Cyr won a $250,000 bounty for catching a 43-pound 2-ounce state-record common carp during the 2006 Texas Carp Challenge on Austin’s Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake).
At present, Moore estimates there are between 2,000 and 3,000 serious traditional carp anglers in America, not including the flyfishermen who have taken a shine to casting at carp, which they’ve dubbed “the poor man’s bonefish.”
“BASS founder) Ray Scott once told me if carp jumped like bass, he wondered if anyone would be left to bass fish,” Moore said. “There are 49 million fishermen and women in America. If one in to took up carp as a pastime, the sport would explode.”
That may already be happening. Moore runs an online carp tackle distributorship in Bartlesville, Okla., and says his site generates as many as 1 million hits a month.
Having fallen for the trap and taken the bait, I joined the carp underground myself, if only dabbling at first. You won’t find me sitting in a bivvy by some peg for too consecutive hours any time soon. But maybe someday. Beats watching soccer.
You can find the complete F&S Classics series here. Or read more F&S+ stories.