September 28, 2022
Sean Manning admits the growth of his group, the American Carp Society, was slow to start. Founded in 2002 with concentrations of membership in California, Texas and New York, the group now has members in nearly every state along with a significant foreign membership.
Little wonder the rest of the world is interested in American carp angling. From eastern Europe to China, sport anglers pursue carp with the sort of intensity that their countrymen reserve for soccer. These international advocates have been mystified that the sport—or species—hasn't taken hold in the U.S., which arguably has some of the world’s best carp waters and abundant public fishing access.
Manning hopes to change that by rehabilitating the image of the common carp, a non-native species that has been "naturalized" in the U.S. thanks to nearly 100 years of residence here. And his advocacy includes a fresh perspective of the carp’s native cousins, the various species of buffalo fish.
"Carp and buffalo have been maligned by many here in the U.S., generally through misinformation, some of which has actually been passed down through the 'scientific' community, so there’s little wonder why the fish is viewed as somehow lesser," says Manning. He's referring to the derogatory term "trash fish" often used to describe carp and its cousins. He claims that slur helps perpetuate what he considers a monstrosity: dead fish being dumped in a field or left on the riverbank. Nearly as damaging is the lack of regulations governing limits or methods of fishing for carp and buffalo in most states.
From an angling perspective, carp have no peer, claims Manning. That won't surprise anyone who has witnessed the intensity of dedicated carp anglers. Happily, says Manning, the number of avid carp anglers is growing, and carp fishing competitions and conservation considerations are surging in many states.
"Carp simply possess far superior angling challenges, from our perspectives as lifelong anglers of all species," says Manning. "They are superior in intelligence and fighting ability. We fish for sport, not for the table, and therefore target the species that is harder to catch and outwit and will give us the best fight and challenge. That's the reason the carp is the foremost freshwater sportfish in just about every country in the world, with the current exception of the U.S."
Concurrent with heightened interest in carp angling, new research indicates that buffalo fish are among the longest-lived species in American waters. Research conducted by a team from North Dakota State University (NDSU), published in 2019 in the journal Nature, found that bigmouth buffalo can reach 112 years of age, more than quadrupling previous longevity estimates and establishing buffalo as America’s oldest freshwater fish. The United States has five distinct species of buffalo, together considered the largest family of North American suckers. The most widely distributed species include the smallmouth buffalo, bigmouth buffalo and black buffalo, all of which can live for many decades and in a wide variety of waters, from main-stem rivers and large reservoirs to brackish backwaters and smaller tributaries.
The researchers found populations of bigmouth buffalo in Minnesota that were composed largely of individuals more than 80 years old, indicating a bottleneck in reproduction while also suggesting that indiscriminate harvest by bowfishing gear may include fish that are older than the bowfishers’ grandparents. The NDSU team noted that many anglers and bowfishers fail to differentiate between invasive bighead carp, Asian grass carp, common carp and the various species of buffalo, lumping them together as “trash fish.”
“This imprecise term is used in much of the United States to lump many endemic, traditionally nongame fishes, along with unwanted invasive fishes, for the purposes of harvest regulation,” the researchers noted. “This pejorative designation has led to the misconception by the general public of bigmouth buffalo as an ‘invasive species’ or ‘a carp,’ encouraging its persecution as a sacrificial or unimportant species.”
Another carp group, which operates the Big Carp News website, suggests that the "invasive" label for common carp—native to Europe and Asia—should be revised. "Unfortunately, the carp's amazing ability to spread its range through floods and interconnected waterways has resulted in it being labeled 'invasive,'" the website notes. "Although, after 200 years, the term that is applied to other introduced species like brown trout—‘naturalized’—is a more accurate term."
Indeed, Manning says one of the most common accusations leveled at carp—that they stir up sediment, thereby making waters murky and warmer and displacing sport fish—is false. "Water-quality issues usually have more to do with poor watershed management, excessive deforestation and development,” he says. “Add to that the increasing watercraft pressure on lakes and rivers in the U.S., which causes excessive turbidity. The fact that carp can thrive in those conditions is an indication of their hardiness, not that they created the conditions in which they thrive."
Regardless, Manning and his American Carp Society will undoubtedly swim upstream as they try to turn the conversation to a wider consideration of carp as sport fish. But size helps. Year by year, the number of outsized carp (and buffalo) caught by anglers rises. The number of 50-pound carp—the threshold for getting the attention of the national carp community—increases every year. And a growing number of those trophy-class fish are released, which is right in line with the European carp ethic. Most of the outsized carp in Europe are caught so often that they have earned names.
VALUE AS SPORT FISH
Manning notes that while there are many conservation battles to fight on behalf of carp and its cousins, the sporting value of carp will make more converts than all the conservation arguments biologists can offer. After all, big fish that present big challenges are the epitome of sport fishing.
"Invariably, if we look at why we all fell in love with the sport of fishing as a child, it was a desire to first catch any fish, and later to catch the biggest fish in the river or lake," says Manning. "We had no biases on species unless they were taught to us. If you give a child a rod with a 10-pound bass or a 10-pound carp on the end, the carp is probably going to leave [the kid] with a broken line or a bent hook. Now, take that to a 30-, 40- or 50-pound carp and magnify the experience. You never lose that feeling if you are an angler. The same goes for buffalo, especially when they get really large."
Manning relates stories of anglers who were fired up by fighting a massive fish, not knowing what species was pulling their line, and then deflating when they learned it was a carp or buffalo. He suggests anglers remove any species bias and purely look at fighting ability and the challenge of catching these fish.
"There is no comparison," he says. "Trying to catch a 40-pound carp or a 60-pound buffalo will challenge most anglers who say they fish for the sport of it more than any other species. It takes dedication, perseverance and a great deal of time. Talk to anglers who have tried to catch carp on the fly, and they’ll tell you. Carp are harder to catch on the fly than any other species, and when you've done it consistently, you’ve really done something. Our goal at the American Carp Society is to give anglers a chance to do that."