July 27, 2015
Many North American anglers are completely unaware that their local waters hold a game fish that can offer a fight comparable to that of a sturgeon or large channel cat, weigh in excess of 30 pounds, usually has no closed season or limits, and is even considered a table delicacy in some cultures.
This fish is the common carp. It is frequently found in urban water bodies, making it a very accessible target for all anglers. It can be caught with anything from a simple hook and worm to elaborate and expensive rigs.
The carp is considered by many North Americans to be a coarse, or rough, fish. It has a reputation of being dirty, ugly, and stupid. It is thought of as solely a bottom feeder, an inhabitant of filthy, stagnant, water that is not suitable for finer fish.
What most people don’t know is that common carp were brought to North America on purpose. A native of Asia, the carp is the third most introduced species and is now present in nearly every part of the world.
Commonly used as a food fish throughout Europe for centuries, carp were brought to North America as an easy source of food by settlers. In 1896, an area near Newmarket, Ontario flooded and the carp in the ponds there were able to escape into the Holland River, which allowed their entry into the Great Lakes. Once there, their spread across Eastern North America was only a matter of time.
Over time, carp fell out of favour as a source of food as people began to prefer species we are more familiar with today. Carp developed a reputation as being unsavoury and competition for preferred game fish. It was also noticed that carp have feeding habits that are harmful to ecosystems, and that an overabundance of carp can seriously affect the populations of other fish and birds.
Carp feed by grubbing through the bottom muck, searching for insects, mollusks, vegetation and other edibles. In doing so, they uproot aquatic plant life. Without these plants, fish and birds lack the shelter needed to feed, and to lay and raise their young. As in most cases of introduced species, the lack of natural balances and controls has let carp reproduce and thrive without much hindrance and it has had a negative effect on the native ecosystem. We also now know that carp excrete large amounts of partially digested vegetation which leads to increased nutrient levels in the water. This in turn can help create algae blooms that further deteriorate water quality and fish habitat.
Carp have their place in an ecosystem and in the time they have been in North America, they have become naturalized and carved out a niche for themselves. However, as with any species, an overabundant population causes problems. One way to help keep their numbers in check is to make anglers aware of their suitability not only as quarry, but also as table fare. Carp is eaten in stews, casseroles, deep-fried, or baked. It is very popular among people who like to smoke fish and those who have tried it, rave about it. Eastern Europeans even have special Christmas carp recipes and the catching of and keeping carp alive in a tub, is part of the holiday traditions.
In light of the environments carp populate, especially in urban areas, many people question the safety of eating them. The “Ontario Guide to Eating Sport Fish” allows 16 meals per month of carp in the 18 to 22-inch range taken from the Grand River for the average adult. Carp are omnivorous, but feed mostly on insects and vegetation, although being opportunistic feeders they will eat whatever is available to them. Due to this range in diet, they may not be as susceptible to acquiring the higher levels of toxins as found in fish who feed solely on other fish.
The other concern is that the fish are reputed to have a “muddy” taste and are very bony. Careful and proper cleaning, filleting and cooking will take care of the bones. There is also a large vein that runs through the fish that needs to be removed in order to avoid giving an off-taste to the fish. Fish caught in colder water seem to taste better, which is the same for most warm water species. In Europe, the fish are kept alive in tubs of cool, clean water to naturally flush themselves out. Soaking the fillets in milk or water and baking soda overnight can help remove any residual muddiness.
For an exciting and rod bending time on the water, plan a fishing trip targeting the overlooked carp. You will be surprised at how much fun this fish can be and you may even find a new favourite target.