Watch Out for Those Flying Carp!

Asian Carp Fears

Photo courtesy of Syracuse.com

“Ever see any of those silver carp out here?  You know the ones that have knocking people out of their boats lately.”

One night a few years ago a buddy and I were motoring out of the camp canal into a bayou for a night of frogging.  Sweeping the banks with a big spotlight while the short shaft mud motor shoved us into the first turn of the bayou, it was a question I just had to ask.

“Nope, not the first one,” came a somewhat refreshing answer.  But it wasn’t until I snatched the first frog from a 6 inch deep pond did I stop looking for 60 pound missiles launched from the deep to come flying into the boat.  And it wasn’t until 351 frogs later when we had to return to camp back through that deep canal that I again thought about those dreaded silver carp everyone‘s been talking about.

Three hundred and fifty–two frogs caught and cleaned by 2 drivers and 2 catchers have a tendency to take lots of things off your mind.  But the big frog explosion of 2003 is definitely another story for another time.

In case you’ve managed to escape the media onslaught about our state’s latest boating hazard, there have been several reports of nighttime boaters being “blindsided” while running in canals, rivers, bayous and backwaters.  The culprit – the silver carp. And, more and more of them are finding a home in coastal lakes, rivers and marshes across South Louisiana.

The silver carp (Hypopthalmichthys molitrix) is but one of the latest outdoor “aliens” that has found the Bayou State to its liking.  And like its predecessors the fire ant, hyacinth, nutria, coyote, salvinia and zebra mussel, it’s not a welcome immigrant.

Say, why are all the non-native, invasive species bad guys?  Why can’t Louisiana ever be besieged by the likes of rainbow trout, walleyes, small mouth bass, caribou, elk, pronghorn sheep or any of the good guys that wouldn’t threaten to clog up or eat up all of our precious fish, wildlife and habitat?  No sir, we always seem to attract the bad actors that threaten to squeeze out our favorite fish and game species.  Just once I’d like to like to see us invaded by so many ring-necked pheasants and grouse that we’d have to have year-round open seasons just to keep them from overrunning the state.

The silver carp is one of the many members of the Asian carp family and has now been identified in the entire Mississippi River system and its tributaries.  Like so many other cases of non-native infiltration, silver carp are an experiment gone awry.  It’s believed they made their way here via Arkansas where they were introduced in catfish farms.  Since they primarily feed on plankton and algae, their role was to keep ponds clean.  But over the last 15 years they have escaped to the wild and haven’t looked back.

And like an NFL player who can run the ball as well as catch deep passes, the silver carp is what you might call a “double threat.”  You see, because of their large appetites they can displace our native species by competing for food items required by young fry and fingerlings.  That’s bad enough but silver carp also pose another threat – bodily injury or death to humans.

“They tend to jump when they are disturbed by a passing boat and at night they are more easily disoriented in the dark and they panic,” said fish biologist Dr. Glenn Thomas.  “We’ve had many reports from froggers and other people traveling on waterways at night.”  So many reports from such a widespread area that LDWF officials believe that silver carp may be present in just about every freshwater body in the state.

Nighttime incidents have been more prevalent, but it’s not only after-dark boaters who have to be concerned as carp encounters have occurred at all hours of day or night.  “We would like for our fishers and other boaters to be aware that these fish are here.  Being alert on the water is one of the first rules of boating safety, and now we have something new to be on the lookout for,” said Thomas.  My grip on the side of the little flatboat tightened a little as those words echoed in my mind as I checked to make sure the drawstrings on the croaking sacks that bounced against my legs were secure.

As is the case with most of our intruders, there’s not much that can be done about the silver carp invasion.  In fact, we now have so many foreigners presenting so many ecological problems that an “Invasive Species Task Force” has been recently formed to deal with the likes of silver carp.  But without a viable commercial or recreational market to drive an industry, there’s no clear solution to controlling their spread.  While they do have a slight tolerance for brackish water, the salty coast is about the only thing that stops carp in their tracks.

So is there anything positive about silver carp?  Very little.  Although the many species of carp make them one of the most abundant fish in North America, they are one of the least popular.  For those who do fish carp, there’s an untapped potential.  While very popular in Europe and Asia, carp don’t get much respect on this continent.  Among the many nicknames is my all-time favorite – “sewer bass.”  Part of the distaste for carp is exactly that – poor taste.  That reputation is earned by the fish’s feeding habits and lifestyle, in other words, the “you are what you eat” syndrome.  Which in the case of carp, they’re muck and mud.  But according to Europeans and some Americans that may be true in certain situations but carp taken from many locations taste fine.  Others say keeping them in clean, very cold water for a time will purge the muddiness and firm up an otherwise mushy flesh.  In fact England’s unofficial patron saint of anglers chose the carp as one of his favorites.  In his classic book, The Compleat Angler, he called it the “queen of rivers; a stately good and very subtle fish.”

I doubt if any self-respecting Cajuns, willing to try anything as we are, will ever give carp that much credit.  So if we can’t pull off another species-threatening blackened redfish episode, is there any hope for carp control by sport fishermen?  Maybe the best carp fight is the kamikaze-style battle they offer to boaters.  I’ve never met a dedicated carp fisherman or at least one who admits it.  Not much chance we’ll ever see a CARPMASTER CLASSIC and I would say that the few carp that are landed are accidentally hooked by catfish and bream fishermen.  But those willing to try their luck carp fishing need only look to Europe for a variety of baits to try.  Among the stranger items recommended are cheese, beans, potato and carrot cubes, peanuts, rice, bread, dog biscuits, cat food and luncheon meat.  Not very discriminating are they?  Doughballs however, are the most popular bait used specifically for carp and they are concocted from cornmeal, flour, anise oil, vanilla extract, syrup and rolled into a ball.  Doughballs are then cast out over an area chummed with some of those same items used as bait.

While the value of carp as food is debatable, there doesn’t seem to be much argument about their ability to stretch a line.  The silver and some other carps have been known to make leaping runs when hooked.  Depending on the species carp can grow to enormous size for a true member of the minnow family.  The world record for common carp is a 75 pounds 11 ounce fish caught in France.  Although not the most hotly contested category in state Louisiana Outdoor Writer Association (LOWA) records we do have a category for Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) only.  James Rogers hold the distinction of first place with a 35-0 pounder caught at Bussey Brake in April of 1981.

While they’re not very easy to tempt into biting a hook, there is an exciting side to carp catching.  Because they’re slow movers and are pretty easy to spot either under a light at night or along shorelines where they root during daylight, carp make good targets for bowfishermen.  But even if every bowfisherman in the state makes a concentrated effort to shoot as many as possible it probably won’t put a dent in their numbers.

I wonder if it will get to the point where Louisiana has so many invasive species that they in turn, will be pushed out by future exotics.  Looks like for now, silver carp are here to stay and are something else we’ll just have to live with.  So next time you head out night fishing or frogging, keep your eyes open and your head down for those flying carp.

For More Information

Binational Cooperation Key to Preventing an Asian Carp Invasion in the Great Lakes

Invasion USA: Asian Carp Invaders Have Taken the Mississippi, Are the Great Lakes Next?

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