Quit Carping and Go Catch Some (or at least leave alone those who do)

A good friend and longtime SDFish regular called to share concern he had as the result of a recent fishing experience.  I will add that my friend is an outstanding angler who is one of the most passionate fishermen I have ever known.  To his credit in my view is that he is as happy seeing a bluegill tug at his bobber in a small pond as he is seeing a blue marlin strike a lure of his design in a professional tournament.

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  • This past weekend he decided to treat his father to a fishing trip and the pair headed early to Lake Morena where one of the great pleasures they share is to catch carp on light tackle.  They are able to easily unhook and release the carp thanks to their use of long shank hooks which offer greater leverage in removing them and generally prevent gut hooking.

    Fishing from the T-dock and using canned corn as bait, they happily enjoyed a carp fishing bonanza as carp after carp slurped up the kernels and when hooked took off on a run worthy of a Torrey Pines corbina.

    After being observed releasing the carp they were catching, their enjoyment of the day was soon tarnished by an unlikely source when they were visited by a young Ranger who my friend as a regular visitor was not familiar with.

    “It is illegal for you to release carp back into the lake,” he said, “you have to kill them.”  The information came as a shock to my friend who religiously observes fishing regulations, and when he was younger worked in the San Diego City Lakes Program where much of his time was spent as an assistant to biologist Larry Bottroff.

    He explained that he was quite familiar with state fishing regulations and that he had no knowledge of a legal requirement that carp must be killed if caught.  Undeterred, the young Ranger was insistent that carp caught at Lake Morena must be killed because they are harmful to the fishery.  My friend is well aware of the difference between legal state regulations and lake policies or philosophies which in some cases may actually be in conflict with the law.

    Dismayed by their experience at the hands of an employee who most would agree should have been supportive of the their patronage and fishing enjoyment, they soon packed up and left the lake.  To be clear, my friend is not averse to killing fish he has caught if he is going to make good use of them, and his freezer is a testament to that.  What he is averse to is killing a fish that will not be put to good use and there is both a citation and legal term for that known as “wanton waste.”

    The basis for the Ranger’s position is widely held among anglers, particularly my many bass fishing friends, and the term for it is I-G-N-O-R-A-N-C-E!

    Carp my friends are not your enemy, but ignorance may be and I‘ll explain why, beginning with a little history about Cyprinus carpie, AKA, the common carp, which includes two much less common forms – mirror carp and leather carp.

    According to McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia which is a terrific reference book for your book shelf if you don’t already have one, the carp which is indigenous to Asia, was mentioned by Aristotle in 350 B.C., reached Europe around 1450 and North America in 1876, after which it was widely distributed by the United States Fish Commission along with numerous other species.

    While carp are an undeniable example of introduced non-native fish having a negative impact on native species, the same is true of bass, bluegill, crappie, trout, catfish and a host of other species we hold dear to our fishing hearts.  Think about that the next time you might choose to impugn this species which Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler described in 1653 as “the queen of the rivers.”

    I can’t shame the uninformed or uneducated on this subject without admitting my own guilt.  Growing up I heard all of the same inaccurate and derogatory comments about carp that you can hear today in any tackle shop, at the break of any fishing club meeting, or from Rangers, Game Wardens and other anglers.  I believed until three things conspired to change my mind: the first was fisheries biologist Larry Bottroff, the second was a renowned angler and journalist from England who I hosted on his visit to San Diego and the third was the legion of refugees from Indochina whose angling pleasure in catching carp seemed unmatched by any other species.

    It was not long after meeting and becoming  friends with Larry in 1966 that I likely popped off about carp being worthless, and he explained that they had an unfairly bad wrap among anglers.  With apologies to Larry, I’ll try to paraphrase what he told me.  “People look down on carp because when a lake goes bad, that is the only species they see left, so they assume the absence of other species is because of the carp and that is not true.  Carp are typically part of the biomass of multiple species in a healthy lake, but they are tougher than the other species, so when a lake goes bad due to low water or a lack of oxygen they are simply the survivors – so people blame them for loss of the other species.  I will add here that the most common complaint among fisherman is that “they eat the eggs of the fish we want to catch.“  While there is no question that carp will eat the eggs of other fish, that is simply a by-product of the fact that carp are omnivorous and are generally unselective as they grub along the bottom and may pick up whatever lies in front of them.  A five year long study in New York found not a single egg from a game fish in the stomach of over 600 carp that were examined, though it is a certainty that eggs are occasionally eaten and nests disturbed, though not to the extent experienced in the case of bluegill.

    The visitor from England who was on assignment for the British Broadcasting Company as well as a magazine arrived prior to the opening of a 1980’s fishing season at Lake Hodges.  As always, the last two weeks before a lake opening were a particularly busy time for Larry as he would shock and mark bass for his ongoing population studies, and we offered the Englishman the opportunity to experience something he had never done or seen before.  Moving along the shoreline during a high water year, bass after bass was netted, marked and returned to the lake, much to the pleasure of our visitor

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  • Who was running a camera and taking notes.  It was not long before a carp of about 15 pounds wallowed to the surface and I used the net to push it out of the electrical field.  “My God,” said the man who was visibly shaken, stopped his camera and took a seat, “do you have any idea how much a fish like that would be worth in England?”  “To eat,“ I asked? “No,“ he said, “a fish like that would cost the equivalent of at least $500 to be planted as a trophy fish for angling, and if caught would have to be released for the benefit of other anglers, but after a photo or two of course for proof and bragging rights!“  He went on to explain that unlike in America, most lakes or streams were on private property so that in order to go fishing it was necessary to purchase a “beat” (a section of water) and that a good carp “beat” was as highly valued as one for trout or Atlantic salmon.  As the day wore on he saw dozens more of the carp which impressed him more than the very large and healthy bass we were netting.

    The third thing that influenced my opinion was the joy I saw among Indochinese refugees, many of them Hmong, who were struggling to survive in a culture that must have been incredibly foreign and daunting to them.  Some literally begged for any scrap of fish that another angler might give to them, and the presentation of a carp became a cause for thanksgiving among them.

    As a result of the education provided by Bottroff and those who had a much greater appreciation for carp than I ever had, my attitude changed, and that was not easy for someone who considered himself above and beyond all – a bass guy.  In hindsight, I am glad to have accepted that in our lakes, which did not previously exist and are actually reservoirs, that all of “our” fish, from those species we love the most to those we don’t, are giving someone angling pleasure.  Like us, these species originated somewhere other than San Diego with some fighting against various sorts of discrimination, fair and otherwise for survival and a place at the table – and none more so than the common carp whether you wish to call it a rough fish, trash fish or sport fish.

    And when it comes to the table there is no shortage of stories and myths that condemn the carp as table fare and there are people around the world that would argue that like barracuda, mackerel and pike, a carp that is properly cared for, cleaned and prepared can make for an outstanding meal.  One day I will return to the Iowa diner that offered carp and fries as its featured item on the menu.

    Certainly there are those who feel justified in wanting to rid their world of carp, or pike or…bass, and there are paths available to them including going to their state resource agency or commission to present their case.  In some cases, the effort originates with the resource agency.  Following the illegal introduction of northern pike into Lake Davis in Northern California and millions of dollars spent on eradication efforts, the DFW put in place regulations requiring that anglers immediately kill any pike they have caught, cut off its head and notify the department immediately.  There is also a history in California for the removal of carp, and at one time a commercial permit was issued for the trapping and sale of carp at El Capitan.

    Should the County of San Diego or anglers be persuaded by the young Ranger at Morena to request that state regulations be written to require the killing of all carp caught at Lake Morena, they have the option of petitioning the state Fish and Wildlife Commission and Department for same.

    As a practical matter however, the environmental conditions in local reservoirs are a controlling factor and have the greatest impact on carp populations.  With good water levels and water quality, carp occupy a niche within the biomass that has a semblance of balance with other species.  Maintain a low water level that promotes poor water quality with low oxygen levels and the bulk of most other species will decline because of those conditions while carp will survive, appear to thrive and give the appearance of having wiped out the other fish in the lake, though that is almost never the case in reality.

    There is another option available to anglers that just might be the best, and that is to gear up, go out and catch some hard-fighting carp as others around the world have done for centuries.  On any given day you might find a groups of dedicated carp anglers, including European and Asian anglers sitting in chairs behind rod holders along the shoreline of local lakes while watching for a strike.  Listen closely and you might here them sharing dough ball recipes that in some cases have been passed down for generations – but there are plenty of carp aficionados who pursue them exclusively with artificials – in most cases flies.

    Local fly fishing guide Conway Bowman, best known for connecting fly casters with mako sharks, organizes carp fly fishing tournaments at Lake Henshaw, preferably during times when grasshoppers are abundant and there is enough of a breeze to blow them off course and into the lake, creating a feeding frenzy by the opportunistic carp taking them as they struggle on the surface.  It is a time relished by many of this regions top fly fishermen who cast their favorite hopper imitations in the hope of seeing and hearing them slurped by a fat carp.  Absent the presence of hoppers, small nymph patterns work extremely well fished in the same manner popularized by trout guides at Lake Crowley.

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  • Another friend and expert fly fisherman who has fished around the world lives in the Washington, D.C., area where he spent his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  One afternoon my friend was enjoying an outdoor lunch next to the small and historic canal that bisects Georgetown.  He happened to notice fish rising in the canal and upon closer inspection found that they were carp coming up to eat mulberries from the drooping bushes that that lined a section of the canal.  Taking a few mulberries as models he went home and tied up a few flies to “match the hatch.”  With his fly rod in hand, he returned to the canal a day later to drift his mulberry flies down the current to feeding carp – and they worked, time and again.  He returns to the canal about the same time each year and some of his best fishing stories involve the reaction of people seeing him chase hooked carp along the narrow canal before finally being able to tail and release them.

    Such friends are among the very small minority who have set hearsay and prejudice aside to take a closer look and appreciate this “non-game fish” that can be as game as any to hook and subdue with the appropriate fishing tackle.

    Describing carp and attitudes toward them can be varied and perplexing, but it may be that McClane’s Encyclopedia said it best in concluding, “The carp has good attributes except public relations.”

    For those interested, there are even organizations for carp anglers.  On an international scale there is the International Carp Fishing Association which can be found at ICFA.com, and domestically there is the Carp Anglers Group which offers support at carpanglersgroup.com.

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  • About Author

    Jim Brown

    Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.


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    Jim Brown
    Jim Brown

    Thank you Johnny Ringo, I appreciate your comment and do my best to give SDFish members something that it a little different from time to time.

    Gary Nelson
    Gary Nelson

    Very interesting article. Might have to try carp fishing


    Nice article