Guest Editorial

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

The lesson of the carp

Hey, it's spring! Well, almost spring. Now, when spring comes, most of the local river-rats head toward either the river or a lake. To go fishing of course.

And when they're fishing, they're usually dreaming of catching that trophy walleye. Sometimes, we use the annual fishing trip as an excuse to get away from spouses, home chores left undone all winter, or maybe to get out of the house and commune with nature.

Restore the soul, you know. But a fishing trip is a fishing trip, pure and simple. I hardly ever miss a chance to go fishing. Once settled in along the bank or out on the water, fishing starts in earnest. Several casts. Several more, maybe. Then, the line tightens. It starts to move. And about that time, the angler realizes a fish is on the end of the line and starts to pull back, maybe reeling line in frantically while the rod bends.

The quarry is in sight; a pretty-good sized fish. Had to be that, to cause the rod to bend in such an arc. And about that time, the cussing starts. "It's a carp," goes the all-too-familiar refrain. That's sometimes punctuated with epitaphs of various and sundry sorts; none repeatable in mixed company. Nobody likes carp, it seems. I know some of the reasons why people don't like carp. They tend to pick up "taints" or off-flavors from the food items they've been eating. That's IF the angler takes them home and tries to eat them. Remember the old recipes for cooking carp: put the carp on a plank, shove both carp and plank into the oven, cook both at 350 degrees for two hours, pull both out of the oven, throw the carp away, and eat the plank.

Another good recipe I've picked up along the years is for "booted carp." In this one, the carp is cleaned, but not scaled. The whole fish is then put inside a boot; preferably hip-waders. The boot is then filled with two quarts of vodka, one quart of gin, a jar of olives and three cherries (I don't know where the cherries came into the recipe). This whole mixture is then left to marinate the carp; overnight, preferably. Several hours is probably long enough. The carp is removed from the boot, thrown away, and the marinating mixture is then consumed.

The advice given to me about the second recipe is to consume the mixture slowly. If consumed too fast, the carp arises from the grass, garbage can, or wherever it's been placed, whacks the fisherman over the head, giving him a headache the next day, and gives the fisherman weird hallucinations of walleye trying to bite his or her posterior. No mention of washing out the boot first.

Fun aside, one of the reasons people don't like carp is because they're survivors. In fact, as a species, they survive so well, they cause lots of problems with more desirable native American game species. When carp are present in marshes, they grub-up the silty bottom muck, making the water turbid and cloudy, which cuts off sunlight to plants that ducks eat. When ducks don't eat, that makes duck hunters mad. I think carp will eat almost anything they can get in their mouths; fish eggs are consumed right along with bottom muck and marl, crayfish, frog eggs and small minnows, with some seeds and floating vegetation thrown in for good measure. That's why they're survivors. And that's also why there's so many of them in comparison to game species like northern or walleye or even bluegill. Once a pair of carp gets into a body of water, it's "carp-time," forever.

But it isn't the carp's fault they taste so "yucky." Carp were brought into the U.S. because the early German settlers wanted them here. In Europe, the carp was highly-prized for its delicate flesh and fighting characteristics. But that was back around 1870, and well before the waters of both Europe and America got polluted.

I've eaten carp from cold-water streams with flesh so good, it would make your mouth water. In fact, bass fillets were often passed up on the dinner table in favor of a chunk of carp. Now, I know that's hard to believe, but it's true.

I don't know if I could do the same thing today, though. Years have passed; the cold-water stream is now warmer. And, instead of a gravel bottom one could see through several feet of water, I couldn't see anything deeper than a few inches the last time I was there. When I got curious as to the bottom, all I found was a layer of mud. And on that mud was a thick film of blue-green algae.

I suspect the carp from that stream would taste pretty much like the local carp. Given the types of pollutants entering a river system, the fish (carp) might taste like oil, diesel fuel, gasoline, manure, soybeans, or believe it or not, corn. The latter two flavors were developed on purpose; carp in ponds were fed both corn and soybeans. Yes, they ate both; and, yes, the carp got fat.

Maybe when we get mad at having caught a carp, we're really mad at ourselves. That's for letting the water get so poor in quality that about the only fish able to live in it are carp. When oxygen levels in lakes and rivers get low enough to kill most native game species, the carp is thriving. And when water levels get high, game species can't see minnows, but the carp is out there, on the mud-flats, opportunists.

The angry angler invariably snags a big carp. Which tells me that the small carp went somewhere - most likely down a northern or walleye's gullet. At least the carp are getting used in some way. Just don't throw them back into the water; too many there already.