From trash fish to trophy status, the common carp’s prestige has changed over the years, and the quest to catch one is attracting anglers to the Rocky Mountain fringe for something other than trout.
[by Jack Ballard]
It was the age of “progress,” or so it was called at the time. Convinced the native flora and fauna of the New World was lacking in many respects, European immigrants to that slice of the North American continent now known as the United States took matters into their own hands. Technology and husbandry were sufficiently advanced in the late 19th century to transplant life-forms from finches to fishes to America from yonder continents of the world. Species from Europe and Asia splattered into the States by the dozens, often to cure a perceived ecological problem or merely satisfy the whims of enterprising immigrants.
Thus came the house sparrow, known to many in the 1800s as the weaver finch. Sparrows were released in droves in the 1850s on the eastern seaboard and subsequently transplanted westward. In three decades, Americans realized they were naught but messy little soilers of sidewalks and swing sets. An 1883 newspaper article in Pennsylvania had the following to say of the birds.
“They were imported into this country from Europe some years ago as a destroyer of insects, but it has been found they are not insectivorous. Besides they drive away all our native songbirds and give no equivalent. Let them all be killed.”
A finned species imported to streams of America had a nearly identical history as the house sparrow. Common carp were secured from Europe by fish culturists in New York as early as 1831. The creation of the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in 1871 brought the federal government into the fish-stocking business and spawned an “official” fascination with carp. Carp quickly became the golden offspring of the stocking program, widely disseminated and publicized as a delicious and prodigious source of food for settlers. But the romance was shortlived. Less than a decade after the state of Minnesota’s Fish Commission planted its first lakes with carp, residents were complaining about their impacts on native fishes and water quality. But the jig was up, not only in Minnesota but also across the country, where carp had been tossed into creeks from railroad trestles and ridden in barrel-laden boxcars to take residence in expansive lakes. Common carp are now the most abundant fish inhabiting inland waters of the contiguous United States.
But they are, in the vernacular of most worm-dunkers and fly casters, “trash,” finned wretches possessed of a bottom-of-the-fish-barrel status comparable to suckers and snakeheads. Quite recently I received an email in response to an article I’d posted on my website suggesting carp fishing was one of the attractions of the angling scene in the Boulder, Colorado, area. The scribe had trout-something in his cyber-signature and chastened me for promoting carp fishing. “You can say what you want, they’re still a ‘trash’ fish.” End of story.
A Different Challenge
But not so fast. Like a landfill located not far from my home that profits from methane siphoned from its waste pile, a proverbial silver lining is stitched into the carp catastrophe of the 19th century. Mark Boname, a fly guide from Casper, Wyoming, is a self-professed carp addict. He also guides anglers intent on their own carp quest, disaffected trout teasers and Western aspirants desiring a warm-up for a sight-fishing sojourn on the saltwater flats of Florida.
Whether you like them or not, carp are here to stay, asserts Boname. It’s not that, as a fan of Cyprinus carpio, he’s looking for a conservation program or slot limits to protect trophy specimens of trash. He’s instead keen on the idea of making something worthwhile of an aquatic nuisance, the de facto status of carp in most North American waters they fin. What on earth could entice a trout guide on one of the best rainbow runs (the North Platte River) in the country to convert to the carp cult?
Ball Peen Craw
HOOK: Tiemco 3769, sizes 6 and 8.
THREAD: Dark brown 3/0.
TAIL: Rootbeer Accent Flash and brown barred Sili-Legs.
BODY: Near Nuff Crayfish Brown SLF and Rusty Brown Crawdub Crayfish Dubbing.
EYES: Black medium bead chain.
“They’re very smart and strong. Landing a big carp is an absolute thrill,” confesses Boname.
However, one might proffer the same description for a two-foot brown trout in the guide’s home river. There’s more to carp fishing, though, than tangling with a tough customer. In an odd turn of events, outfitters in a number of the trout bastions of the West actually host paying clients who ply the fly toward the rounded face of a carp.
Blake Jackson is another Casper-area guide who is finding a paying market for carp. Jackson manages the Crazy Rainbow outfitting business and frequently mans the oars for anglers floating the legendary Gray Reef segment of the North Platte River. A former college shot-putter, Blake can turn a driftboat with a single, commanding sweep of an oar. He’s equally at home poling a skiff. The Crazy Rainbow has added a flats boat to its flotilla, a craft that sees its action not on the river, but on the shallow bays of Pathfinder Reservoir. Jackson frequently lands atop the poling platform himself, stealthily directing the boat and its angler(s) in the direction of schools of feeding carp.