<
>

Preparation "H"

7/30/2008

In this case, the H of course, stands for hypophthalmichthys, the genus for the Asian carp which, loosely translated from Greek means, "and you thought the common carp was ugly."

The eyes and mouth of the bighead carp and its more acrobatic kinfolk the silver carp seem to have drifted strangely out of place. (Picture the Sloth character from the '80s movie "The Goonies.")

"Flying carp" made sensationalistic news a few years ago: There were reports of noisy jet skiers getting hit upside the head with fish. And to think I wasn't even in the area.

Thinking I'd check the status of one of our waterways' new inhabitants, I contacted Greg Sass, who directs the Illinois River Biological Station with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Havana, Ill.

He said the range of the Asian carp is "still expanding," which is good news for approximately no one. This much we also know about the beasts:

  • Asian carp get big: almost 4 feet long, and get close to 100 pounds heavy.

  • The silver carp jumps when startled. I've only seen footage of these leaping fish. It reminded me of electro-fishing when a 20-pound grass carp felt an electrical current and launched like a torpedo. This is not a tail-walking, head-shaking fury; it's more like goosing a scuba tank.

  • These escapees from aquaculture institutions are now close to the Great Lakes. According to Dr. Sass, bighead carp have made it to within 15 miles of an electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which carries the city's wastewater away from Lake Michigan. Now the fish is only 38 miles from riding the canal back to the big lake.

  • And if warped baseboards weren't enough, this year's Midwest floods have been perfect for the Asian carp spawn. "In the La Grange Reach of the Illinois River [Peoria to Beardstown, Ill.] there are literally billions of young-of-year Asian carps in the river right now," Dr. Sass said. "This spawning event, on top of an enormous spawn this past August, makes it likely that the problem is not going away any time soon. Even a 1 percent survival rate of these juveniles will greatly increase the Illinois River population."

Let's see. One percent of "literally billions" is ... literally more carp than you want to think about.

Bighead carp are already, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the "most abundant" species in some areas of the Mississippi River. And it looks like if/when they arrive, we may well be stuck with them, as they survive in wide ranges of temperature, dissolved oxygen, and other habitat conditions.

Personally, I'm pulling for a sudden spike in fat young-of-year blue catfish.

But we aren't just going to sit tights and take it. In addition to the Great Lakes electric barriers, scientists are tinkering with acoustic bubble barriers and chemical deterrents, as well as constant monitoring with trammel nets and electro-fishing.

Commercial fishermen are trying to catch as many carp as they can, but have to use stout gear to do so, because of the tremendous size and numbers of the animals. The fish are reported to be quite tasty, but marketing any fish named "carp" has its challenges in this country. And it doesn't help that the thing looks like it melted on a dashboard.

Then there are the sportfisherman.

Anglers are talented, crafty and innovative. If the S.O.B. eats, we can catch it. And boy, do they eat. With no stomach, they must continually eat. But, thing is, they are planktivores, filter-feeding on tiny organisms such as copepods, a sort of tiny aquatic crustacean that makes head lice look cuddly by comparison. Normally, this diet is reserved for almost all larval fish and such mild-mannered fish as bigmouth buffalo and gizzard shad.

Yet it appears anglers are managing to catching them on hook and line. One method — though still kind of snagging — is described in the informative article "Carp Lemonade" by Duane Chapman, a Missouri biologist.
Under a large bobber, surround a large dough ball with a "nest" of tiny hooks tied above it so that they dangle around the dough ball. Another report claimed success with cheese.

A Kansas fly fisherman, Mike Grose, wrote about hooking bighead carp on heavy minnow pattern flies. It "ripped off all my fly line and 150 yards of Dacron backing," he wrote. "The only thing I could do is hold on and enjoy the fight while it lasted."

This spring, David Hendee of the Omaha World-Herald wrote of a 75-year-old grandfather named Leo Riley who thought he had snagged a pylon when he hooked a carp in DeSoto Lake on the Iowa-Nebraska border.

It took over an hour and very tired arms to land the 75.9-pounder — a fish that broke the previous Iowa record for bighead by nearly 20 pounds. "We put on a good show for everybody on the bank," said Riley, who used a silver No. 5 Rapala Shad rap on 10-pound line.

Curling, hotdog-eating contests, racing a giant cheese wheel downhill ... there seems to be no end to what we will call a sport.

Late to that proud pantheon is bow hunting Asian carp both in the water and out. Herd them into a cove and then start stomping and they'll jump — sometimes right in the boat.

Sounds like the Discovery Channel's new reality show.

For physical protection, garbage can lids are standard issue on some U.S. Geological Survey research boats. (Ryck Lydecker, look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... Splash! Whack! Ouch! ... Super Carp!) River boats are evolving into something Mad Max might drive.

The common carp has been with us since the mid-1800s, but only recently has carp sportfishing seemed to gain in popularity. The Asian carp has only been on the loose since the 1980s.

We may not have the same luxury of time before sportfishing these carp. So just where do you hook a copepod?

Andy Whitcomb, a freelance writer and designer, can be reached through his web site, justkeepreeling.com.