This coming Saturday is our annual “Carp-O-Rama” event at Pawnee Reservoir west of Lincoln.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. . . fishing for carp? On purpose? NO WAY! Or, how can you fish for carp, why not kill them all?
Let me address that second question first: Yep, I am proud to say that part of my career as a fisheries biologist has been spent trying to eliminate common carp. Kill ‘em all! Common carp are an invasive, exotic species introduced to this country over a hundred years ago. At the time it seemed like a great idea–common carp were going to feed the masses. The reality is that common carp have been the ruin of many of our fisheries. In some situations fisheries biologists have and will continue to try to eliminate common carp in order to improve water quality, habitat and the fishing for other species of more desirable sport fish. If I could snap my magic fingers and make common carp disappear from all of North America, I would be snapping in exactly 0.01 seconds (and right after that I would snap away all the other invasive Asian carp species too). But, that ain’t gonna happen. Fisheries biologists will continue to eliminate and kill common carp where practical, but in other waters we will have to live with them, utilize them and even promote fishing for them. Is that a contradiction? Nope, that is called “management”, and effective fisheries managers will make the most of each individual fishery depending on what they have to work with. There is no contradiction.
So, how about fishing for common carp? Carp are absolutely, in their own right, a fish worthy of pursuit. As a matter of fact, they are the smartest fish that swim in our waters and can test the most skilled anglers. Another reason I always have thought that carp are fun to catch and worthy of pursuit is on average they are big fish! Think about it, what other species of fish regularly offers anglers a chance of catching a fish big enough to test an angler’s tackle and skill? In fact one good reason to fish for carp is the opportunity to “practice” catching big fish. Spend some time catching carp and you will be much better prepared when you finally hook that big bass, walleye, wiper or catfish!
Now as a pointy-headed fisheries biologist, I approach my pursuit of any species of fish from the angle of understanding as much about that fish as possible. A buddy of mine once said that “Fishing is mostly about understanding fish”, and Bruce was right on! So, let me ramble on about common carp for awhile.
I will always tell you that the brain inside the head of the fish you pursue, even the biggest fish, even common carp, is about the size of the end of your little finger. The fish we pursue ain’t no rocket surgeons. But, I already mentioned that carp are probably the smartest fish that swim in our waters. If you are fishing waters where common carp are not pursued, not targeted by anglers, you will probably find they are relatively easy to catch. But if you put some activity, and especially some fishing activity targeted at common carp on that body of water, the carp will become a lot harder to catch. Google “carp fishing” and you will find literally volumes of information on baits and rigs and things you never dreamt about. Much of that has been developed in Europe where common carp have been caught & released for years, even centuries. Those sophisticated tactics will work here in good old Nebraska, you betcha, but you can probably start simple with a plain ole hook and sinker and then work up from there.
“You are what you eat.”
Carp are omnivores–that means they eat a lot of things. Primarily they feed by sucking, literally vacuuming, stuff off the bottom. They often feed by rooting around in bottom sediments and then sorting out a variety of edible vegetable and animal materials from those bottom sediments (and that feeding activity is the big reason they are so detrimental to water quality and aquatic habitat). I have seen common carp on the Missouri River feeding on live, young-of-the-year gizzard shad that were pinned by currents right up against the shoreline (every fish in the river was coming up to suck gizzard shad off the surface that morning, gar, drum, catfish, white bass, walleye, carp, you name it). Most of us have stories of common carp taking artificial lures of some type, BUT most of the time you will want to imitate some small aquatic insect to catch common carp–a tactic employed by many fly-anglers. OR, more likely, you will present some type of natural or prepared bait on or near the bottom. Nightcrawlers or worms have accounted for a lot of common carp, and so have a variety of other baits, especially corn.
Common carp have a very good sense of smell and taste; the barbels that carp have in each corner of the mouth are one way they sense scents and flavors. Hard-core carp anglers will have a favorite dough bait recipe or may fish with corn or some other bait, but many of them will “kick their baits up a notch” by adding a variety of flavors. Common carp appear to have a sweet tooth; they love sweet, fruity scents and flavors (if you find a mulberry tree overhanging and dropping berries into the water–fish it! Common carp and other species of fish like channel catfish L-O-V-E mulberries). Consider adding a Jell-O mix to your dough bait or corn, or Vanilla extract. If you find a carp specialty shop on the internet they will have a variety interesting scents, baits and even amino acids that can be added to carp baits. Common carp also like it HOT! Yep, add a bottle of Tobasco sauce to your corn.
Now I doubt that the carp actually believe those scents and tastes are food for them, but there is no doubt those scents and flavors will attract and catch common carp. If you are catching fish, if it is working, why ask “why”? However, keep in mind that over time the carp may become “conditioned” to those exotic scents and tastes and if they have been “burned” on those baits you might have to switch it up. If one bait quits working, you might have to eat it while coming up with something different for the carp!
There are a variety of dough bait recipes. Here is one I picked up from some very successful carp anglers:
A glass of water and a small cup, a glass of yellow corn meal, 3 1/2 teaspoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of Quaker Oat Bran hot cereal (size of glass does not matter: the portion of water has to exceed the portion of corn meal. For example, 1 3/4 cups of water to 1 1/2 cups of corn meal).
Place a small sauce pan on the stove on high heat. Pour hot water in the bowl and mix in the sugar and hot cereal. Stir in the sugar and oats until all the sugar dissolves. When the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium and slowly stir in the corn meal. After adding the corn meal, keep stirring until you can feel the mixture becoming sticky. At that point remove the pan from the stove. Take the dough from the pan and place it in a large plastic bag; continue to knead the dough in the bag. After kneading for several minutes roll out the dough inside the bag to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Remove the dough from the bag and let it cool. After cooling roll the dough up into a ball and cover it with a paper towel. You can put the towel-covered ball bag into a plastic bag and store in the ‘fridge until ready to go fishing.
That is a basic dough bait recipe, adjust the different components to get the right consistency. After you make a few batches, you will have it perfected. With that basic recipe, you can experiment by adding a variety of flavors; use your imagination. You might also consider mixing some peanut butter with the dough bait as you bait hooks.
Did you know common carp have teeth? Nope, you ain’t gonna find them anywhere near their lips. They have teeth much like molars located at the back of their throat. They are called pharyngeal teeth.
When common carp decide they want to eat some food item that they have sucked up, they shift it to the back of their throats where it is crushed between those pharyngeal teeth and a hard leathery patch at the roof of their throat. That gives you some ideas about the feeding behavior of carp and some clues about catching, especially hooking carp. If you find some hard-core carp fishing information you will likely find references to “hair rigs”.
That is what a hair rig looks like and it works because when a carp moves the bait, the corn in that illustration, to the back of their throat, the hook is positioned right near the “lips” where an angler will get an excellent hook set.
Speaking of lips. Carp have sensitive lips and the barbels are also very sensitive “touch” organs. They smell and taste for food items but they also feel with their lips and barbels. You will find that using soft braided lines for leaders and hair rigs will result in more hook-ups because that feels more natural on their lips than a hard monofilament or fluorocarbon line.
I have rambled on for too long. Come on out to “Carp-O-Rama” on Saturday and have some fun! You can learn even more there about common carp and carp fishing!