A Story from the Big River Reader

"The Carp is the Queen of Rivers: a stately, good and very subtle fish."

--Izaak Walton

Carp -- Queen of Rivers or Pig With Fins?

By Pamela Eyden
November 1993

People call them rough fish, and accuse them of eating walleye eggs and ruining ducks' food. Kids mutilate them and leave them to rot on the river bank. Bow hunters use them for target practice.

Is this any way to treat a fish that British and Russian anglers prize, a fish that is popular in European, Asian and southern U.S. cuisines? Carp is the most widely eaten fish in the world -- why do Northerners despise it?

Is carp too common for us? Do we distrust fish with mustaches?

Tom Dickson, carp fishing enthusiast and staff writer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division said, "People up here have a prejudice against what they call rough fish -- carp, buffalo, gar and others. We don't even know why people call them 'rough'. It couldn"t be their scales, because the scales on a walleye are rougher than those on a buffalo fish."

Dickson has been working on this problem for a number of years. In 1990 he co-wrote a book with Rob Buffler called Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit, Lore and Cuisine of Buffalo, Carp, Mooneye, Gar and Other Rough Fish, which sold well in Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, where carp is the third most popular game fish, but it bombed in the North.

"Maybe in the North, we have so much other fishing we can pick and choose," Dickson speculated. "Maybe it's because people prefer walleye, which is a white, bland, boneless fillet that is easier to eat. Walleye tastes like tofu, in a way, compared to carp, which has more oil, like salmon or trout, which gives it more flavor. Carp is also more trouble to clean."

The oil is what may give carp a bad taste, too, if it has grown up in polluted water. Carp can and do survive in extremely polluted water, but they won't taste good.

"If you catch a walleye in August in the Minnesota River, which is the most polluted river in the state, it's not going to taste good," said Dixon. "Carp from the Minnesota won't taste good, either."

Carp from the Upper Mississippi River are very good to eat, Dickson said. Two of his favorite carp-fishing spots are just below the Coon Rapids Dam, near Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and just below the Ford Dam near downtown St. Paul.

"During the summer of 1988, which was a low-water year, the carp were lined up below the dam -- you could have walked across their backs from one shore to the other," he recalled. "Rob and I pulled ten pounders out of there until our arms were sore."

At the end of a fishing line, carp put up a good fight -- like a snapping turtle or smallmouth bass, some people say.

In the early 1600s, Izaak Walton, the granddaddy of thoughtful anglers, devoted a chapter of his book The Compleat Angler to carp:

The Carp is the Queen of Rivers: a stately, good and very subtle fish. The Carp, if he have water-room and good feed, will grow to a very great bigness and length; I have heard, to be much above a yard long.

He is a very subtle fish, and hard to be caught. If you will fish for a Carp, you must put on a very large measure of patience, especially to fish for a River-Carp.

Dickson's book offers tips, diagrams and recipes for treating the carp well after catching it:

1) Cut out all the red meat, which contains the most oil and is responsible for what some people call the 'muddy' taste of carp;

2) Score fillets deeply, three-quarters of the way through, so the heat or cooking oil can get in and disintegrate the floating bones inside;

3) Or, follow a diagram of where the floating bones are and either score through or remove that part of the fillet.

Carp are big-lipped, big-muscled members of the minnow family and are native to Asia. They were brought to Europe in 1227 and to America in 1872, when a businessman named Poppe shipped 83 live carp from Germany to California. After nursing the four survivors back to health, he distributed their spawn to game departments across the nation. Back in those days, carp was a possible solution to the public clamoring for more fish to eat. In a sales letter to the Minnesota Game Department, Poppe said:

There ought to be one person in every county who would raise choice carp as stock fish to sell to others to fatten for their own tables. It would be a cheap, but sumptuous food and at the same time very convenient, as they are ready to be eaten at all times of the year.

The Bureau of Fisheries agreed with the carp farming scheme and in 1883 distributed 260,000 carp to all but two of the 300 U.S. Congressional Districts. During that same year, people began to notice a dramatic decrease in wild celery and wild rice in Lake Erie, which is shallower than the other Great Lakes. Naturalized carp were held responsible for the damage. They never quite caught on as sports fish in the northern states, as they had in Europe, but today naturalized carp continue to thrive throughout most of the U.S.

An old regulation said rough fish caught by hook and line could not be returned to the water, but this law was changed in 1981. There is no reason to remove such fish. There are too many carp for it to make a difference, and suckers, red horse, buffalo and other native fish are absolutely benign. "In fact, they're very sensitive. They cannot tolerate polluted water," Dickson said. Carp will uproot vegetation and cloud the water in shallow areas, blocking light and thus contributing to algae problems. But they do no harm to deep water, and they do not eat other fish or fish eggs, as has been rumored.

Commercial fishermen haul in several million pounds of carp from the Upper Mississippi River each year. Most is shipped east for processing. But this may change soon. Stories have surfaced lately about entrepreneurs who want to build carp processing plants on the banks of the Mississippi River near La Crosse, or in the Adams-Friendship, Wisconsin, area. According to articles in the Prairie du Chien Courier Press (9-29-93 and 10-13-93), the potential market for Mississippi River carp is worldwide and includes products such as specialty foods, animal feed, fertilizers and binding agents.

Meanwhile, Lake Pepin Fisheries ships a million to a million and a half pounds of carp each year to markets in New York and Chicago, according to Steve Smith in the La Crosse market.

Bud Ramer, a longtime carp advocate, also displays carp on beds of crushed ice in Ramer's Fish Market, in Winona. Customers can buy smoked carp, which is as tasty as any and better than most smoked fish found hereabouts; pickled carp, which easily passes for herring; or fresh fillets, which can be fried, baked, frozen or dried.

"Carp is the universal fish," said Ramer. "Carp have gotten very bad press for some reason. But they're not going to go away. We might as well start eating them."

A Frenchman holds the world record for carp -- a 74-pounder.

© 1993 Big River
Carp drawing by Duane Raver/USFWS

Update: Bud Ramer closed his fish market in 2005. He died in 2006.

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River.