An appreciation for the carp we have

Asian carp have not made it to the Allegheny River, yet, but there are plenty of common carp around.

The carp that can be found in the river and Allegheny Reservoir were introduced to the United States more than 100 years ago. They are native to Asia – but they are not ‘Asian carp.’

Common carp are omnivores, eating everything from water plants to insects, crustaceans, crayfish, and types of worms. Unlike their Asian relatives, they are not filter feeders that just keep eating, stirring up sediment, and generally disrupting the food chain.

They are also big, strong, and not easy to catch.

Despite all that, carp are not a popular game fish, at least not around here.

Still, there are people, including Jason Oliphant of Warren, who target them. “Carp are an unappreciated, powerful, common fish,” he said. “I truly enjoy the rush.”

He believes the fish have an undeserved reputation.

“The misconception is that they are smelly, lazy creatures that roll in mud and bottom feed,” Oliphant said. “In truth, carp are powerful, well adapted to many environments and given the choice prefer weedy, clean-water eddies living mainly on nymphs, small worms, and other aquatic bugs.”

There’s no sitting in a chair, enjoying a beverage while fishing for carp – at least not for those who actually hope to catch them.

“For those that haven’t targeted them, it can be a surprise on how hard it is to regularly catch them,” Oliphant said. “Carp often feed in shallow, eddy water and can easily be spooked.”

“I like the fact that I’m nearly always sight fishing these guys and not casting for hours in blank water hoping something happens,” he said. “Carp do not ambush their prey. Thus fishing for them is more deliberate. Instead of covering lots of ground… normally you have to slow down, get stealthy and quietly encourage a group of them to start eating.”

As anyone who has taken a loaf of bread or a handful of French fries or rolls to certain areas of the reservoir knows, chumming the water can lead to a carp feeding frenzy .

“Bread is more eagerly eaten than corn,” Oliphant said. “This is helped by the fact that some people feed bread to the ducks – which falls to the water and is gobbled by passing carp – and it starts melting into the water leaving a cloudy, paste that the fish clearly like.”

But, bread as bait is problematic. Corn is easier.

“You throw lots of corn into the water and cast your line out,” Oliphant said. “So long as you do not spook them, the carp will start checking all the interesting new food in the river. If you have not scared them and they start to enjoy this new banquet; the whole pod of them will begin feeding.”

Once carp are feeding, they’re ready for catching.

It’s a catch-and-release effort for Oliphant.

“I’ve heard rumors all my life on people that do eat them,” he said. “Every attempt I’ve ever made to eat one has ended badly.”

So he fills his freezer with something more palatable and catches carp for the fun of it. “There’s no point in killing such powerful, large sportsfish,” he said.

Some believe carp are too plentiful and are hurting the populations of other fish.

Experts from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Forest Service are among those who track fish populations in the area. For now, none of those agencies is working on large-scale efforts to reduce carp numbers.

But they’re keeping an eye on the situation.

Private efforts may result in a slight reduction in the population.

“The biologists say we’re getting way too many carp, especially in the reservoir,” Grizzly Gary Wert said.

As a way of cutting down the population and raising some money for Disabled American Veterans, Wert is among the organizers of a carp fishing tournament to be held July 27.

Wert had some experience fishing for carp while growing up in Pittsburgh. “We used to take the streetcar down to the Point and fish for carp,” he said.

He suggested that many participants in the tournament will be looking to find recipes for a good bait.

“Carp like stinky stuff,” Wert said.

Dough-balls of various compositions are popular.

“I used to make one that my Uncle Ray taught me,” he said.

But sophisticated bait is not required. “All you need is worms, or a can of corn – an excellent way to catch carp,” he said.

Like Oliphant, those fishing in the tournament will not eat their catch. However, the anglers in the tournament will not release their carp. “We’ve arranged to have the fish disposed of as fertilizer,” Wert said. “We’ll be getting rid of some of the carp that need to go.”

“We feel this will be a win-win-win,” he said.

The anglers in the tournament will be able to submit their three largest carp at the weigh-in. The totals should be impressive.

The biggest carp Oliphant has landed recently was a 34-incher in the 15-pound range.

“Hang on to your rod!” he said.