Every so often I am reminded that even fish are subject to cultural relativism and historical prejudice. Allow me to explain the thought. It is somewhat odd and unreasonable that certain species of fish are viewed by fisherman as trash fish in certain parts of the world while in others reign as the supreme sportfish. There are several examples of this. Perhaps the most notable is the common carp, a fish introduced in the 1872 from Germany by J.A. Poppe from Sonoma, California who imported a mere five specimens to rear in his pond as a cheap and fast-growing food source that, like most invasive species, got out of control and eventually managed to establish itself in virtually every water system in Continental North America. It has always been perceived a trash fish, a bottom feeder unfit for both human consumption or sport, its primary use by importers intended as animal food and fertilizer. While there has been some changes in the mindset of anglers in last decade or so (perhaps as a result of globalization and the internet) , and the acceptance by a few «early adopters» that the carp is indeed a worthy sportfish, there are still very few North American anglers that target carp, which is really quite a shame since most of our waters hold healthy populations of carp that can weigh upwards of forty pounds and that can pull like a Kenworth semi truck, testing both anglers skill and equipment. Truth be told they can really put a bass to shame in terms of fight and stamina their only apparent shortcoming is that they do not leap out of the water when hooked, preferring to vaporize the drags pads of your reel with each blistering, bonefish-like run that seems to never end. Yet mention in conversation that you are a carp fisherman and you immediately raise eyebrows and are perceived as somewhat eccentric and odd. Until recently there were very few carp clubs dedicated to this fishery although there are now several hundred across the country.
A short hop across the Big Pond to the U.K. , however, and it is a different story. For anglers in Europe, for instance, the common carp reigns as the supreme sport fish with thousands of fervent devotees that fish exclusively for this species. Their techniques, equipment, approach, science, baits preparation methods, and general know-how of the sport is incredibly advanced and they are presently light years ahead of their North American counterparts. They are so passionate about this gamefish in England that most carp over twenty pounds have been caught several times over and are known to regular anglers: some have been even known by name, and their lives recorded in angling records. And while a twenty pounder is a legendary creature in England with a pedigree, there are several waters within twenty minutes of my front door polluted with fish in the thirty to forty pound class that have never been targeted. T’is a bloody shame as most European anglers only dream of someday fishing for Carp in North America while here it is basically an under-utilized fishery.
A few years ago a friend of mine convinced me to target them, particularly in the Spring, when they gathered in numerous pods in shallow water before spawning and were easier to catch. These are perhaps the smartest of all freshwater fish, Einstein’s when compared to the average trout, the bonefish of freshwater, and by no means are they an easy fish to catch, particularly on a fly. Success depends on the angler’s stealthy approach, patience, powers of observation, patience,and understanding of their sometimes complex learning behavior – and more patience. Oh, did I mention you needed to be patient? They are extremely sensitive the slightest changes in their environment and will spook if you so much as breathe too loud or dare to stare at them too long – it is like they have a sixth sense when being predated upon. Sometimes the best way to fish for them is to find an area that holds good numbers of them, get into position with the fly rod at the ready, line curled at your feet, stand completely immobile for as long as it takes for them to come around to you and then sight cast to them with a short, well-controlled presentation. They are a very challenging and exciting fish and my first carp – taking me almost to the end of my backing on its first run - made me a believer. Flies that consistently produce include most caddis, nymph, and mayfly patterns, generally in sizes 12-16. These fish are also real leader shy so long and finer tippetts are often neccesary.
There are also other fish that fit the same bill as the carp. For different reasons, and perhaps not altogether unjustifiable, the snakehead is a fish that has gotten some seriously bad press and is need of both a good PR agent and marketing campaign to re-brand its monstrous image as the harbinger of death in our waters. The mere mention of its name following its discovery led to paranoid hysteria and fear amongst the general public that hadn’t been seen since the McCarthy era and the Cold War. The snakehead is an illegally introduced species that was first discovered in 2002 in a pond behind a mall in Crofton, Maryland and then slowly spread throughout the Potomac and Delaware river systems. Like the carp, it also is highly invasive and several species of snakehead are presently well established in Several northern US states as well as Florida and California. But perhaps more unusual than its sudden appearance was the accompanying McCarthyesque paranoia and fear-mongering surrounding its aggresive nature and behavior that made the creature a national media sensation,often fueled by ignorance, misinformation, and high ratings. It was billed as the frankenfish and fishzilla, a menacing fish with a ravenous appetite for anything, including dogs and small children, and capable of breathing outside of water and travelling long distances across land in search of food or water – you weren’t even safe on land with these creatures. It prompted governments at both the national and state levels to take action and it now is illegal in all states to release a snakehead if it is caught – it must be killed and reported to local Fish & Game officials. As another invasive species there is no respect for the snakehead and like the carp, they will never be eradicated despite the best efforts of fisheries biologists, rotenoe, bureaucrats, or reams of legislative policy. In time they will become a fact of life in our lakes and rivers and like most other introduced species, they will find a niche in our ecosystem, and a new level of balance will be restored.
As a species the snakehead is truly a remarkable fish, one of the most vicious freshwater fish in the world, a holdover from the cretaceous era, a contemporary of the dinosaur. It is the ultimate evolutionary survivor, remaining virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. In Malaysia, China, Thailand, and other areas where the snakehead are indigenous, they have achieved a cult status, somewhat like the black bass in North America, and are viewed as the top gamefish in the waters. There is a special reverence for these fish which they call Toman, of which there are several species, the largest and most sought after being the Emperor Snakehead which can grow to about five fish in length. Most fish captured in these countries are given the highest courtesy as a sportfish, that is, they are carefully released back into the wild where they belong. What is both interesting and ironic is that long before the snakehead showed up on the scene, and for the last three hundred million years or so, nobody noticed we have had our own version of the Asian snakehead wreaking devastation in our waters, a fish that ironically shares much of the same physical and behavioral characteristics as the snakehead. It is called a bowfin and don’t even get me started on how nasty a customer this guy can be!. However, despite their similarities due to convergent evolution, they are not the same family, the snakehead belonging to the genus channa while the bowfin belongs to the genus Amia Calva. Most anglers here disdain them, a fact confirmed by the derogatory other names by which they are known: mudfish, dogfish, beaverfish, among others. Nor do they really fish for them. But of one thing I am almost certain. In Asia they would rightfully occupy the highest ranks as a sportfish in the eyes of local fisherman….hmmm, makes you wonder, eh?