Story and Photography By Mary Syrett
When and where was the last time you hooked a dozen or so big, beautiful fish in one afternoon? It happens year-round in the Hill Country—but many are missing the boat simply because the abundant and delicious fish known as carp suffer from a bad PR rap.
First introduced into the United States from Europe around 1876 as a potential food source, carp were stocked throughout much of America in the 1880s and 1890s.
The species spread rapidly—so much so, that by the early 20th century, the fish, highly esteemed throughout much of Europe, were considered a pest in the United States.
Some Hill Country anglers, however, say they would rather fish all day and catch one 20-pound carp than fish all day and catch twenty black bass. Why? Because, according to longtime carp fisherman, Henry Pitchford, “It’s the thrill of the catch, not the quantity of what you bring in, that really matters. Carp fishing is just more fun .”
Carp can be found in Austin’s surrounding lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. They thrive in shallow water that contains aquatic vegetation, adapt to a variety of conditions and tolerate most types of water from clear to murky. They are capable of great speeds, grow large and battle ferociously.
“I grew up fishing for the more commonly known game fish such as bass and trout,” says local carp aficionado Jason Hedlund. “I got turned on to carp fishing five years ago and have been obsessed with it ever since.”
Carp are known for their cunning and wily behavior. “They have a keen ability to avoid baits that they have been caught on before,” says Hedlund. “And their feeding method makes a solid hookup challenging, even when they do take your bait.” Carp also have intense fighting stamina. “The first time you hear the drag screaming after hooking into a 20-pound carp—pulling line off your reel like a freight train—the ensuing fight will turn many avid anglers into hardcore carp fishermen.”
Yet Hedlund and his carp-angling friends aren’t out for blood. Instead, they’re dedicated catch-and-release enthusiasts who greatly respect these fish. “Some guys go so far as to carry antiseptic with them to treat the hook wounds,” he says.
Richard Somerville, an expatriate from England’s Nottingham district, is a longtime member of the Austin Carp Anglers Group and writes for their magazine, as well as for U.S. Carp Pro Magazine . He’s been fishing carp almost exclusively for about 30 years, and first fished in Town Lake (renamed Lady Bird Lake) in 2002. That year, along with his partner Tommy Riley from Chicago, he won the 1st annual Austin Team Championship.
“That started an obsession with the lake,” Somerville says. “Lady Bird Lake is perhaps my favorite spot in the area, followed by Lake Austin.”
“Early mornings and late evenings are prime time for going after carp with a rod and reel,” notes longtime San Marcos carp enthusiast Martin Doyle. “Carp often hang out near an area of a lake or river bottom that’s composed of sand, clay, gravel or mud. Little boat traffic should be present as carp spook easily.”
Some anglers, including Dr. Sunil Desai, a Marble Falls pathologist, fish alongside boardwalks where people toss birdseed to ducks and geese—carp go after the feed the waterfowl miss. “These brainy fish are smart enough to establish daily feeding patterns,” says Desai. “Once they find a good thing, they keep coming back. Carp possess phenomenal senses of taste and smell.”
Baits used to attract carp to a swim (a carp fishing hotspot) include dough balls, large-kernel corn, liver paste and bread crumbs rolled into small balls, boiled potatoes and prepared bait called boilies , which Jason Hedlund uses, along with flavored maize. The rods he prefers are 12.5 feet long and designed for distance casting and playing big fish. Hedlund pre-baits a swim 24 to 48 hours in advance with a bed of maize, breeder cubes (cattle feed) and the boilies that he’ll be fishing with the next day. Richard Somerville prefers to use boilies, boiled and flavored feed corn, chickpeas and sweet corn as bait.
Oddly enough, while fishing carp is generally regarded as legitimate and enjoyable, eating them is not. Many consider carp to be a trash fish and inedible—a strange notion since in parts of Europe carp is not only considered edible, but a traditional Christmas delight.
Come December in Hungary, Slovakia, Germany and Poland, street-corner vendors offer live carp for sale. Once purchased, the fish are kept alive, often in the bathtub, until Christmas Eve when they are served with as much ceremony as Americans lavish on turkey.
Why aren’t carp among the more popular game fish to be found in North America? Who knows. Perhaps they’re simply too common. Or maybe they’re too frustratingly hard to dupe into taking a baited hook. Whether they're pulling you off a boat, celebrated annually or a stranger to the plate, the fact remains: carp are delicious.
Carp Anglers Group (CAG) member K.C. Crawford set a new state record in March 2009 for hauling in a whopping 43 lb., 12 oz. carp during the 8th annual Austin Team Championship held at Lady Bird Lake. Crawford's record knocked out fellow CAG member Al St. Cyr's previous record of 43 lb., 2 oz., set in 2006. Experts associated with the CAG were able to identify markings and scale patterns on Crawford's fish and compare them to archived photos of St. Cyr's catch. Unbelievably, it was determined that the men had caught the same fish, three years and 10 oz. apart. The carp was re-released back into Lady Bird Lake. —Source: TexasHuntFish.com
If the fish are taken from waters that have a bad odor, sniff the gills. If they smell fine, bleed the carp by cutting the artery near the tail or the large artery between the gills. Gut it immediately and place the fish on ice.
After filleting, remove the skin and scales by placing the fillet skin-side down and cutting through the tail meat to the skin. Move the knife’s edge so that it is parallel to the skin and cut while you lift the meat away. Carp have small, thin bones found beneath the muscle surface that can be broken up by lightly cutting through them using parallel knife strokes. Cooking will further soften the bones so that they go unnoticed when eating.
Place fillets on an oiled grate six inches from the coals. Allow oils to drip from the fish but keep water handy to douse sudden flare-ups. Turn with a spatula and brush with butter and lemon juice when the fillets are done.
For more variations click on the recipes below: