Common Carp

Anglers in the United States have a problem with fish sporting a mustache.

That’s probably the simplest way I can explain the treatment that the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) receives from sport fishermen in this country. Ask around about carp and you’ll probably hear only one good thing for every dozen or so derogatory comments.

“It’s a trash fish.” “Tastes like mud” “Makes great fertilizer.”

When I first started tossing around the idea of evangelizing the role of carp as an eating fish, a fellow angler was kind enough to share with me his favorite “recipe.”

“Take carp fillet. Add to a pot of boiling water. Add garlic, onions, carrots, celery and one large stone to the pot. Let simmer for an hour. At the end of the simmer, toss out the carp and serve the stone.”

Well, I’m here to defend the carp as an eating fish. If prepared correctly, it can be perfectly edible, even delicious in some cases.

Carp just happens to be one of the most widely eaten fish species in the world, with many Asian and European reserving it for only the most special occasions.

Think of it as China's Thanksgiving turkey, or Slovakia's Christmas ham.

Not too long ago, diners in the United States had room for carp on their plates, with the fish being widely eaten as recently as the mid-1900s. In fact, carp actually found its way to the States through a government program that sought to introduce the fish as a food stock for a rapidly expanding population.

For decades, Americans ate carp without complaint.

All that being said, carp carries with it a good deal of downside, including the devastating toll they can take on native ecosystems.  

If you’ve ever looked at a carp, you know that in addition to the trademark mustache (which are actually barbels used to seek out food in murky water) it has a large, vacuum-shaped mouth. Carp use this mouth to root around river bottoms as they feed on vegetation, kicking up huge amounts of sediment along the way. This floating sediment degrades water quality, making it difficult for native fish to thrive.

Undigested plant matter in the carp’s poop can also alter water quality, causing the development of algae blooms and other harmful conditions.

Out of the water, carp don’t exactly get any easier to love.

Many anglers who have eaten carp complain about their muddy taste, and if a fish is taken from overly muddy waters, this can definitely be a problem. They also have an interesting bone structure that include row on tiny, free-floating bones on either side. For many eaters, these bones are simply too much trouble to tangle with, especially for a fish with a reputation of tasting foul.

Despite the drawbacks, some anglers are slowly coming around. Carp caviar is quickly becoming something of a niche food item in this country, while some enterprising restaurateurs are beginning to put the fish on their menus.

I say we join them, embrace the mustache, and join the rest of the world in eating a carp or two.