Crazy for carp - the 'trash fish' that's taking the angling world by storm

Crazy for carp - the 'trash fish' that's taking the angling world by storm
Photo courtesy John Bartlett, Carp on the Fly.

PORTLAND, Ore. - For years, the big-lipped, slimy-looking, bottom-feeding carp has been dubbed a 'trash fish' and snubbed by anglers.

The carp is, after all, on the list of the world's top 100 invasive species.

But have they been getting a bad rap?

Some anglers believe that's the case and they're putting aside all their notions to try their hand at catching the lowly carp. And it's becoming one of the latest, coolest angling trends in the United States.

"It's just been blowing up," said John "Montana" Bartlett, author of the Carp on the Fly blog, which has the tongue-in-cheek tag line - "I used to be a respectable angler...now I fly fish for carp." Bartlett, who has been going after carp for 12 years now, said in the past couple of years there has been an explosion of interest in the angling community.

"I think it's mostly the 20 to 35 age range," he said. "They're just looking for something different. The trout rivers are crowded and the steelhead rivers are crowded."

Bartlett recently held a class on fly fishing for carp at the Royal Treatment Fly Fishing shop in West Linn, Ore. About a dozen anglers showed up to glean what they could - shooting questions at him right and left. They were keenly interested in learning the techniques.


Photo courtesy John Bartlett, Carp on the Fly.

Bartlett (pictured) is a self-taught expert on fly fishing for carp. Back in the day, he was one of just a few locals willing to take a ribbing from their fishing pals to try it out.

"When I first started on the Columbia, there really were not many guys doing it," he said. "So there really wasn't much to go on. None of us had really figured out how to do it consistently."

He and other early adopters learned from trial and error.

"We'd go out to the river and we'd see a ton of fish and not catch them," he said. "It was frustrating, but fun. We eventually started putting it together and started catching fish."

So what is attracting folks to carp all of a sudden? Well for one, they offer a challenge.

Carp on the Fly blogger John Bartlett ties flies at a West Linn, Ore., fly fishing shop on Saturday, July 27, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

"Carp are way harder to catch," said Bartlett. "It's not even close - steelhead and trout are way easier."

"It's completely different than trout," said Ryan Kidwell, one of the anglers who showed up to hear Bartlett talk. Kidwell has been fly fishing all his life and said he was looking for something different to try. He's already caught a couple of them. "As soon as you hook one you've got to be careful you don't burn your hands on the line, they pull so hard," he said.

There's another reason that fishing for carp is getting popular - there is plenty to go around and there is no limit on how many you can catch.

"But what are you going to do with them?" said Joel La Follette, owner of Royal Treatment Fly Fishing in West Linn, where Bartlett's class was held.

That's a good question.

Bartlett said he's a catch and release guy, which of course is the easiest way to solve the problem.

You can eat carp if you like, although some people think that's not such a good idea. Carp can survive in pretty bad water and what is in their bodies could make a person sick. But one fisherman we talked to at the fly shop said as long as the carp comes from clean water, like the Clackamas River or Sandy River, they're fine - and actually taste pretty good.

Some folks cut them up and use them for crab bait at the coast. We got mixed reviews at the fly shop on whether crabs actually like carp - the general consensus there seemed to be that chicken gizzards work better.

If neither of those options works, you can always use carp in your yard for mulch. There's nothing like fish guts to make your garden grow.


Photo courtesy John Bartlett, Carp on the Fly.

Of course, the one thing you don't want to do with carp (or anything else you fish or hunt for) is leave them to waste. Bartlett said he's seen folks do that.

"I'm not one of these guys who is going to say nobody should be allowed to kill carp," he said. "There's a huge resource of carp out there. If a guy wants to go out and kill 10 carp to use as crab bait or to fertilize his garden, it's not going to hurt the population."

"I just don't believe in wanton killing and leaving waste everywhere," he added. "I have a friend that bow fishes and spear fishes for carp. He kills some and brings home enough to put in his freezer and use as crab bait when he's at the coast. It makes total sense."

Now back to the idea of carp being a 'trash fish' - fishing for carp has generally been looked down upon in angling circles, at least here in the United States. But is that still the case? Yes, there is a stigma there. Kidwell told us he's had a hard time finding fishing buddies to go with him for just that reason. He said that's why he took Bartlett's class - to find some camaraderie in the carp fishing community.

"I had the same prejudice," Bartlett admitted. "I thought they were trash fish too. But the more I learned about them, the more I learned that they are actually smarter than all of the native fish that we revere so much."

"One of the problems people have is that they get carp confused with other species," he added. "They hear about the Asian carp in the Mississippi lakes. That's a totally different species than the type of carp we're talking about in the Columbia River. That species feeds on plankton and it feeds on the base layer, so it can destroy an entire eco-system. These carp don't really do that."

"Honestly, just try it," Bartlett said. "Most of the guys that live in the Pacific Northwest already have the gear they need to catch carp - they've got 6, 7 or 8 weight rods, they've got floating lines, they've got leaders that are 10 to 12 pounds. They might need a few flies, but if they like trout, they probably have flies that will work for carp too. Put your feet in the water and start walking. Throw a fly at a fish and see what happens. That's what I did."

La Follette said it's all about perspective.

"Take a bone fish," he said. "People travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to go to tropical destinations and fish for bone fish. Well, what is a bone fish? A bone fish is a bottom feeding, very bony fish that feeds on clams and shrimp and anything it can get its lips around. It's kind of the same thing."


Bonefish (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

In Europe, carp are actually a highly prized fish and there's a thriving business market there in the carp world. And here in the U.S., outdoor outfitters (like Orvis) are starting to figure out there's money to be had in carp. We have a call in to Orvis to find out more about the trends they are seeing.

"Orvis is really positioning themselves to be at the forefront of carp fishing," said La Follette. "It's because we have degrading cold water systems around the United States and because carp are finding more and more foothold in habitat - and here's something that they can get more people involved in."

Orvis has The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp, carp flies, carp fishing line, carp hats and more. You can even buy a designer carp iPhone case from them if you're that crazy for carp.

Orvis also puts on a number of special events, like the CARP-OCALYPSE that's coming up in August in Kennewick, Wash. And they have a Carp Central page on their website with plenty of tips.

Photo courtesy H&H Outfitters.

Even small outfitters, like H&H Outfitters (operated by two brothers out of Forest Grove, Ore.) have been finding success in carp. They told us their line of 'Holy Carp!' merchandise has been selling surprisingly well.

"Bam! The minute we put it up there it just went wild," said co-owner Cobb Hudjohn.

He said when they started their small business about a year ago, they focused primarily on trout. But then they noticed the carp trend and decided to get on board.

"We started seeing this surge in carp, so we're like 'you know what - maybe we should try this,' " Hudjohn said.

And remember how #sharknado took Twitter by storm? Yep - you guessed it, there's a #carpnado hashtag too. That just might be the next sequel - we wouldn't put it past SyFy to go there. For more social buzz on carp fishing


'Carpnado' image courtesy @christaggart on Twitter.

La Follette, from the fly shop in West Linn, just has one warning about the craze. He doesn't want everyone to get too carried away.

"If we turn people from fly fishing for salmon and steelhead into carp fishermen, then our salmon and steelhead start to lose friends," he said. "And we need as many friends for our salmon, steelhead and trout as possible. We can't turn people to carp and say 'look, we can catch carp and we don't need these (other fish) any more.' And then we forget that we need to work on the habitat, we need to work on native restoration and things like that."

"As long as that message doesn't get lost, I'm fine with carp fishing," he said. "Because it does take some pressure off other fisheries."