Terry Sullivan is one fisherman who has been around. He fishes the ocean, bays, harbors, tidal creeks, ponds, and trout streams such as the Nissequogue. He’s caught just about every fish that will hit a lure or a fly from a shore at one of the above. He’s seen just about everything fishwise on Long Island, but last Thursday morning he was a bit flabbergasted to find a fish that he never caught here and, maybe, one that he never saw here. And it was a very big fish indeed, one very hard to overlook as it was only a few feet from the edge of the Ocean Avenue parking lot next to the western bubble of Hook Pond in East Hampton Village.
It wasn’t just one fish, but several fish, all in the 10-pound and bigger range. He called me at home and described the scene and I immediately knew the fish that he was watching and photographing: It had to be a carp. The carp is a very large minnow that derives from Eurasia but it’s been here 175 years or so already and is so widespread through the Americas that it is considered naturalized, in the same way that the mute swan or tree-of-heaven is naturalized.
There are several carp species, all from Eurasia, that have been imported — the herbivorous grass carp, the koi carp, a variety of goldfish, and that one presently taking over the freshwaters of the Midwest and about to enter the Great Lakes, the silver carp. Its means of escaping from would-be predators is leaping out of water several feet into the air. When a motorboat passes through a bunch they all start jumping madly. The motorboat is likely to be the landing spot for a few, and the boaters have to be on the lookout because if a big one hits you, it can knock you into the water and give you a big lump on the head.
Goldfish and carp have been aquacultured in China and other parts of Asia since the birth of Christ. Except for the goldfish, which is found in every state in the union, but which does not do well in natural ponds and lakes, the common carp is the next most abundant member of the carp group here. You might raise a common carp in a bathtub, but you don’t raise one in a goldfish bowl because the common carp can attain a weight of nearly 90 pounds and a length of three feet in a lifetime lasting up to 25 years.
I know carp well because as a boy in Mattituck I used to catch them in Wolf Pit Pond a few hundred yards down the road from my house in the Oregon section of the hamlet. Wolf Pit Pond had two species of fish, eels which got there by way of Mattituck Creek a few hundred feet from the pond, and carp, which someone put there a long time ago. The Wolf Pit ones were less than a foot long, they were “stunted” as they say in fishery lingo.
I tried several baits before I hit upon the standard one, the red earthworm, or “night crawler”: tightly rolled dough balls made of wetted Wonder Bread, the bread that helped “build my body eight ways” as the baker proclaimed, but the carp would suck them off the hook rather than bite them off. Worms worked.
Carp are a favorite food fish in many parts of Eurasia including the British Isles, where they were imported early on. Isaac Walton, the dean of freshwater sports fishermen, described catching them in British ponds and lakes and preparing them to eat in the middle 1600s. But carp are very oily. I took a few of the Wolf Pitters home and my mother cooked them up. They were very oily and made me sick. That was the end of carp eating but not of carp fishing.
Carp got very big in Maratooka Lake, a kettlehole lake a little larger than Hook Pond, just south of Mattituck High School. A relative, Tommy Reeve, once speared a 37-pounder there. Carp come close to shore when breeding, beginning in late spring after the water warms up. Two or three males pursue a female and nudge her with their noses and other body parts to get her to sow her eggs, as many as 30,000 in a couple of hours or so. Thus, most of the time the eggs, which adhere to bits of vegetation in the shallows, are fertilized by more than one father, a type of crossbreeding that several other fish species practice, including salmons, anchovies, and shad.
Carp are distinguished from almost all other fish by the presence of Weberian ossicles, modified vertebrae that attach the gas bladder to the carp’s inner ear, the “labyrinth.” Apparently, these ossicles work like the three bones in our middle ear: They amplify sound waves picked up by the gas bladder, which is especially important in hearing underwater. Carp are known to have very strong auditory perception.
There is a downside to the common carp. It likes to grub in the bottom, silting up the water, and its feces break down quickly — bits of fertilizer that eutrophy the water column. However, the carp does very well in most of America’s freshwaters and is not likely to be removed. Since it doesn’t take artificial lures, it is not a popular angling fish, but is becoming more so with each passing generation. And, like the koi, it is a frequent item on the osprey’s menu, especially when the osprey pair is feeding their perpetually hungry young.
The milling around/head butting method of reproduction Terry experienced will shortly be happening in Georgica Pond, Sagg Pond, Fort Pond, Mill Pond, and a host of other ponds on the South Fork. Despite the concerns, it looks like the common carp is here to stay. Interestingly, it has become rather rare, even endangered, in parts of its native Eurasia, not unlike Eurasian phragmites, which is thriving here but not doing well back home. The common carp may not be as American as apple pie, but it’s a fixture here. Then again, didn’t American apple pie start out in Europe?
Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.