Fish Facts: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Common Carp But Were Afraid to Ask

Written by: Phil Monahan

Carp may be an invasive species, but many fly fishers love them.
Photo courtesy Mike Mazzoni

Unlike trout, common carp (Cyprinus carpio) are unattractive, slimy, feed almost exclusively below the surface, and rarely inhabit clear mountain streams—choosing instead to live in turbid or brackish waters. For these reasons, the species was denigrated as a “trash fish” by generations of fly fishermen, who saw carp as somehow too unsophisticated for the long rod. But a small cadre of anglers realized that carp are actually difficult to hook, and once they are on the line, they fight with power an enough tenacity to test both tackle and an angler’s resolve. It is these qualities that earned the carp the nickname “freshwater bonefish.”

There are two variants of the common carp—mirror carp, which has much larger scales, and the leather carp, which has virtually no scales except near the dorsal fin. Native to Eurasia, common carp were an important food source, and the Romans built special ponds in which to raise the species near the delta of the Danube River in Romania. A more advanced kind of aquaculture was spread throughout the continent by monks between the 13th and 16th centuries, the beginning of the widespread introductions over the next few centuries that would result in carp populations in virtually every part of the globe, except the northern and southern extremities. Ironically, as this expansion of the carp’s range has gone on unabated, what is thought to be the original wild population, in the Danube, is now threatened.

There seems to be no definitive evidence of when carp first came to the U.S., but it was most likely in the mid 1800s, when fish were imported from Germany or France. By 1877, the U.S. Fish Commission was stocking carp in lakes and rivers across the country to serve as a food source, and the fish spread on their own from there. Modern introductions are mostly the result of anglers dumping bait-size carp into lakes. Every state but Alaska now has carp populations, with the heaviest concentrations in the Great Lakes Basin and large impoundments throughout the South and West.

Mike Sudal, Illustrator for Field & Stream shows off a Bronx River carp.
Photo by Rob Ceccarini, Fishing Manager, Orvis New York

Like largemouth bass, carp can inhabit a wide range of habitats, but they prefer lakes and slow moving rivers, especially those with turbid water. They can also live in brackish water in estuaries on both coasts and can withstand high water temperatures and a slew of pollutants and agricultural runoff. They travel in schools, usually of at least five, and spawn in the spring in shallow water—often by the thousands. The annual migration into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay draws anglers from around the country to sight-fish for huge carp on the flats.

A member of the minnow family, carp can live for decades and achieve monstrous proportions. The all-tackle IGFA record is almost 76 pounds, but much larger fish have been landed, including a reported 91-pound behemoth caught in France this April. The official record for a fly-caught fish is 42 pounds, from Italy, with the U.S. record a 29 pounds, 8 ounce carp from Town Lake in Austin, Texas.

Carp are omnivorous—they can even be caught on mulberry or cottonwood-seed imitations when they are falling in the water—and most anglers use imitative nymphs, leeches, crayfish, and shrimp patterns. In shallow water, they tail just like bonefish, and you can track them by the puffs of mud. A delicate presentation is required to avoid spooking the fish, and they can be remarkably fickle, at times refusing to take any offering. Anglers who approach carp fishing thinking that it’s easy can be quickly humbled.

For much more information on carp and how to catch them, visit Orvis’s Carp Central page.

15 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Common Carp But Were Afraid to Ask

  1. Adam U

    Carp are only considered trash fish because if you’re not careful they will trash your reels drag system!

  2. Ponds, Lakes & Streams by Biologists

    A couple more facts about carp…

    They can feed on a lower trophic level than game fish like trout, thus pushing trout out of habitats, particularly weedy waters.

    After they eat aquatic vegetation, they roll in the sediments resulting in murky waters with a drastically reduced productivity for game fish.

    They contain an enzyme known as thiaminase that can eventually poison game fish that eat young carp.

    They do exist in some clear water streams. Two come to mind. The beautiful Bull Run RIver that supplies water for Portland Oregon, and in the springs in the upper Snake River collectively known as the Thousand Springs area west of Twin Falls ID. In both of these cases large schools of carp have pushed trout out of prime habitat.

    Lastly, carp make terrific fertilizer in your garden. We highly recommend them!

    They may be fun to catch, but they do real damage to aquatic habitats.

    1. Jim Wilson

      John D. Whish, secretary of the New York Forest, Game and Fish Commission had it right in 1906 when he said to the American Fisheries Society, “I have sat in societies and heard gentlemen of eminence confess—I say also, confess very carefully—that the introduction of the carp was a fish-cultural tragedy.”

  3. Ponds, Lakes & Streams by Biologists

    If you would like directions to either of the above populations of carp, we are more than happy to help.

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  6. Daughter of a fisherman

    I’m not sure why the 29 pound record is thought to be accurate. That is normal for carp fishing in North Carolina. One spot we go to people pull that size out about daily.

    1. Phil Monahan Post author

      All it takes is for someone to submit their record catch to the IGFA and have it approved!

  7. garyweston

    I live on a hi mountain lake in socal with nice populations of a verity of fish, including carp. my question is why do we never see fry or small ones, everything we see is a few pounds & up. know they are part of the food chain, but see fry & small bass, panfish. thanks

  8. Jeremiah WIlson

    Hello I see this post is older but may I ask what parts of a river carp like to swim in? I fish for catfish in a river in upstate NY and one day a guy who was also fishing there caught a carp about 13 or more pounds on a chicken wig and started me into being interested in catching them. At first I didnt know where to look but after seeing a nice carp on the inside of the docks (I fish at a marina on the river) I figured to try some carp dough bait on the inside of the docks. Thats where I caught my first carp and subsequent others but long story short do carp that live in rivers stay in the shallow areas near the banks or do they like the middle or areas of rivers close to the middle?

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