Carp

If any fish species has attracted a devoted following, it’s the carp. Carp anglers will camp out for weeks at a time in pursuit of their quarry – rain or shine, summer and winter. Carp anglers love carp, literally. Often they know them by name, they know how much they weigh, how old they are, where they like to hang out, who last caught them and who’s likely to catch them next. Carp fishing is more than a passion, it’s bordering on religion.

Carp kiss

But I wonder how much of the following is known to the average carp angler? Many know it as the origin of the common goldfish (which is a domesticated version of Carassius auratus, a small carp that’s native to east Asia), but there’s a lot more to this fish than meets the eye…

Carp facts, at a glance

  • Record Weight UK: 65lb 14oz 0dr (c.29kg)
  • Record Weight (Europe): 101lb 4oz (c.42kg)
  • Average Weight: 6 – 15lb (2.7kg – 6.8kg)
  • Average Length: 18 – 26 inches (45cm – 65cm)
  • Maximum Length: 50 inches (c.125cm)
  • Life Span: 9 – 50 years+.

Species

Let’s start with a look at some of the most common (no pun intended) species of carp – at least those that you might find in an angler’s net.

20lb common carp

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Although native to Asia, the common carp has been introduced into a variety of aquatic environments – including lakes, rivers, ponds and streams – all over the world. In fact, you will have to travel to one of the poles or the Middle East to find a country without a well-stocked carp population. In the UK especially they are a very familiar sight.

Wikipedia has this rather interesting if not a bit dated comment on common carp:

“Cyprinus carpio is the number one fish of aquaculture. The annual tonnage of common carp, not to mention the other cyprinids, produced in China alone exceeds the weight of all other fish, such as trout and salmon, produced by aquaculture worldwide. Roughly three million tonnes are produced annually, accounting for 14% of all farmed freshwater fish in 2002.”

Due to their sturdy constitution and prolific breeding habits, common carp are often considered an invasive species, and they have also been known to be quite destructive to local habitat when introduced into new or non-native environments. There’s no overwhelming need for restraint or conservationism when it comes to the common carp; let the fishing begin!

Carp fishing girl

Mirror Carp (variant of Cyprinus carpio)

The mirror carp is biologically very similar to the common carp – not surprising given that it is its first known mutation. However, there is sufficient genetic and physical difference to merit distinction between the two.

As its name implies, the distinctive feature of the mirror carp is the fact that its scales resemble small mirrors. Additionally, mirror carp typically have patchy or irregular scale patterns that are often unique to individual fish. For anglers like us this is a good thing, as it can make it possible for us to identify individual fish by sight. It was these unique markings that first resulted in the unusual phenomenon of naming or ‘nicknaming’ carp in the UK – well, at least the big ones anyway (over 40lbs), and while there has yet to be published an exhaustive identification chart on the subject, there are hundreds of fish that are known to their captors by look and by name.

Linear Mirror Carp Mike Green

Not all ‘mirrors’ have irregular scales though – the fish pictured above is an example of what’s known as a ‘linear mirror’. Linears typically have a sparse covering of scales, but what scales they have are distributed almost exclusively along the fish’s lateral line. They are a particularly pretty carp and are very popular among carp fishermen, probably because they make such great photographs!

Austin Holness Two Tone Carp

Image courtesy of Austin Holness, who caught Two Tone in August 2008.

The British record at the time of writing, for example, is a 67lbs 14oz monster caught from Conningbrook Lake in Kent on 13 December, 2009. She was known as ‘Two Tone’. Unfortunately, Two Tone was found floating dead in the lake on 14 August, 2010.

And while we’re talking records, the current world record weighed in at a whopping 101lb 4oz, caught from Aqua Lake in Hungary by Roman Hanke. As far as we know, he wasn’t given a name. Pity.

Gaz Fareham with Heather the Leather

Leather Carp (variant of Cyprinus carpio)

What’s the difference between a leather and mirror carp, we hear you say? Well, often confused with mirror carp, the leather carp (a.k.a. scale-less carp) is known for its nearly complete lack of scales. Actually, to confuse matters slightly, the species is allowed to have a few scales present and still be considered ‘a leather’. Specifically, its identifying characteristic is that its dorsal scales are completely missing or incomplete. That may not sound like enough to distinguish it as a separate species, but when you add that to the fact that all the fish with this specific trait also have a reduced numbers of red blood cells and a slower growth rate, it becomes much easier to identify it as a unique species.

A leather carp known as ‘Heather the Leather’ (pictured above with captor, Gaz Fareham), was perhaps Britain’s most famous fish. At over 50 years old it weighed an impressive 52+ lbs.

19lbs Ghost Carp Mike Green

Ghost Carp (aka Ghost Koi – variant of Cyprinus carpio)

The best we can do at identifying ghost carp is to say they are a hybrid of wild carp and ‘ogon koi’ that were developed in the 1980s. They are visually distinguished by their metallic scales, which gives them a slightly spooky look, especially in certain light conditions, and they come in both mirror and common carp variants. Although they are sometimes referred to as ‘ghost koi’, some experts feel they should not be classified as true koi. They have gained considerable popularity amongst sporting anglers throughout the UK, perhaps due to their often unique and attractive colouring and metallic scales.

Ben Sale Crucian Carp

Crucian Carp (Carassius carassius)

The Crucian Carp (above) is a smaller member of the common carp family (length: 15-64cm; weight: 0.5-3kg) which is native to England. Over the years it has been introduced throughout much of Eastern and Western Europe, as far north as the Arctic Circle, and as far south as Central France and the vicinity of the Black Sea. It prefers the calmer waters of lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams.

It is not a spectacularly distinctive looking fish. Generally described as having a shiny body of golden-green, adults have a dark green back, deep bronze upper flanks, and gold on the lower flanks and belly, with reddish fins. By all accounts, this fish could be considered the most modest of the carp family, as evidenced by its meagre proportions and subdued appearance.

Interestingly however, this species of carp is highly adaptive in terms of its environment, reproduction and even its physiology. It has been known to adapt its shape and size (known as induced morphology) depending on the predators present in the habitat, and it can even reproduce species that are not its own!

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of this particular species of carp is that it can survive long periods without oxygen by converting its metabolic systems to perform anaerobic respiration, and if that doesn’t work it can switch to fermentation as a substitute – making it one of the most fascinating fish species on the average angler’s radar – whether they know it or not!

Fishing for crucian carp with rod and line is popular in Britain as both a leisure and a competitive sport. The largest rod-caught crucian on record is 4lbs 9oz (2.085 kg), landed by Martin Bowler in 2003, and tied by Joshua Blavins in 2011.

In Poland, the crucian carp is considered one of the best-tasting pan fish and is typically served with sour cream. It’s also eaten regularly as a traditional holiday dish in Russia.

Who knew this unassuming member of the carp family was so fascinating?! [Image courtesy of Ben Sale]

Grass Carp vs common carp

Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)

A paradoxical species if there ever was one, this herbivorous fish is very fast growing both in terms of length and weight. It is one of the larger members of the carp family, able to reach 1.4M/4.6ft in length and up to 40kg/88lbs! Yet despite its impressive dimensions, it’s not a particularly durable or prolific species, living only 5-9 years on average with a maximum known lifespan of just 11 years.

Grass carp thrive in small lakes and backwaters, which provide an abundant supply of freshwater vegetation. They need it, as they eat up to three times their own body weight daily! It’s likely due to their veracious appetite that grass carp have been introduced into several countries throughout Europe and the US, specifically to control aquatic weed.

Fishing for grass carp can be both exciting and frustrating: exciting because, due to their size, they are strong fighters and thus very fun to catch; frustrating because they are primarily herbivores and therefore can be difficult – though not impossible – to hook. Many fisherman have found success by chumming with white bread, and then placing a piece of bread, or cherry tomato or corn on a hook and floated on the surface. Of course, you can always just shoot them with a bow, where bowfishing is allowed, although in the UK you might find yourself at the end of a noose for such a thing (figuratively speaking, of course!)…

[NOTE: The Bighead Carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and the related Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), while members of the carp family, are both filter feeders and therefore won’t be discussed in depth for the purposes of this article.]

Size, Age and Interesting Carp Facts

Different members of the carp family vary widely in size and weight. Below is a breakdown according to the specific variations of carp most commonly sought after by fishermen in the UK, where carp fishing is perhaps most popular.

Common carp

  • Length range: 40 – 80 cm (16-32 inches)
  • Weight range: 2 – 14 kg (4.5-31lbs)
  • Record size: 45.59 kilograms (100.5lbs) – Caught by British angler, Colin Smith, in 2013 at Etang La Saussaie Fishery, France.
  • Age range: 9-45+ years

Mirror carp

  • Length range: 0.3 – 1.5 metres (12-24 inches)
  • Weight range: 4.5 kg – 27 kg (10 – 60lbs)
  • Record size: 38 kg (101lb 4oz) – caught by Hungarian angler, Roman Hanke, in 2012.
  • Age range: 9-45+ years

Bob Church 44lb Leather Carp
[Above: Bob Church with a ‘near-leather’ mirror of 44lbs]

Leather carp

  • Length range: 0.3 – 1.2M (12 – 48 inches)
  • Weight range: 4.5 – 22.7 kg (10 – 50lbs)
  • Record size: The 50 year old “Heather the Leather” has been described as “Britain’s most famous fish”. One of the oldest and largest carp in Great Britain weighing in at 52 pounds (24 kg)
  • Age range: 9-45+ years

Ghost carp

  • Length range: 45 cm – 65cm (18 – 48 inches)
  • Weight range: 2.7 kg / 29kg (6-65lbs)
  • Record size: 42kg (94lbs)
  • Age range: Some can live in excess of 100 years and a particularly famous fish named Hanako lived in a pond in Oppara, Japan and was 226 years old when it died in 1977, scientific analysis of 2 scales using light microscopes proved it was born in 1751!

Crucian carp

  • Length range: 15-64cm (6 – 25 inches)
  • Weight range: 1.5-3kg (3.5 – 6lbs)
  • Record size: 2.085 kg (4lbs 9oz) caught by Martin Bowler in 2003, and tied by Joshua Blavins in 2011.
  • Age range: 10 year maximum life span

Grass Carp

  • Length range: 0.6 – 1.4M (24 – 54 inches)
  • Weight range: 3.5 – 40 kg (10 – 88 lbs).
  • Record size: Known to grow up to 4.6ft in length and 88lbs.
  • Age range: 5-9 years (longest recorded lifespan, 11 years)

Senses

In addition to good vision, carp possess excellent ‘chemo-receptive’ (chemically sensitive) cells, which allow them to smell, taste and generally sense things very well. These senses allow them to perceive trace amounts of dissolved substances such as enzymes, amino acids, and other extracts with relative ease. It also allows them to distinguish between good, reliable food sources and potentially harmful or dangerous food. All of this turns out to be both good and bad for the sporting angler. On the one hand, it ensures that your bait will be perceived. On the other hand, it means you must find clever ways to present them with smells they already recognize or will readily accept as a reliable food source – more on this in the bait and tactics section.

Carp in Herbert Park, Dublin

Breeding

Carp are excellent breeders. One mature adult is capable of producing 1 million eggs. Although the vast majority of these don’t make it to adulthood, most species of carp easily populate even unfamiliar and unfriendly environments. In fact, many species have proven to be intrusive and disruptive to natural habitat and competitors.

Optimal breeding for most carp species is in the spring and early summer (April – August) in most climates. They prefer shallow (2-3 feet deep), grassy waters in which to spawn, and tend to be especially active when water levels are on the rise. The key is to be alert to spawning cycles because actively spawning carp are usually disinterested in eating, but pre- and post-spawn carp are easy prey.

Carp chasing poppers

Diet and Feeding Habits

A carp will naturally feed on a large variety of food including insects, worms, aquatic plants, algae, seeds and crustaceans. Its primary feeding technique usually involves grubbing around on the bottom and straining food from the sediment. This can mean problems for the local habitat, often resulting in the uprooting of natural vegetation and increased cloudiness of the water – both of which can have detrimental effects to the native environment and wildlife.

Interestingly, carp employ all their senses (which are quite sharp) when looking for food – day or night. They have an excellent sense of smell, sight and sound to guide them to the best food sources and to help them avoid the potentially harmful ones. Experts also believe they possess an impressive memory, because they have been documented to avoid certain areas or foods where they have been caught before.

So, yes, carp are crafty little buggers! But, of course, with greater challenge comes greater rewards for the avid carp angler! (More on feeding habits in the fishing baits and tactics section.)

[ref: Thanks to Carp Fishing Tactics, Anglers Mail, World Record Carp, Wikipedia and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.]