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

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.

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

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

    1. Not true they are considered this because they literally eat anything hell the main thing they eat in the great lake is the fecal matter of mussels they eat pretty much anything including trash.

      1. It’s possible that fish eat trash but this is because of humans. Generally fishes think trash is food. Search on Wikipedia and have a look at what Carp likes to eat.

  2. 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. 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.”

      1. I agree with you and I’m American.. But not a dope LOL . The simple fact is, carp were introduced by what is now the US Fish and Game Commission in the 1870s as an answer to our declining native fish .. Mainly walleye, & bass.. This of course was during the peak of the industrial revolution’s attitude that our rivers become open chemical waste polluted raw sewers! So, the carp became the scapegoat, and of course had no way of defending itself.. When the man, carrying a barrel of trash down the clear-cut hillside to the river across from the big factory sees this polluted water with no walleye or bass etc., BUT, he saw carp roiling in that water! (through no fault of their own, because they can survive high temps, low dissolved oxygen, etc) So the man blamed the carp! Soon rumors spread that the carp, because of their feeding habits, we’re eating native fishes eggs.. cleaning out their nests.. That’s the story that was spread by the very companies that had polluted, and wanted to continue to pollute our streams & rivers that killed so many of the native fish in the first place! The name trash fish stuck, when they’re the opposite! Extremely intelligent, considered noble around the world, a delicacy by many, and an aguautic freight train on a fly rod, or any rod for that matter! These guys may be typical for what they’ve been told for 150 years, but they aren’t typical of an avid, and serious flyfisherman.. or any other serious angler

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

    1. كيف حالك يا اصدقائي ان مربي اسماك من ابعراق ولديه بحيرات كبيره اريد ان اعرف عليقه علفيه لاسماك الكارب بحيث تكون الاعلاف ذات نمو سريع

    2. My neighbour had his carp in a deep pond six foot deep and very narrow. He lost them all recently and I was told the deep well wouldn’t have given them enough oxygen

  4. Pingback: Carp - Grrrrrr! - FishingMagic Forums
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  6. 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. Fly-fishing with light line weight no overall rod and reel several 50+ pounders have been caught on new Jersey

    1. Ive heard they are very good if cooked properly. Just make sure to remove the y bones and abound the mud vein when cutting and they can be cooked just like any other white fish. They do have a more fishy taste though.

  7. 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. 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?

    1. Carp tend to head to deeper water and feed less in colder weather. Also they are bottom feeders that cover large areas of the bottom in warmer weather but on still waters in nice weather you can get them feeding on bread or dog biscuits on the surface and catch them with a bobber set up. In a lake I fish (I’m in England) it’s not uncommon to catch catfish when targeting carp, even on dough baits like boilies

  9. All carp in the U.S.A. need to die. They are actually trash fish that ruin habitat, taste like crap, and out compete native fish. Here’s to hoping carp are eradicated from our fine country.

    1. they are eaten as a wonderful dih in Europe. they make bouillabaisse- an amazing fish soup with them!

    2. Not true at all. They’ve been here for over 100 years and are naturalized. Is it just a coincidence that some of the best bass lakes also are great Carp lakes? They don’t out compete native fish.

      1. The actual science (not anecdotes from fisherman, journalists, or government officials) but SCIENTIST, have regularly recorded a lack of evidence of the common carp negatively impacting the spawning or feeding patterns of native fish. In fact, in one study that co-habitated bass and carp, found that large mouth bass did better (more survived over the course of the study) with carp present. Moreover, there isn’t a link between water cloudiness and algae…the algal blooms are 99% of the time caused by agricultural runoff, and the carp…they’ll happily graze on that algae.

        Most people are mixing two narratives: American land use change, and carp impact. Carp were distributed in nearly all 300 congressional districts, surviving in some of the most polluted trash environments the US has to offer. Somewhere along the line, carp were blamed for the level of pollution associated with these water bodies. Finally, from my own observation, I’ve never observed a carp water body in the US that I couldn’t catch native fish in ample supply.

        As for the taste, any fish caught in bad water will taste bad. Any fish caught in clean water will taste better.

        You just don’t like carp, cause you were improperly informed of them being a trash fish, that ruins your water. Save those sentiments for grass carp, silver carp, and bighead carp. The common carp will continue to eek out its existence in the margins.

        1. Well said. All of these “studies” I hear about are utter BS. In fact, in areas I fish for carp, the native fish absolutely THRIVE. So sick of the lies. Unfortunately, this will never change. But that’s ok; more for you and me! If you haven’t already, join the American Carp Society. They are doing fantastic things for the world of carp fishing. Check em out! And tell Wayne I sent ya!

  10. Our 25 acre lake in Eureka IL. is over run with carp. How do we get rid of them without killing everthing else! HELP !!!

  11. Good Day James Kingman

    I would like to find out if we were to put Carp into a dam that has Bass Bream and Barbel in it would the Carp
    survive and would the eat or destroy the nests of other fish. I have heard Carp may eat other fish eggs is this true could you please help on this.

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  12. When I was about 7 years old, I caught several large carp, kept them, and took them door to door attempting to sell them. Fortunately for all parties involved, there were no takers. However, this might have been a first step in my entrepreneurial pursuits that ultimately allowed me retire and pursue game fish in many far flung places. It was the lowly carp that got me started in my love of fishing. They get large quickly (when was the last time that anyone ever saw a small carp ?), they fight VERY aggressively, and can be caught by anyone. So, while I consider them a trash fish, particularly when they are in waters that can support game fish – they have some redeeming qualities.

  13. Carp in the Missouri River here in Montana seem to eat anything a trout will and I love to catch them on my fly rod. However I wonder how much better would the trout fishing be if they didn’t have to compete with the Common Carp for all that food that the carp eat? There are a lot of large carp and it takes a lot of food to support all of that biomass which is not go to the trout. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy catching a 15# carp but I would rather catch a 10# trout but that just isn’t going to happen.

  14. The mix of views here makes interesting reading, but as a UK angler, keen on catching carp, trout and a host of other species I can honestly say:
    Carp and trout don’t always work well together in a fishery as their requirements are different. Carp are perfectly happy in warmer, relatively low oxygen, eutrophic environments, that would not support trout well. Carp will live, but not thrive, in colder, clear fast water. So, if you are stocking a lake or river pick species that suit the water. Where they live together carp are not a problem for the trout as long as their numbers are sensible (fairly low) – with high stocking densities they can stir up too much silt with a detrimental impact on trout.

    1. Just came back from Guiding some fellas at Last Mountain Lake Saskatchewan. Not only did we have an amazing time catching lots of specimen Carp, but I ran one of the release boats for a walleye tournament. I have never seen so many double figure walleye in my life, and the pike population is also world class. This is proof that these fish are definitely not depleting the native fish. Education is key here. They are one of the hardest fighting fish we have in our waters and have been there for over 100 years. Stop the hating educate yourselves and embrace them for the amazing sport fish that they are.

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