The Fish With The Underneath Eye

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

A new fish appears to have made itself a home in the Missouri and Mississippi river systems. These carplike fish have a big head and eyes that are located lower than other carp. Bighead carp, their actual name, often grow to 40 to 50 pounds, fight hard at the end of a fishing line and, if prepared well, are good to eat.

Bighead carp are native to eastern China, where they inhabit lowland rivers. They were first brought to the United States in 1973 for research purposes. In the years since then, fish have escaped captivity. Conservation Department ichthyologist William Pflieger confirmed they were reproducing in Missouri waters in 1989.

Pflieger's recently-revised book, Fishes of Missouri, points out that the genus name for the bighead carp, Hypophthalmichthys, is from the Greek, meaning "underneath eye." The fish's large head and relatively small eyes, located forward and low on the head and seeming to focus downward, are keys to identifying the fish.

Bighead carp are dark gray on their upper bodies, grading to an off-white on their lower sides and belly. Their bodies have irregular splotches that are usually dark gray or black. Their mouths are at the end of the head and their lower lip is longer than the upper. The mouth is pointed slightly up, rather than downward like a sucker. Bighead carp have unusually small scales. Fish as large as 90 pounds have been caught in Russia.

Like paddlefish, bighead carp are filter-feeders. Their preferred diet is zooplankton (tiny animals sometimes called water fleas) followed by phytoplankton and detritus. This puts them, as non-native fish, in direct competition with native species, such as paddlefish, bigmouth buffalo, gizzard shad and the larval young of most Missouri fishes. There is concern that competition from bighead carp, which use their gill rakers to capture small particles, may interfere with these native fishes.

In China, the bighead carp ranges from areas where waters are frozen from October to April to subtropical regions with mean temperatures up to 75 degrees. Depending on living conditions, the fish may mature at 3 to 4 years of age at a length of about 20 inches. A fish spawning for the first time may produce over 200,000 eggs, and a truly large fish can produce more than a million.

The fish spawn when the river rises, and they don't mind muddy water like that found in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The fish probably spawn

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