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 in these rivers any time there is a substantial rise in water levels during the warmer part of the year. The semi-buoyant eggs must float in the current to hatch, but in good conditions they can hatch in one day. The larvae absorb the yolk sac in a week and start feeding on protozoa, diatoms and other small plankton.
Anglers are seeing bighead carp in many tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Schooling fish seem most evident in the mouth of tributaries and in chutes and backwaters. They thrive in the main channels, too. Commercial fishermen on the middle Missouri River report catching hundreds of pounds of bighead carp in a single pull of a net.
Since the fish are filter feeders, you might assume that the only way to catch them is through snagging, bow hunting or commercial netting, but anglers have reported catching them on bass lures, crappie jigs and on cut bait on trotlines. Snagging, however, is probably the most productive fishing method.
Anglers have caught bighead carp at the mouths of tributaries and other deep holes where snaggers look for paddlefish. Snaggers have found good concentrations of the fish below tubes in side-channel chutes. One thing is for sure-if you catch a bighead carp of any size, you will have a real fight on your hands.
The fact that bighead carp are filter feeders makes them useful to people who raise fish commercially. Catfish farm ponds often suffer from poor water quality because of an accumulation of nutrients and waste products. Bighead carp, when added to these ponds, can significantly reduce an undesirable build-up of phytoplankton and other plants. The bighead carp, which doesn't eat artificial fish food, helps the private fish culturist produce more catfish, and he or she can also sell the carp.
Commercial fishermen on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are having problems finding a good market for bighead carp. The fish has some negatives: their scales are small and hard to remove, they have intermuscular bones, and there is some undesirable red meat along the lateral line. Because of the large head, a lot of the fish has to be thrown away, and it takes time to get the meat ready for cooking.
If you like river fish, though, I encourage you to give the bighead carp a try. I'm willing to put out a lot of effort for paddlefish, and a similar effort for these fish will provide a lot of white meat that cooks into delicious flakes.
Conservation Department employees in St. Joseph taste-tested various fish, and bighead carp fared well. Common carp, buffalo, grass carp and bighead carp were fleeced, filleted, scored, battered and cooked in hot grease. No one who ate them could distinguish among those species.
Mark Haas, a fisheries regional supervisor in Cape Girardeau, recently took bighead carp cookery a step farther. Mark took 3 pounds of light-colored skinless fillets from a 12-pound bighead, having discarded a thin streak of dark, reddish-brown flesh just under the skin. He cut the fillets into smaller pieces, some with bones and some boneless, and soaked them in salt water overnight.
He then rolled the pieces in a mixture of corn meal and whole wheat flour and deep-fried them. The cooked meat was white, flaky and of moderate firmness. The taste was mild but distinctive. His family loved the meal.
I encourage anglers to pursue bighead carp, and I hope markets for them develop for commercial fishermen. Remember, these fish get big and they are strong fighters. And they are good to eat, even canned or baked. The bighead carp is an exotic fish in Missouri and, since it is probably here to stay, we might as well make use of it. If you catch the fish with the underneath eye, give it a try.
(Readers are invited to share fishing and cooking methods for bighead carp. Write to the author at Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102).
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