Bighead Carp

Bighead carp side view photo with black background
Scientific Name
Hypophthalmichthys nobilis
Cyprinidae (minnows) in the order Cypriniformes (carps, minnows, and loaches)

The bighead carp is a large, heavy-bodied fish with an exceptionally large head, upturned mouth, small scales, and scattered, irregular dark blotches over the entire body. The eyes are located far forward in the lower part of the head and are turned downward, as if the fish were looking down. The belly keel extends from the vent (anus) only to about the bases of the pelvic fins and doesn't reach the bases of the pectoral fins.

Similar species: Bighead carp are distinguished from silver carp by these characteristics:

  • The belly keel extends forward from the vent (anus) only to the bases of the pelvic fins (not extending as far as the throat or the bases of the pectoral fins).
  • The rakers on the first gill arch are long and slender (not fused into a spongelike structure).
  • The head goes less than 3 times into the standard length.
  • The eyes are relatively lower on the head.
  • The head is relatively larger than that of the silver carp.
  • The body is covered with dark splotches.

Length: 12 to 24 inches; weight: 12 to 15 pounds (maximum 48 inches and 80 pounds).

Where To Find
image of Bighead Carp distribution map

Large rivers and lakes throughout Missouri: The Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and lower reaches of their major tributaries (such as the Osage); and tailwaters of Bagnell Dam (on the Osage) and Cannon Dam (on the Salt River).

The bighead carp is an invasive Asian carp. It does not jump as frequently as its cousin the silver carp, but it also leaps from the water when disturbed, threatening boaters' safety. A schooling fish living in large rivers and the lower reaches of their tributaries, floodplain pools, reservoirs, and reservoir tailwaters. MDC managers are concerned that bighead and silver carp may have an impact on populations of native plankton feeders like paddlefish and gizzard shad. The Department and the U.S. Geological Survey are studying the threat of Asian carp in order to find methods of controlling the populations of these fish.

Bighead carp feed on plankton and detritus strained from the water with their closely set gill rakers. They eat larger plankton than silver carp, including zooplankton (minute animals) and algae. Bighead carp compete for food with native planktivores, such as paddlefish, bigmouth buffalo, and the young of many other desirable native fishes.

An aggressive nonnative invasive species. It is illegal to use it as live bait, though you may use it as dead or cut bait.

Life Cycle

In rivers, spawning is triggered by a rise in water level following rains. The spawning period can extend from spring to late summer, apparently. The eggs are semi-buoyant are deposited into the river channel. They hatch as they are carried along in the river current. Bighead carp are not known to successfully spawn in ponds or lakes. This species seems to grow more rapidly than silver carp and grass carp and can reach 40-50 pounds in 5 years. It has been known to reach 90 pounds and live for 9 years.

Introduced to remove excessive nutrients in waste treatment and fertilized fish ponds, this species has become an aggressive nuisance in natural waters. However, its meat is delicious, and many anglers enjoy it pan-fried, deep-fried, grilled, baked, steamed, smoked, in curries, in soup, and pickled.

Bighead, silver, and black carp are invasive nonnative species and serve no beneficial ecosystem purpose in Missouri. Bighead and silver carp can outcompete native plankton-eating fish, including paddlefish, bigmouth buffalo, and the young of many other desirable native fishes.

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Similar Species
About Fishes in Missouri
Missouri has more than 200 kinds of fish, more than are found in most neighboring states. Fishes live in water, breathe with gills, and have fins instead of legs. Most are covered with scales. Most fish in Missouri “look” like fish and could never be confused with anything else. True, lampreys and eels have snakelike bodies — but they also have fins and smooth, slimy skin, which snakes do not.