“Why that carp is the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen. And I hear it tastes terrible.” If you grew up in America between 1870 and today, this is what you believe is true about carp. If you live almost anywhere else in the world, you believe the opposite.
If you live in Denver, Colorado, you probably believe that a fly fishing contest, for carp of all things, on the Metro South Platte River is the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. Well, in celebration of the Fifth Annual Carp Slam, this “kid’s” story has been put together to help restore the reputation of the “Queen of the River” as Isaac Walton, the first fly fishing author, called the carp in 1653.
If you live in Denver, Colorado you probably also believe that the Metro South Platte River is not in very great shape. Every year the Denver Chapter of Trout Unlimited holds a “Carp Slam” fly fishing contest as a fund raiser with all proceeds going to restore the aquatic habitat of the Metro South Platte. The competition is held along the entire length of the Denver Metro South Platte River from Oxford Street in the south to 104th Avenue in the north.
This story will give you the background you need to better appreciate the struggles of the contestants and the tactics of the carp. If you come out to watch be certain to take into consideration the “special gifts” of the carp and make not a sound and think not a bad thought about the carp.
The Queen Arrives
On the same day that Billy the Kid had his one and only picture taken, Queen Cyprinus and her court arrived in Denver on a Colorado and Central freight train . She was starting to wonder if this trip to America was such a hot idea after all.
Less than a year ago, she’d told Carpio, her court jester, “I’m bored to death living in the muddy pond.”
“Well,” he’d said. “Cross the big pond and try out another.”
So that’s what she did. As Herr Eckhardt cast his net on his pond in Luebbinchen, Germany, the Queen pushed and prodded her favorite prince and princesses under the net. Herr Eckhardt was suprised at how many nice carp he hauled up in his net, but the Queen was not. Just like all smart carp, she could read the mind of a fisherman. And she knew that Herr Eckhardt planned to ship his net full of carp to America.
The Queen of the Rivers, a title bestowed by Izaak Walton in 1653 in his book “The Compleat Angler” and never questioned, and her court crossed the Atlantic on the packet steamer Lessing. While her escort, Herr Doctor Otto Finsch, was extremely sea sick, the queen was quite content. Twice a day Herr Doctor put fresh ice and pumped air into her barrel. Two weeks later she arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey and then took the train to Washington, D.C.
“Well now,” she thought, “This is much better and certainly not boring.” She and her court swam and grew larger and larger in the reflecting pool next to the Washington Monument. She was however a little concerned with the thoughts she was picking up from the U.S. Commission on Fish workers tending to her court. It seems that they had plans to ship her to the middle of the country, where fish farmers would raise the Queen and her descendants for FOOD in muddy ponds, just the situation she had left in Germany. Yuck!
The Queen, like all carp, was an omnivore. That meant she’d eat anything. So naturally, the Queen didn’t have anything against the Midwesterners and Rocky Mountain settlers having a balanced diet. And if they really needed fish for protein, oh well, she’d just have to get used to it as she had in Germany. But she was just getting used to living in America and was not eager to wind up on a dinner plate so soon.
Carpio, her court jester, suggested a way to foil the plan of the U.S. Commission on Fish to make the carp an appealing food. “These Americans have never caught or eaten a carp. Let’s become inedible and uncatchable.”
So before she and her court were once again scooped up to be sent on a journey west, she planted a thought, as all smart carp can, in the mind of a fisherman visiting from Philadelphia. And this is what she planted:
“The carp as a food fish is a fraud. It has a sour, earthy flavor, and the flesh is soft and flabby.” This was not true of course, but it suited the Queen just fine.
The Philadelphia fisherman spoke to a reporter from the Rochester Post-Express. The reporter then wrote that “the carp tastes worse than a rubber boot.” This was not true of course, but it suited the Queen just fine.
Little by little this thought was passed from fisher to fisher, from father to son and daughter, from grandfather to grandson and granddaughter, and from principal to teacher. None of these people had ever actually caught or eaten a carp, but they soon just knew that they would not be good for food. To this day, only people in the United States believe that the carp is inedible and unappetizing; just as the queen wanted.
The Queen Goes West
Queen Cyprinus, jester Carpio, and the rest of the court traveled west, again in barrels cooled with ice cut in the winter time from the Potomac River. She and her court were sent by the U.S. Commission of Fish on a 7 day train trip to Denver.
The train let out an exhausted whoosh of steam as it stopped on the bridge over the South Platte River just downstream from the confluence with Cherry Creek. The baggage car door slid open and the barrels of water holding the disoriented and motion sick Queen and her entire court were slowly tipped over, spilling the 476 into the South Platte River.
The Queen quickly organized her queendom into groups of five and set out to explore the muddy polluted river.
“Whew, “ said Carpio the jester. “These pioneers need some lessons in garbage and waste disposal. The Germans of Luebbinchen would never dump their trash and sewage into their carp pond.”
“Oh, Caprio,” said the Queen. “Get a grip. This is a river, not a carp pond. What they throw in just floats away. All we have to do is get upstream and the water will be sky blue and full of great Rocky Mountain yummy aquatics like crayfish, golden stone flies, mayflies, and little mussels.”
“Your majesty,” said Carpio the jester, “I’d like to point out that we’ll always be downstream from somewhere.”
A few days later the court was well south of Denver when they gathered in a deep back eddy at the mouth of Waterton Canyon. To the utter amazement of the Queen she thought she heard underwater mumbling of other carp. Sure enough as the water cleared momentarily, she glimpsed a Colorado Pikeminnow. The Pikeminnow was skinny but almost four feet long, three times as long as Queen Cyprinus.
“Whoa,” said Carpio the jester. “What was that ?”
The Pikeminnow circled back with some of its brothers and sister to check out the new arrivals. Try as she might, the Queen could not seem to communicate with the natives.
“Oh my,” said the Queen. “This is deja vu all over again. How did the Pilgrims handle this at Plymouth Rock?” It was obvious they were the same species. Same type of mouth, no teeth except in their throat to crush snails and mussels, same fin patterns, and same extra sensitive hearing, but no common language and these native were so much bigger and stronger. With a few flips of their tails, the Pikeminnows let the German Carp know that at the moment the back eddy would be used by the Pikeminnow school.
Queen Cyprinus was sorry she had not brought any of her family jewels to trade with these natives. They were from the same Cyprinidae family. She knew that of the 240 children in the family, the common carp and pikeminnow were cousins. These cousins were definitely not interested in kissing their German kin. The only choice was to float back down stream to Denver. Yuck!
All at once the quiet water was shattered by a hail of arrows. Several of the huge pikeminnow were hit and dragged from the water by Arapaho. The Queen quickly planted the “Carp taste bad” thoughts in the heads of the spear fishers, but when she read their minds all she got back were images of a giant fish barbecue over mesquite charcoal.
“This will never do,” she flipped to Carpio. “Back downstream, and hurry.”
The Queen Finds a Home
By avoiding the most polluted areas of the river, the Queen soon found backwaters where the South Platte was just becoming muddy from the building and agricultural activities but where the Pikeminnow feared to congregate because the settlers would use dynamite to blast them out of the river to eat.
She trained her court and their descendants to detect the voices and footsteps of the settlers by listening with their whole body rather than just their lateral line like the cutthroat trout and other fish more primitive than the carp. Soon they all could use their big swim bladders to turn up the volume of children playing far up on the banks. With these tricks, watching for shadows, reading the minds of the fishers, and planting thoughts of how bad they taste, the queendom soon had a stable population of smart, subtle, nearly uncatchable and clearly inedible fish. That was until the fateful day that Barry Reynolds happened on the banks of the South Platte in search of an exciting game fish to catch. Barry wasn’t an Arapaho, a Cheyenne, a settler, a pioneer, or a gold digger. Barry was a fly fisher.
Little by little the settlers began cleaning up their river. The town fathers and mothers wanted their children to be able to bike along the banks of the river and play in the backwater pools. They built some good sewage treatment plants, picked up the trash, and punished the chemical plants and tanneries that dumped bad stuff in the South Platte. Barry noticed that the river was getting cleaner and that as it cleared up an almost invisible fish, suddenly, if he was very quiet and stealthy, became visible.
Now you would think that the Queen of the Rivers would be able to read his mind, but as it turned out she couldn’t read Barry’s. Was it because Barry’s mind was small? No, not by a long shot. Barry was actually almost as smart as the Queen. The reason was that Barry was not thinking about harming the Queen or her court. He was thinking about the sport of catching a hard to catch subtle carp. He was not thinking about carp as food. The Queen could only pick up threatening thoughts. So Barry watched the Queen and her court for many weeks.
He noticed that the court usually swam around in groups of five. He noted that they seemed to be eating when you could see their tails flipping near the surface and their heads toward the bottom of the river. He noticed that when the smallest noise was made, a shout, or the crunch of a rock under foot, the carp would scoot out of sight.
He carefully tied some flies that looked like bugs and crawfish found in the river and little by little got closer and closer to where they were feeding.
Barry and the Queen
One day, as a rare cloud passed over the sun, the Queen, distracted by a recent run-in with a Pikeminnow, nibbled up a wounded crawfish floating near the surface. Immediately she felt a very unusual tug on her jaw.
“What is going on?” she thought as she pulled back against the tug. “Am I caught on a piece of barb wire fence?” She swam to the other side of the South Platte underneath the Mile Hi Stadium bridge, but the tug was still there. “This is ridiculous,” she thought and turned down stream and swam as fast as she could. Now she could hear Barry’s size 12 boots crashing on the rocks near the shore as he chased her downstream and the whirl of his Ross Reel furiously spooling off fly line and backing.
After an hour, the Queen had decided that she had had enough. Not only was the struggle against the tug getting tiring, but it was getting boring. “Oh well,” she sighed. “I’ve had a good run. A hundred and thirty years of nice life in Denver, along South Platte and lots and lots of great great grand babies. I feel I’ve almost become a native to this new world. I guess if it’s time to land on a dinner plate, then it’s time.”
Barry eased the Queen to the bank. Slipped his oversized net gently under her and carefully removed the barbless hook. He held up the Queen as his trusty assistant took a digital photo.
“Ok, “ thought the Queen. “ That wasn’t so bad. I’ve been caught. Now let’s see if I can plant the thought of a release in his head.”
As she summoned up her maximum concentration power, she heard Barry say, “A very nice fish and a terrific fight.”
The Queen pushed “Release... Release.. Release” into his head.
Just then, as if it was actually his own idea, Barry thought, “Let’s do it again sometime,” and he slipped her easily back to freedom in the South Platte.
And that’s how the Queen of the River, the Common Carp, from Luebbinchen, Germany taught America the fun of Catch and Release.
I took some liberties with the date sequence of some of the events because of a paucity of public record for specific species introduction into the South Platte. Also, the carp harvested and transported from Luebbinchen may have been mirror carp rather than common carp. If so the common carp in the reflecting pool in Washington may have come from a different place in Germany a few years earlier.
This story was originally published in the Denver Trout Unlimited eNewsletter “The Drift” V1 Issue 11, June 2011.