To catch a grass carp, toss a salad. Throw in some cherry tomatoes, lettuce, celery, pea pods, a bit of watercress, a dash of duckweed, coontail, pondweed, and muskgrass. Not Henri's gourmet fare, and chances are, you haven't tried vegetables for bait. Don't worry, grass carp like 'em.
These giant Asian minnows, also known as white amurs (Ctenopharyngodon idella), are vegetarians that shy from normal baits like kids from liver. Cast some veggies their way, though, and they start salivating.
And why, you might ask, should I want to hook a grass carp? First, these underrated ruffians often weigh 40 pounds and have been known to top 110 pounds. And grass carp of any size go airborne when hooked. Fish farmers wear catcher's masks and pads when seining them, because they're notorious net-jumpers. Battling one on rod and reel is like tussling with a tail-hooked tarpon. In fact, long, sleek grass carp resemble tarpon, with their big silvery scales and an upturned mouth. They only superficially resemble the common carp with its barbels and rubbery snout.
Grass carp are mighty good eating, too, a platter not lasting long at a fish fry. And in many regions, lakes and ponds hold grass carp populations that could stand a little thinning.
Grass carp were introduced into the U.S. in 1963 when the Bureau of Sport Fisheries brought 70 fish from Malaysia to the Fish Farming Experiment Station at Stuttgart, Arkansas. White amurs are native to larger East Asian rivers with Pacific drainages, including their namesake, the Amur River on the Chinese-Siberian border. But introductions have expanded their range to India, Europe, New Zealand, and according to some researchers, at least 40 U.S. states.
The experimental imports did what they were supposed to do — eat excessive aquatic vegetation — and by the early 1970s, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began using grass carp to control weeds in public waters. The amur's mouth is toothless, but two rows of large, comblike teeth in the throat grind the salad. Grass carp can eat 2 to 3 times their weight daily and may gain 5 to 10 pounds a year.
Arkansas has produced two world records, including the current all-tackle rod-and-reel record (National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame), a 65-pound 14-ounce amur caught in 1995 from Horseshoe Lake.
Early grass carp introductions were controversial. Some claimed the fish were needed to control vegetation, providing a natural alternative to costly chemical and mechanical controls. Grass carp opponents saw nothing natural about importing an Oriental fish and releasing it to become a 50-pound intruder gobbling up bass habitat.
The controversy continues. Some states allow stocking only sterile triploid fish produced in hatcheries. Others outlaw grass carp completely. Amurs offer an economical long-term method of weed control when stocked at the conservative rates usually recommended by fishery biologists. But once weeds are in check, biologists recommend removing about half the grass carp. That's where anglers come in.
Ken Perry, a fisheries program coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, outlined a simple method for catching grass carp. First, he scatters two or three cups of fermented corn in shallow areas of the lake he's going to fish. "Fifty pounds of cracked corn cost next to nothing at a feed store," he says. "I fill a milk jug with cracked corn and add water a few days before fishing." The soured corn attracts carp to the fishing area.
Next, Perry employs his secret weapon — cherry tomatoes. Canned corn, earthworms, and other baits work, too, but also attract catfish and bream. With tomatoes, Perry says, you target grass carp.
Perry's fishing rig consists of a long, limber rod-and-reel combo spooled with light monofilament line to which he ties a weightless heavy-wire #1 hook. He places the reel in free-spool so line plays out freely when a fish takes the bait. If Perry gets no bite in 30 minutes, he moves.
"Many lakes that need grass carp thinned are privately owned," Perry says. "Often the owners are delighted to be rid of the fish, but always ask permission."
In waters where most weeds have been eliminated, amurs are especially easy to catch. They often feed at the surface and quickly rise to bits of aquatic plants, vegetables, even French fries floating in the water. Warm months offer the best fishing, slowing when water temperature falls below 57°F.
In Fishing for Buffalo, Rob Buffler says that floating doughballs also take hungry grass carp. His recipe calls for mixing equal parts peanut butter, Rice Krispies, and crushed cornflakes. "Place a grape-size glob of this mixture and a green party marshmallow on a 2-inch square of white, sheer pantyhose," Buffler says. "Stretch it tightly over the doughball and tie the ends with green thread to make a ball. Roll the ball in green food coloring." Thread a baitholder hook through the pantyhose material and cast the ball into waters where grass carp feed. With luck, a giant will rise to the bait.
Grass carp may never become standard fare in American waters, but they're widely available and offer great fun for anglers who like tackling those other fish. If you're not embarrassed by baiting with a tomato or French fry, give amurs a try. Somewhere out there, a 100-pounder lurks.
*Keith Sutton, Little Rock, Arkansas, is a freelance writer and photographer as well as the editor of Arkansas Wildlife, conservation publication of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.