When Jeff Kechely unholsters his tongue and waxes nostalgically about his childhood fishing the silt-laden backwaters of the Minnesota River near Chaska, you know you're listening to an angler who sees the piscatorial world from a different vantage point.
"We fished for carp, common carp to be specific," declares Kechely, his voice tinged with pride.
When other 10-year-olds were on the prowl for walleyes, bass and sunfish, Kechely and a buddy had other plans. Rods, tackle boxes and bait bucket in tow, they'd walk "a solid mile as the crow flies" from their trailer court, scale the riverbank and begin their hunt for the fish that, historically, has been reviled in the United States and revered across the globe, particularly in Europe and Asia among hard-core anglers and gourmands alike.
"To me, there's really nothing better than fishing for carp — I've been doing it my entire life and it's a big part of who I am as a fisherman. It's in my blood, you could say," said Kechely, 50, of Henderson, Minn. "Pound for pound, they're the toughest fish around, and who doesn't like to catch a big fish that occasionally makes your reel squeal? I know carp get a bad rap as a trash fish, but they're good to eat. Smoked carp is delicious."
Now Kechely's lifelong reverence for carp — both as a game species and wild food — is gaining traction with a growing subculture of "rough fish" anglers who are bucking traditional fishing norms and, as one angler put it, "seeking a new adventure beyond hammer-handle pike and the ho-hum sameness of catching 15-inch walleyes." That's particularly true of fly fishers, who say carp are the bonefish of freshwater — a reference to the popular, challenging-to-catch saltwater torpedo found throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere.
"Attitudes about carp fishing have been changing slowly for about the last 20 years," said Tom Dickson, co-author of "Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit and Cuisine of Carp, Suckers, Eelpout, Gar, and Other Rough Fish," published locally in 1990. "There's a growing interest with a new generation of anglers beyond traditional walleye, bass, trout and panfish options. There has been this great exchange of information about rough fishing in general on the Internet. New anglers are finding out what a thrill it is to catch such a powerful fish like carp — a fish that will make your arms ache. People are talking about it. Old prejudices, handed down from generation to generation from uncle Bob or your old man are dying."
Still, Dickson acknowledges, most Minnesotans likely see carp through a prejudicial prism: as an ugly, overabundant nuisance fish whose bottom-feeding ways have damaged shallow lakes and wetlands, causing declines in water quality and aquatic plant life needed by waterfowl and other game fish.
The irony, he said, is that common carp, which are native to Europe and Asia, were intentionally introduced into Minnesota waters in the 1880s as a game species. In those days, carp were in high demand by well-to-do immigrants who considered the fish a delicacy.
"When they got here, those immigrants went to restaurants and fish markets and found that carp didn't exist here," said Dickson. "Do carp cause damage? Yes. Carp do muddy waters and uproot vegetation searching for food. But most fisheries scientists who've studied carp agree that changes in land use have hurt game fish more than carp ever could."
In addition, Dickson says carp are able to survive in water that is slower, warmer, more turbid and polluted than most game fish can tolerate. "They're prolific spawners, too," said Dickson, a former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee who now edits Montana Outdoors, a state-run publication.
Carping in Minnesota
Common carp are established in 48 states and are distributed across Minnesota, especially in the southern two-thirds of the state. The bronze-colored common carp — which shouldn't be mistaken for its native look-a-like, the bigmouth buffalo — have large scales, pouty lips, a long dorsal fin base and two pairs of long barbells (whiskers) in its upper jaw.
"They're not the most handsome fish around, but they get a whole lot prettier when you latch into one," said Kechely.
Carp are one of the largest fish to swim in North America's inland waters and have been likened to aquatic freight trains. Dickson says that fisheries biologists claim that carp have the fastest terminal velocity — that zero-to-60 speed — of any freshwater fish.
"They're spooky and smart and a challenge to land, particularly on light line," said Dickson. "Carp of 20 to 30 pounds are accessible to every angler who holds a rod. And since they are found in shallow water, they can be fished by anyone from shore. When hooked, a carp will slowly move away and then begin a surging run to the nearest snaggy cover. They'll bust you off in a heartbeat if you don't know what you're doing."
Kechely says he's lost countless carp to tree-snags in the Minnesota River, but he still fishes for carp the same way he did as a kid. "I like to find a mud flat and set up just off the current in the main channel and where it meets a backwater eddy," he said. "For me, it's all about the bait you use. Carp can be finicky."
Over the years, much has been written about the bait preferences of carp. According to Dickson, carp will eat anything found in a grocery store: gum, lunch meat, canned potatoes, even marshmallows. Some anglers use a combination of ingredients, mixed together with a binding agent like molasses or peanut butter, called dough balls.
"I use canned corn and night crawlers, and sometimes a combination of both," said Kechely. Green Giant canned corn has been his No. 1 carp-catcher, he said. "When I was a kid, my mom made a lot of chicken, and when the bite was tough, she'd give me some raw chicken skin to use as bait. It worked, too."
Carp as cuisine
Carp get a bad rap as foul-tasting fish, but Dickson says carp meat is rich-tasting and delicious. There's a reason, he said, expensive New York restaurants in the late 1890s served "Carp in Rhine wine sauce" to rave reviews.
"Carp taste like the water they swim in," he said. "Carp caught in clean water tastes great. Carp caught in muddy, polluted water, not so much. For many Americans, smoked carp is the gateway drug into eating it. But carp can be pickled, pressure-cooked or even grilled."
Dickson says anglers should take the trouble to clean their carp for the table. "Unlike walleyes and panfish, carp take a little extra time to clean because of their bone structure," he said. "But for many connoisseurs, it's well worth the trouble."
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.