Carp Fishing in America: A History and Introduction

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Carp Fishing in America
American Carp Society

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series of articles by Wayne Boon of the American Carp Society designed to introduce and instruct anglers on the new age of carp angling. 

This article includes some history and simple methods for locating and catching carp using gear that you may already use to catch other species. In subsequent editions, the ACS will be exploring more advanced gear, tackle, baits and tactics that the top carp anglers from around the world employ to catch their trophy catches.

To begin, we would like to differentiate our quarry, Cyprinus Carpio, from the so called “Asian carp”  (bighead, silver and grass or white amur).  The former two are actually the filter feeders that are causing havoc across the Midwest right now and the white amur feeds on aquatic vegetation. 

Those three fish are often confused with and mixed into the collective “carp” terminology by anglers around the country with the convenient support of their state’s Fish & Game department. To be clear, the bighead, silver and grass (or white amur) should not be confused with the common carp (Cyprinus Carpio) or it’s history.

Also, smallmouth, bigmouth, and black buffalo also fall far outside of the designation/categorization of “carp,” but we’d love to dedicate a separate article to them sometime in the future.

So, when we mention Carp, we’ll be talking about the only true carp species, Cyprinus Carpio, which includes common carp, mirror carp, and the decorative, colorful koi carp only.   

History of the Carp in the United States

Getting back to our main subject, Cyprinus Carpio, this awesomely intelligent, challenging and world renowned sport fish was intentionally introduced all across the United States starting in the 1870’s by the U.S. Fish Commission as a food fish to stave off starvation and fish population crashes.

The Commission was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 to perform extensive studies and reports to gauge the seriousness of the native fish population crashes and to find solutions. The Smithsonian’s own Dr. Spenser F. Baird was chosen to head up the commission, and in the following years, published major reports pointing to over-harvesting by the ever-expending European immigrant populations of the time, along with serious man-made changes to the fish’s natural habitats. 

However, the commission very soon understood that it would not have been feasible to fully publish their findings and recommend that pollution, commercial fishing, wetland drainage, logging, etc. be limited, as the reports had concluded to be part of the solution. Thus, it was decided they would look for a suitable replacement fish that would be worthy of cultivation. 

At this stage, Dr. Baird was receiving 2000 letters per year requesting carp for breeding programs via his commission’s headquarters; the new Americans, the European immigrant populations, were pining for their favorite food fish.

This triggered further studies that eventually concluded that, “No other species except the carp (Cyprinus Carpio) promises so great a return in limited waters.” Carp (Cyprinus Carpio) showed that it would reproduce well, grow rapidly, was adaptable to nearly all the environments that could be found across the nation, posed no harm to existing species, and processed fine table qualities that many of the immigrant populations were well accustomed to back in their motherlands.

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American Carp Society

A few hundred carp were brought over from Germany and bred in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington D.C. These few fish were the genesis of the largest governmental fish breeding and distribution programs the world had ever seen! Distributed from coast to coast with much fanfare, carp helped feed a growing population, even finding itself in the best dishes served up by the finest hotels in the biggest cities around the country.  At it’s peak, over 36 million pounds of carp were commercially harvested per year in the US!

Of course this “savior” fish didn’t keep it’s elevated status for too long as the ocean fishing industry picked up it’s marketing game. 

The Oceans were seen as a vastly cleaner water source for food than the polluted lakes and rivers.  Additionally, American carp farms had often tried to turn a quick profit and would place carp anywhere that held water.  These shallow ponds with stagnant, muddy water produced inferior and muddy-tasting fish, whereas back in the old world, European fish farmers prided themselves in raising their carp in pristine waters that provided a great tasting fish. 

This marked the decline of Cyprinus Carpio as a safe and clean food source.  Carp soon became viewed as the “poor-man’s fish.”

Outside of commercial fishing, carp are rightly recognized worldwide as a very learned, intelligent species with awesome strength, size and sporting qualities. These attributes haven’t been lost on individuals angling for carp in the United States over the years, either. 

Whether angled for food or sport, this fish has been a popular quarry for generations of our citizens, going back to the turn of the 19th century.

Introduction To Carp Fishing

By way of an introduction to the art of carp angling, we will cover some of the basic topics and concepts needed for an angler to enjoy success on the water. 

As mentioned above, we will be looking as introductory skills in this article. In the coming months, however, we will be covering more in depth techniques and strategies for targeting carp.

To begin, lets talk about where carp can typically be found and how to catch them.

Outside of the cold Winter months, carp can be spotted in lakes jumping early in the morning just as the sun is rising and also late in the evening, just before the sunsets.  If you cannot see them, you will certainly hear them as they “crash out” with a considerable splash just as the light is fading at the end of the day.

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American Carp Society

Carp usually patrol the margin areas early morning and late evening in rivers and lakes while foraging for food and can be caught near reed beds, lilies, and most structures relatively easily at these times of day. They can be caught in all depths of water, from one foot to thirty feet of water or more.

Warm water inlets to lakes and ponds are excellent areas to find carp as the flow of new water brings with it an ongoing supply of food for them.
They are naturally shy fish, so other good areas to find carp also are shelves or drop-offs where shallower water “drops off” to a deeper area where the fish will feel safe.

Locating natural food sources for the carp will also help to locate them.  They feed primarily on snails, shrimps, beetles, various larvae, and some plant seeds/tubers, with the larger specimens also eating crayfish and mollusks like freshwater clams & mussels, along with both zebra and quagga mussels, so natural areas where these can be located are a good start. 

Clear patches among weeds and gravel can signify a carp feeding zone.  Areas of high-density weeds are also good places to find carp. 

Carp are also opportunists and won’t be far from your local duck feeding location on the local pond.

How To Catch Carp

Although carp feed at all depths of the water table, they’re more likely to be found looking for food on the lake and riverbeds during the day, so this is the best place to start.

Free-lining:  The easiest way to catch carp is to go to the local pond with a loaf of bread, a single number 6 or 8 hook, and some 10 lb. line paired with pretty stiff rod and you are ready for action! Carp up to 10 lbs. are relatively easy to catch very close to the shore, and virtually all carp fishing is done from the bank.

There is no need for expensive tackle and boats.  You will need some patience, so feeding or “chumming” (where legal) an area prior to fishing always helps.  If the locals feed the ducks, that is the best place to start, as the carp will be used to feeding on bread on that location.

Alternatively, three or four kernels of canned sweetcorn (bought from your local grocery store) threaded directly onto the hook and cast out with or without a small sliding egg sinker/weight will certainly produce a carp if they are there feeding in the area you are fishing.

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American Carp Society

Float Fishing:  Bread can be molded around a hook and free-lined into an area with no float (bobber) or weight and the angler can just watch the line. This is a great method for ponds and very small areas of water; however, one of the most exciting methods of catching carp is to use a small float (Bobber) as the indicator. 

Mold the bread to the hook with just the point showing and set the depth of the float so that the bait sits on the bottom of the lake bed or pond. Make sure that the clutch of the reel is set loose so that the fish can take line when hooked. 

Once you have found a spot, whether near some reeds, lilies, under a tree, or just a few feet out from the shore where the water gets a little deeper, cast your line and if legal in your state, immediately introduce a few free offerings to get the fish feeding.  Either a handful of sweet corn or a few pieces of bread (rolled up so that it will sink) will work and give it a few minutes for the fish to find the bait. Pay very close attention to the float as a take can be so fierce that it will literally have the rod being pulled from your hands. As soon as the float disappears, lift into the fish.

Tackle to Use When Angling for Carp

Any fishing tackle can be used to catch carp, though longer rods are better suited to float fishing from the shore because they allow more leverage when playing a fish and will assist when casting from the shoreline.

8-10 ft. is a good length rod for a young angler, with 12 ft. being ideal for an adult.

8-10 lb. line strength is recommended, and should be paired with a number 6-10 single hook. 

Traditionally, a fixed spool reel with a bail-arm is used for float fishing, though baitcaster style reels can of course be used.  If you are float fishing, then a European-style “waggler” float is recommended over a traditional bobber. Wagglers are much thinner in the shape of their body and much easier to cast with accuracy. They also have better indication on bites for the carp fisherman. Fortunately, they can usually be found in many fishing tackle stores.

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American Carp Society

Alternatively, if you already have a 6 or 7 ft. medium action spinning rod (3/8 – 1oz lures) or similar sitting in the garage at home, just rig it up with a sliding egg sinker weight with a bead to stop the sinker from hitting the knot (see photo below).

Using the line, hook and bait advice above, carp can readily be caught from most waters here in the USA.

Baits to Use for Catching Carp

As mentioned above, sweet corn and bread are two of the best baits to use for carp, but nightcrawlers (earthworms) are excellent, as well as dough baits made from mixing breakfast cereals with syrups. 

For bigger fish and longer fishing sessions, hard boiled baits (or “boilies,” as they are known), are excellent to use on a hair rig.

The Importance of Catch and Release

To preserve the fish for others to enjoy, especially those larger than 10-15 lbs, it is important to release the fish unharmed. 

Who knows: you may catch him again when he’s a 40 pounder!

Catch the carp, have fun, and take some pictures to post on your social media platforms to show your friends, but always put the care of the fish first.

To put all this together and to recap, take a look at this episode of our Whiteboard Series of videos. This one shows how to catch carp using the gear you probably already have in your garage.  

About the American Carp Society

American Carp Society Banner
American Carp Society

The American Carp Society was formed in 2002 with the goal of promoting and educating the public on the sport of specimen Carp Fishing in the USA.

The common carp (Cyprinus Carpio) is one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish in the world and is now being pursued by anglers of all persuasions, from fly fisherman to dedicated specialist carp anglers as a sport fish. 

The American Carp Society is a membership based organization and is responsible for promoting the sport and ensuring careful stewardship of both the specimen fish and its environment for the future generation of American Carp Anglers.


Email:  [email protected]


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