David Nikolow has heard his beloved carp called everything from trash fish to bottom-sucking scavengers. So when the 32-year-old fisherman pulled his world-record, 57-pound 13-ounce carp from Washington's Tidal Basin a few weeks ago, he did not expect the world to beat a path to his door.
"The carp has a bad reputation. People think it is a low-class fish," said the Bulgarian-born Nikolow, whose passion for catching what are essentially oversized goldfish is strong enough to withstand all manner of scurrilous remark.
"The carp is not a dumb fish," he claimed.
Had Nikolow caught a world record bass, trout, or any of the traditional sport fish, he would have been besieged by the manufacturers of commercial fishing gear willing to pay for his endorsement. Because he caught a carp, a fish that is as popular with most anglers in this country as seaweed, he may earn nothing more than a freezer full of fish and the incredulity of friends who can't believe he would actually eat it.
Compared to carp, catfish are considered sexy. Talk to the fishing crowd that favors fast boats and shiny lures and you will be told that carp are inedible, ugly as toads and barely worth the effort of throwing back.
"About the only good thing I can say about carp is they look good on Chinese kites," said Doug Watts, a Washington lawyer and Maryland fisherman.
But travel almost anywhere else in the world, and you will discover carp served as a delicacy. In China carp have been raised commercially and celebrated artistically for 3,000 years. In England, there is a Carp Society that publishes its own magazine devoted to the sport of catching fish that can live more than 40 years. The magazine, Carp Fishing, features full-color centerfolds of carp and poems written in their honor as well as techniques that have proven successful in their capture.
Carp enjoyed a good reputation when first introduced to the United States in the late 1800s by Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries.
"I fully believe that within 10 years this fish will become . . . widely known throughout the country and esteemed in proportion," said Baird, whose commission sent carp to almost every congressional district in the country. Instructions emphasized that the whiskered fish be kept in clean water not already occupied by other fish.
Those instructions were generally ignored. Soon there were carp in every stream and pond, dominating other fish and eating almost all the vegetation. It was not a good way to make friends.
Carp earned more black marks, ironically, by their ability to survive. Since carp, like catfish, have air bladders that allow them to live for hours out of water, they survived in ponds and creeks that grew too dirty for many other fish.
"People have come to associate carp with dirty water and indeed if you eat a fish that is taken from polluted water there is nothing you can do to get rid of that horrible swampy taste," said Bela Szepesi, a research chemist for the Department of Agriculture and a champion of the much maligned carp. "But if you take carp from clean water, it tastes very good."
Szepesi has tested more than 100 recipes using carp. He is working on a book detailing ways to catch, clean and cook carp. Szepesi claims carp are better tasting and harder to catch than bass.
Carl Sullivan, the executive director of the American Fisheries Society, which represents 7,000 fish biologists, thinks American anglers view carp "with indifference or disgust" because they have been spoiled by flashier fish. "If carp leaped from the water or went for a fly, they would be the most popular fish in the country. It takes patience to get him hooked. Then you've got to have a strong line and a strong back."
The fisheries society has organized something called the Carp Exploitation Committee. The USDA has organized its own committee to promote the good taste of carp.
In Tennessee, scientists are debating a plan to introduce weed-eating Chinese carp into lakes that are being choked to death by unwanted plants. The fear is that the fish's appetite will be so great, it will strip lakes of all vegetation.
"You can equate the grass carp to a grazing animal," said University of Florida biologist Hal Schramm. "They won't crawl over land into somebody's petunia bed, but I have seen them chewing leaves off tree limbs with their heads partially out of the water."
The solution would be to introduce carp to the water and anglers to the carp. But that is a job that will need a heavy dose of good propaganda.
Fishermen like Nikolow, who is waiting for a decision on his world record carp, need no convincing.
"I've got the fish in my freezer," said the Falls Church man, who refuses to reveal his secret recipe for doughball bait. "I'm just waiting to hear so I can eat it in celebration."