Carp diem

What are the leaping fish trying to tell us?


A swarm of silver carp jump out of the water after being startled by an electrofishing demonstration on the Illinois River near Havana. - PHOTO BY NERISSA MICHAELS, ILLINOIS NATURAL HISTORY SURVEY
A swarm of silver carp jump out of the water after being startled by an electrofishing demonstration on the Illinois River near Havana.

The two Old Friends (I am told) were sitting at breakfast. Old Friend No. 1 recalled the summer nights of her youth when she would join her beau on the banks of Lake Springfield, there to mix Wheaties and water and garlic salt into a dough that was affixed to a treble hook and cast into the shallows. She would sit thus for hours awaiting the telltale nibble that suggested that a carp had taken the bait, while the moon set and the sulfur dioxide rose from Dallman’s stacks on its way east to kill trees in places she had only dreamed of visiting.

Old Friend No. 2 responded: “Why?”

One can think of a several answers. Nobody had cable back then. And .... well, I guess that was the only reason. What Old Friend No. 1 fished for was the common carp, or Cyprinus carpio. The angler has only slightly more fun catching one than fishing for it. A sensible fish like a bass looks for a snag on which they might break your line or, failing that, goes looking for a personal injury lawyer. A common carp just kind of swims around aimlessly until it gets tired and gives up. Add gills to middle age and you have the common carp exactly.

Carp in those days were more fished for than written about, since reading about them was even duller than catching them. No more. The silver carp infest the Illinois River, and threaten to have the same effect on the Great Lakes ecosystem that genuine campaign finance reform would have on re-election budgets. That prospect has a bright side, however. You’ve seen the videos – the critter leaps from the water at the sound of approaching boats, sometimes soaring eight feet or more into the air. Watching a john boat buzz along on a carp-infested river puts me in mind of a Pia Bausch dance, or a new X Games event. Imagine a Lake Michigan chock full of them on a summer weekend when cruise ships and fishing boats and sailcrafts and jet skis are playing the near-shore waters off Chicago; it would look like North Dakota if the Russians had launched a first strike.

These flying fish can grow as large as 100 pounds. Getting hit by a big one is like having someone hit you with a 12-year-old. At first I assumed that their leaps were expressions of piscine joie de vivre – you know, “The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; carp’s in his river – All’s right with the world!” I wouldn’t think that any creature that found itself living in the Illinois would leap for joy, but it depends on what you’re used to, I guess. Illinois’ silver carp came up from Arkansas.

After watching four or five videos of the silver carp, I concluded that the leaping was more hysterical than high-spirited. Indeed, experts tell us that it is panic that causes them to jump into air at the sound of boat motors. But that doesn’t ring true either. If the fish are fleeing the noise of boats, why do they so often jump into the boats? More ominously, why do they so often jump right at the people riding in those boats? Is it possible that what are usually described as collisions are in fact intentional assaults?

You can understand if they were. You walk into a lot of human neighborhoods carrying a baseball bat or a pitchfork or a machete, like participants do at the Redneck Fishing Tournament up in Bath every year, and the locals are not going to ask you in to tea.

But maybe it isn’t just a turf battle. In 2011, several hundred fish gave their lives to the winner boat alone. That’s not confusion; that’s commitment. Consider the cruel ways in which animals have been used by humans. Factory farms. Disney cartoons. The Westminister dog show. The Internet even offers videos of captured carp breeding in Nepal. (What kind of perv watches this stuff?) Why has not the hoof-and-claw faction of the planet’s living things mounted a rebellion against their human suzerains? Where is their mujahideen, their Weather Underground, their Irgun? They are ill-armed, sure, but if our Tea Partiers have their history correct, all the Americans had at Lexington was a few smooth-bore muskets and Sarah Pain.

It is always difficult to recognize historic turning points as they happen. Maybe history is turning now in Bath. Maybe the grandchildren of today’s readers will live in a day when real goats and sheep sit in the General Assembly, a revolution that owes its origins to the martyrs who died in the Bath Massacre.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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