Mike Schoonveld

Fellow outdoor writers and myself get a first hand view of the Asian carp problem below the Barkley Lake dam.

There’s a war being waged in Kentucky. No state’s big lakes/big rivers environments are more under attack. More important to the Kentucky government, no state’s economy has been more affected by the invasive Asian carp. While Illinois, Indiana and other states, monitor and talk about the problem; in Kentucky, war has been declared.

Wars are fought with many weapons and right now the Commonwealth of Kentucky is approaching the Asian carp problem with a unique weapon — at least with soldiers wielding the right weapons — commercial fishermen.

Several years ago, I got my first up close and personal confrontation with these “flying carp” on one of Kentucky’s carp war battlegrounds — although the first glimpse was more of a first whiff. Our target area was tailwaters of the Barkley Lake Dam, the first dam on the Cumberland River upstream from the Ohio River.

We launched our “tour boat” just upstream in Barkley Lake and entered the lock to lower us down to the river level below. I’ve traversed through locks several times, from tiny locks on the Erie Canal to the huge locks on the St. Marys River holding back all of Lake Superior. Most were interesting experiences. This one was a smelly experience. The water was littered with dead, rotting Asian carp. The tailwaters area was filled with live, jumping silver carp and no doubt, as many or more bighead carp which don’t jump were in the waters below.

I’d previously fished the tailwaters below the Barkley Dam a couple of times for catfish, striped bass and white bass. This was years ago BC — before carp. The fishing below the dam is dismal, these days, unless you are a bow fisherman after carp. Then it’s almost too easy.

I was attending an outdoor writer’s conference nearby. The lakes — both Barkley and Kentucky Lake, the huge Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and surrounding territory was a great venue for visiting outdoor communicators, with places to fish, hunt, shoot and other opportunities. Lake oriented tourism in that region was a multi-billion dollar economic engine. The Asian carp were fairly new to the area at the time, treated almost as much as an attraction as a problem.

Now, they are just a problem. Our writer’s group rotated through that area once every five or ten years. It was coming up on Kentucky’s turn again, but they deferred. Kentucky and Barkley were once famed fishing lakes. Over the years, crappie anglers by the millions had headed for the area for the spring “run.” Bass fishermen by the thousands headed there annually, for tournaments or fun. Resorts, restaurants and other businesses thrived.

Now, AC — after carp, the fishing is poor. Resorts are struggling, hoping to rebrand as something other than fish camps. Until something drastic happens to curb the carp, there’s no need for outdoor communicators to hype the area as a destination.

Kentucky’s fisheries people are pinning their hopes on one undeniable (but often denied) fact. Where ever commercial fishermen are allowed to operate, fish populations suffer. There are countless examples of commercial over-harvest devastating fish stocks, especially in freshwater systems.

Their plan is to make the invasive carp valuable enough for commercial fishermen to want to go after them. If they can do that, they’ll turn the netters loose to let them wreak havoc. Will it work?

Commercial fishing for Asian carp has always been legal, but few participated. With limited demand, the commercial netters never knew what price the fish wholesalers were paying for Asian carp or if they were even buying carp on any particular day. So the state contracted a fish market to purchase all the Kentucky-caught carp — every day — and the state subsidized the price paid to the netters to guarantee the selling price would never drop below a minimum amount.

As a result, in 2018, more than 2 million pounds of carp were harvested, last year the commercial catch jumped to nearly 6 million pounds and their next target level is 20 million pounds. It’s working, but it’s expensive. Besides the carp-war dollars flowing from the state treasury, the federal government’s funding bill passed just before Christmas provided an additional $25 million for Kentucky’s war on carp.

The two big hurdles for success are overcoming the name, “carp” and the perception that Asian carp are boney and have a foul flavor. Americans conflate Asian carp with the common carp, also from Asia. Though they share the same “last name” — carp — they are not closely related. Common carp were introduced into the United States in 1800s, long enough to earn a deserved reputation for being bony and having foul flavor when compared to most native freshwater fish. Asian carp are just boney.

Perhaps a simple name change, eliminating the carp part of the name will help. If a rose by another name would still smell sweet, a flying carp, rebranded as silverfin or river whitefish, could encourage people to give them a try.

I’ve eaten Asian carp, both smoked, fried up like any other fish and processed and served as fish cakes or casserole dishes as one would do with canned salmon or tuna. The preparations from fresh fish had excellent flavor, but they were boney. The dishes made from processed Asian carp were equally delicious with no offensive or noticeable bones.

Will Kentucky’s war on carp be won by turning commercial fishermen into mercenary warriors? Only time will tell.