By Nick Simonson
There’s an encounter each spring that reminds me of how lucky we are to have ugly fish. They don’t glisten in gold like walleyes, sparkle with silver like a white bass, or even bring up the base of the podium like a smallmouth bass bedecked in bronze. Instead, they fight hard, provide fast action, and often remind us of the basics of angling and where many of us got our start. These not so pretty fish also reinforce the idea that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Whether it’s a carp that casually inhaled a crawler-tipped jig while working a break for walleyes, or a school of bullheads swarming a slipfloat on the warm surface water of a small lake, these interactions make me thankful for ugly fish, even when most other times they’re a nuisance.
Not What I Thought
In the chilly waters of this early spring, I had downsized to a light rod in attempt to connect with some walleyes on my home flow of the Sheyenne River. While I elicited a few slow, tail-grabbing takes by some of the smaller fish and the most notable catch was a muskie in the mid-30-inch range; believe it or not that fish was not the hardest fighting catch of the day. Having just boated a keeper-sized walleye at our final stop for the morning under the trestles of the Hi Line bridge towering over the Sheyenne River, I set the hook of the small jig into a heavy opponent just out from where I had landed the previous fish.
Thinking for certain the challenger on the other end was the female companion of the small male walleye from the shallower side of the spot just waiting to go up to meet for the spawn, my pulse began racing. Each slow pull and solid headshake convinced me that it was an epic-sized fish with the silver eyes, golden body and white-tipped tail, and I adjusted the already-strained drag on the reel as the rod doubled over and arched under the boat. For five minutes or so, the fish pulled upstream and then back down as I did my best to not let her break the undersized four-pound test monofilament which connected us. As the battle played out, it began to climb the ranks as one of my best in recent memory.
Finally, as the fish came back downstream and out from under the hull, it surfaced and the vision of gold struck me, however it wasn’t the gold of a walleye, but rather a common carp. Immediately my pulse dropped as if I had sat in my old blue La-Z-Boy recliner and I felt the adrenaline rush drain from my cheeks as my brother netted the carp. It wasn’t what I had thought it would be, but it provided all the fight I could have ever hoped for in any such contest between angler and fish, and at the very least, provided a renewed appreciation for the bottom-feeder’s might.
Where anglers like me may be disappointed in such a catch, I recall encountering a shore angler on Lake Oahe while my buddy and I bounced spinners along a breakline a few dozen yards out from his long rods rigged with electronic pagers and baited with dough balls slung into the shallows. As we went back and forth, we watched him set the hook on one particularly large opponent, and when he got it to shore he was shocked at the catch.
To us, it was just a carp – a fish that paled in comparison to the livewell loaded with the walleyes and crappies we were catching – but to the man on shore, it was a miraculous catch. As it turned out, the carp wasn’t just a carp, but rather a mirror carp, and when he told us he hadn’t caught one in many years, his voice cracked with the excitement of someone who had just landed any state record gamefish of higher renown. My buddy snapped a photo for him and texted it to his provided number for the angler to remember the moment by as he released it, proving once again that even the ugliest fish have a place in our angling world.
Whether they’re the subject of alternate angling forms such as bowfishing or seen solely as a source of garden fertilizer when caught, carp – by all definitions a well-intentioned, but overstayed and overpopulated introduction to many waters – do have their place for some, and incredible strength to offer others looking for something else, but finding a heart-pounding fight with an unseen opponent. And their beauty lies in that battle, and in the eyes of those that behold them, and perhaps hold them in higher esteem than most. On occasion, I count myself among them.
Featured Photo: All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter. The author with the carp he tussled with under the trestles of the Hi-Line Bridge on the Sheyenne River winding through Valley City. Simonson Photo.