Carp Characteristics – Habitats, Diets & More

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Originating from West Asia, today carp can be found across the globe. In fact, they have been introduced into every continent (excluding Antarctica) and are found in 59 countries worldwide. This makes carp the third most introduced fish species in the world, with the Romans being one of the first civilizations known to introduce and farm carp in various non-native regions such as Italy and Greece. As a result of this mass introduction, carp have a large influence on different cultures and ecosystems around the world. In Europe and the UK, carp are extremely popular and generally considered to be majestic creatures, with a certain charm and are highly sought after. In other regions, however, they are not so welcome.

In the US, carp have had a negative impact on many river and lake ecosystems due to their feeding habits. They grub up the bottom and in turn can destroy submerged vegetation, which many other species rely on for food and shelter. However, the popularity of carp as a game fish in both the US and Canada has risen significantly in recent years; particularly in the Canadian provinces of BC and Ontario, where carp are now seen as a worthy sport fish. Fly fishermen here sometimes refer to carp as ‘The Golden Ghost’ or as freshwater ‘Bonefish’, due to the difficulty anglers have in getting them to take a well-presented fly. In the US, where bigger is often better, carp have become a more attractive fish to catch due to their ability to reach large sizes and provide an exciting fight.

“If you want to sight cast to a tailing fish that might be 10 pounds (4 kg) or more, carp are it”

Kirk Deeter, editor at the popular American magazine Field & Stream, who goes fly-fishing for carp on the South Platte River in downtown Denver, Colorado

A koi carp caught in Australia – not allowed to be put back!

In comparison, Australia and New Zealand seem to have a disappointing but understandably negative outlook on the presence of carp in their waterways. In New Zealand koi carp are regarded as noxious fish, and despite recreational fishing being present but uncommon, koi carp must be killed when caught. Similarly, in Australia, carp are unanimously considered a pest and, following on from New Zealand’s attempted eradication of koi carp, it is illegal to release carp back into the water in South Australia.

An interesting relationship with carp is seen in areas of Central Europe. Here there is a strong connection between Christmas and carp fishing. It is tradition in Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia for the man of the house to catch a carp, bring it home alive and keep overnight in a bath the night before Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, the carp would be killed and served fried or steamed. Leftovers of the fish would be used to cook a traditional fish soup.

Carp are an incredibly versatile fish, it is this unbelievable ability to adapt to any environment, adopt many feeding methods and outcompete other fish species that often leads carp to pest status in more fragile ecosystems, such as Australia. However, it is this versatility that makes us love carp fishing to such a degree that we can picture our dream 30 pounder when we close our eyes at night. They grow to varying sizes (between 4-100lb), can be caught in pretty much every type of freshwater, and they can be caught using many different techniques. Understanding their characteristics and traits will make catching these, often elusive fish, that little bit easier.

A common carp caught in Slovakia

The world of carp is a confusing place, with many different sub-species, habitats and diets. Understanding some of these aspects and traits could give you the edge against these tricky customers. Let’s get started.

Habitat

Carp can be found in almost any freshwater aquatic habitat, they can be found in rivers, estuaries, reservoirs, small ponds, big ponds, small lakes, big lakes, you get the idea. These different types of water pose very different challenges to the carp angler and produce very different types of carp. For example, river fishing for carp will often require heavier tackle to combat the current. The angler may also choose to incorporate the flow of the river into his tactics, by running a light feeder full of a ground bait mix, or trotting downstream with a waggler float. Rivers will typically produce more wild looking, long, muscle stacked carp.

Despite river fishing often being considered the most rewarding variety of carp fishing, carp actually prefer large bodies of slow moving or standing water. This is where they will grow to their biggest and be the most abundant. Again though, this situation poses very different challenges to the hopeful angler. Fishing in still water often requires a more patient, slow-moving approach. Many anglers set up a swim and create an area where the fish feel comfortable feeding, once this has been achieved can they reap the rewards.

A common carp caught river fishing

A common carp caught lake fishing

Temperature

Carp can survive and thrive in a range of water temperatures, but prefer warmer bodies of water between 23-30ºC with soft sediment bottoms and submerged water plants. In a nutshell, this is why carp can become such a pest in regions such as the US and Australia. A warmer climate results in warmer waters, here they can grow much larger and reproduce more often, as unlike other fish species, carp can spawn multiple times per season, providing the conditions allow. Combine this with a lack of both competition and predation, and you can see why they become a problem.

Whilst it may be true that carp love warm waters, they can also survive extremely low temperatures, too. They can even endure fully frozen lakes in winter, providing there is access to liquid water of course. They tend to be very docile in such periods, but do respond well to a rise in temperature during the winter months. So if you fancy a day on the water but it’s been too cold, look out for a mild weekend, as carp will take it as an opportunity to replenish food stores.

Diet

Carp are omnivorous, and so feed on water plants as well as scavenge the bottom for insects, crustaceans (including zooplankton), crawfish, and benthic worms. Bare this in mind when creating a mix to feed with. Carp like small bits and pieces running through your mix, try using small pellets and hemp to replicate small crustaceans and insects that they naturally feed on.

Carp are largely suited to bottom feeding thanks to their forward-protruding mouth. Despite this, they are known to change their feeding habits in response to a range of different factors, including climate, wind direction, temperature and even the phases of the moon. So what does this mean for you, the angler? Well it basically means that you can use a wide range of tactics to land yourself a carp. Sinking bottom tactics, midwater tactics and highly enthralling surface tactics are all employed by anglers to catch these beasts. Add to that their tendency to hang around shaded areas near the bank, allowing you to stalk these areas, and you’ve got one hell of a coarse fish!

Species

Understanding the different sub-species of carp is key. We’ve focused on the common carp here as this is the original, native carp species of Europe. It’s golden scales, all perfectly placed along both of its sides give rise to its reputation as the most majestic of all carp species. However, the mirror carp certainly rivals the common carp for looks and fishing enjoyment. They often live alongside each other in many lakes and rivers, and it is not uncommon (see what I did there) to catch multiples of both in one session.

The mirror carp gets its name from its scales, which are said to resemble mirrors and unlike their common cousins, its scales are few in number and surrounded by leathery skin. This trait is believed to have been selectively bred by monks in order to make them easier to scale and eat. They can grow in excess of 60 lb and the last few British record fish have all been mirror carp.

A common carp

A mirror carp

One of the most mysterious and sought after carp species is the grass carp. These fish love weedy lakes and are often solitary. They can grow rapidly to huge sizes, often making them a prize catch in certain lakes as well as tackle breakers in fisheries where a few grass carp dwarf the rest of the fish species that live alongside them.

Grass carp are strong fighters on a rod and reel, but because of their vegetarian habits and their wariness, they can be difficult to catch as they stay close to reeds and weeds, often leading to snags. Grass carp spend a lot of time at the surface, and so are often targeted by anglers, meaning that they are used to encountering lines and bait. Due to this increased exposure to fishing tackle, they are particularly cautious and smart, making them even harder to catch.

A grass carp

Spawning Season

Moving on to the bane of any carp fisherman’s summer afternoon chasing big, small or moderately sized carp… spawning season. Although carp normally spawn in the spring, they can spawn multiple times a season, through to August in response to rising water temperatures, rainfall, access to food and even water oxygen levels. This is something you absolutely MUST watch out for. Spawning carp are not interested in feeding at all, so you could end up at a lake where the carp are thrashing and crashing and think to yourself “there’s plenty of activity here today” only to go home empty handed, with the sound of big carp crashing on the surface ringing in your ears. They prefer to spawn when the level of water is rising, so heavy rain or flood conditions can trigger furious spawning activity.

Summary

Understanding where and when carp feed was one of Richard Walker’s (the man who pioneered carp fishing in the UK) most sworn upon, yet simple beliefs. Further to this, having knowledge of the different carp species and their various habitats could be the difference between landing a new PB and letting it swim away.