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"Without Careful Consideration": Why Carp Swim in Minnesota's Waters

by Steven R. Hoffbeck
Author Information
Summer 2001 (Volume 57, number 6, pgs. 305-320)

In July 1952 Frank Ledwein, an angler from Annandale, was fishing for northern pike in Clearwater Lake. When a fish grabbed his four inch long sucker minnow, Ledwein let out some line and set the hook. He could tell that the fish was big; reeling it in felt like pulling in a log. At 55 pounds 5 ounces, it became a Minnesota record—even a world record fish for a time. Ledwein never publicized his catch, however, because it was not a huge northern pike, as he had hoped, but a lowly carp, a fish he had never intended to catch. 1

Ledwein would never have caught a carp had not the State Fish Commission introduced the non-native species into the state some 70 years earlier. From 1880 until 1890 the commission stocked many lakes and rivers with carp, hoping to improve angling. But carp proliferated beyond imagining, taking over the underwater habitat of other local fish, and soon anglers turned against carp as "unwelcome intruders" responsible for the decrease of native game fish. 2

Minnesotans came to believe that carp were neither truly game fish nor truly forage fish (food for predatory game fish) but belonged in the class of bottom feeders and ugly-looking fish called rough fish or—even trash fish. Although carp had been highly valued as food in Europe and Asia for centuries and had their own market in the United States, sport anglers came to despise the species after 1900 and demanded action by the state government to eradicate the nuisance that it had brought to Minnesota. But by then it was too late. That painful lesson in the dangers of introducing non-native species lives on more than a century later. 3

Originating in Asia, carp were cultivated for food in rice paddies and ponds as early as 800-300 B.C. Carp are also native to Eastern Europe, where they were considered a tasty and valuable food fish. After carp had been transplanted in England, Izaak Walton lauded the fish as the "Queen of Rivers" in his classic treatise, The Compleat Angler. 4

Carp are the big brothers of the minnow family. Not inherently unpleasant to look at, they are dark olive in color on their backs, with lighter olive sides and yellowish lower bodies. Two pairs of long barbels ("whiskers") on their upper lip help them taste or sense food. Their flexible mouths protrude and work like a drinking straw as they suck in organic material from muddy lake bottoms. Sharp spines on their long dorsal and anal fins discourage predators. Among the three types of carp brought to North America, the most distinguishing feature is the presence or absence of large scales. The scaled or German carp, the most common in Minnesota, has large scales covering its body. The mirror carp has only three or four rows of large scales, which resemble mirrors. The leather carp has no scales at all but a leather-like outer skin. 5

The carp's most remarkable characteristic is its rapid rate of growth: a young fish gains I to 3 pounds yearly, and fish of 5 to 10 pounds are common. Carp are also hardy, frequently living to be 20 to 25 years old and 50 pounds in weight. Unlike many fish, they can survive water temperatures as warm as 96° F. for a 24-hour period. Carp enjoy almost all fresh waters, including lakes, rivers, and ponds, but do not like colder water environments. Carp thrive where more oxygen-sensitive species cannot. Significantly for the Minnesota story, carp are able to withstand being transported from one place to another, thus making them peculiarly adapted to artificial propagation and stocking. Carp are also prolific: a 20 pound female can produce as many as two million eggs annually. 6

By the time the scaled carp was introduced to Minnesota, the state had gained a reputation among residents and visitors alike as a sporting paradise. As early as 1866 the New York Times noted that Minnesota was "famous for its lakes and rivers." In 1884 a newspaper reporter called it "the fishiest State in the Union." 7

Because of the widely held opinion that the supply of fish in Minnesota was "inexhaustible,"8 most Minnesotans had no reservations about hunting and fishing without limit. Game and fish were to be consumed just as white pine would be cut until no more could be harvested economically.

With the advent of a scientific world view in the nineteenth century, educated Americans also believed that science could be used to improve life. If science could produce railroads for better transportation, telegraphs for better communication, and sewer systems for better sanitation, scientists could surely augment natural fish stocks with imported species to provide even better fishing.

The natural environment of the United States had already witnessed numerous changes from introduced flora and fauna. Some transplanted species came inadvertently, as in the spread of bluegrass (even in advance of white settlement), while others were brought in intentionally, as in the case of timothy grass for animal fodder. English sparrows had been introduced deliberately in 1850 to clear American skies of mosquitoes and other noxious insects. Other transplants proved to be more beneficial, such as Holstein cows, which are capable of increased milk production. 9

These factors—unbridled consumption of natural resources, faith in the power of science, and successes in improving animal and fish propagation—all contributed to the state's decision to introduce carp to its lakes and rivers in the 1880s. The resulting tale of optimism that quickly turned to regret holds significance even in our own time.

East of Minnesota, non-native fish had long been introduced to waters depleted by indiscriminate fishing, pollution, soil erosion, and habitat decline. Commercial fishing with gill nets, in particular, had harvested more fish than could be replaced by natural means. To increase the dwindling fish count, the first experimenters tried stocking fish eggs, young fry, and adult fish into lakes and streams. By 1810 northern pike had been introduced to Maine and New Hampshire, where they had formerly been unknown. 10

In 1831, young foreign carp were raised in New York ponds and then placed in the Hudson River. Sporadic shipments of carp were stocked in the Hudson throughout the 1840s, but large-scale stocking awaited advances in fish culture. 11

In 1853 two Ohio doctors, Theodatus Garlick (known as the father of American fish culture) and H. A. Ackley, successfully completed the first artificial fertilization of brook trout eggs in the United States. Shortly thereafter, Massachusetts became the first state to create a fish commission responsible for reporting on the overall conditions of fish and fishing in the state. When the commission found that unrestricted fishing was depleting the state's resources, it advocated stocking to restore the fishery. Other states founded fish commissions, and a national body, the American Fish Culturist Association, came into being in 1870. When the national group and the state commissions called upon the federal government to create a nationwide authority on fish propagation, Congress established the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in 1871. 12

At its inception the federal fish propagation program operated with the philosophy that it was advantageous to "stock any promising species of fish in any accessible body of water." Advocates of liberal fish stocking policies gave little consideration to how well a foreign fish would suit the waters or if it was advisable to add a new species to an environment. Action was deemed better than caution, and most nineteenth-century naturalists were unaware that the fragile balance of nature in any ecosystem was easily upset. 13

Minnesota's Fish Commission, which became a reality in 1874, agreed with the national fish-stocking policy. The body immediately set out to change the makeup of the fish population in the lakes, streams, and rivers under its jurisdiction. Its first annual report recognized the importance of sport fishing to the state's economy and expressed a desire to improve the fisheries by introducing even better fish than were naturally produced in Minnesota's waters. The commissioners regarded the widespread existence of the naturally abundant northern pike, for example, as a particular "calamity" of nature and wanted the species "outlawed," being "fully convinced that every pickerel of the state simply occupies the room of a better fish." (The report's authors stated that the northern pike's only redeeming feature was the "remarkable facility with which he eats his fellow pickerel.") Although some anglers killed any northern pike they caught and threw the carcasses overboard to be eaten by other fish, the commission noted that northerns might be allowed to remain in a few Minnesota lakes set aside for those who were "fond of pickerel." 14

Minnesota's Fish Commission advocated engineering a better system of fish culture than nature could contrive. Its first fish-stocking effort came quickly in 1874, when employees placed 80,000 young herring-like shad, obtained from the U.S. Fish Commission, in the Mississippi River at St. Paul. The effort failed. 15

The state commission discussed other improvements, such as making the waters of Red Lake, Otter Tail Lake, and Detroit Lake "fertile with salmon" as quickly as possible. It tried to introduce Minnesota whitefish, a highly valued food fish abundant in Leech and other northern lakes, into White Bear Lake and Lake Minnetonka, so that it could be broiled for breakfast at local tourist resorts. 16

The Fish Commission's vision of Minnesota's fishy future coincided with the interests of the state's major railways. Both wanted to improve fishing to benefit would-be tourists who enjoyed lakes and angling. Thus began a partnership between state agencies and the state's major railways.

In 1875 the Northern Pacific Railway began transporting Atlantic salmon for stocking lakes along its tracks near Brainerd and Detroit Lakes. The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway afforded space in its rail cars for carrying 1,000 Atlantic salmon, 1,000 landlocked salmon, and 500 Pacific salmon to Lake Minnetonka, the prime resort destination located along its route. But the salmon did not adapt well to Minnesota. Of those stocked on the Cannon River in Rice County, "nearly if not all died" within the year. 17

The introduction of salmon nevertheless continued, with the managers of eight different railways providing "free transportation and innumerable kindnesses" to fish commissioners through free railway passes and free transportation of barrels containing young fish and eggs. Many fertilized salmon eggs perished even before they reached Minnesota, however. Some 15,000 eggs sent by rail were marked "Don't Freeze," but a well meaning worker interpreted the sign to mean "keep near the stove," with the result that they were poached beyond recovery or perished soon after hatching. 18

The fish commission naively hoped the stocked ocean salmon would learn how to reach the Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay and then return to Minnesota to spawn. The salmon did not catch on, however, and the experiment was deemed a failure. In the four years after the arrival of the fish, anglers caught no more than three. (In 1879 two fishermen brought in a five pound salmon from Lake Elmo that they had speared, not hooked.) 19

Other introduced fish fared better in Minnesota. In the 1880s brook trout flourished in streams where they had been placed, as did non-native rainbow trout. Lake trout did well in deep, cold lakes. In 1879 the Fish Commission put mature three pound walleye pike in Lake Minnetonka and other lakes that lacked connection to the walleye's original range, the large tributaries of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence River systems. Improvements in the state-operated fish hatcheries established at St. Paul and Red Wing in the late 1870s resulted in successful procedures for hatching young walleye and black bass, species that proliferated in Minnesota's lakes in the 1880s. By 1890 Duluth had gained a U.S. Fish Hatchery that produced whitefish, perch, and lake trout. 20

But the fish that proved the greatest triumph—and greatest agony for the state's fish commission was the carp. Regarded by many today as a four-letter word, the carp entered the country as a much-desired invited guest.

The U.S. Fish Commission had begun promoting carp as a food under the leadership of Spencer F. Baird, the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. That national society first acquired 450 large German or scaled carp, which were transported by steamer across the Atlantic Ocean in 1877. Soon the commission began a systematic effort to bring carp in large numbers to many states, "from Maine to California." When the first breeding stock for the federal fish hatcheries at Baltimore and Washington, D.C., began producing a multitude of young fry, Professor Baird enthusiastically predicted that carp would become "widely known throughout the country and esteemed in proportion." 21

That carp would be a valuable addition to North America appeared obvious to fish scientists of the day. The U.S. Fish Commission labeled carp a "desirable species" as early as 1874, enumerating eight "good qualities," including its "adaptability to conditions unfavorable to any equally palatable American fish and to very varied climates," its "harmlessness in its relation to other fishes," and its "ability to populate waters to their greatest extent." The report noted that the carp's "largely ... vegetable diet" made it advantageous over "carnivorous" fish, which could increase in numbers only by decreasing another fish population. Carp, the commission believed, would serve as an inexpensive source of protein for the benefit of all Americans. The logic of growing carp as a "food fish" seemed to make perfect scientific sense. 22

Few could have dreamed how well carp would flourish in the United States. By 1880 the U.S. Fish Commission carp ponds in Washington, D.C., hatched so many young fry that carp became a political gold mine. Congressmen willingly distributed carp to eager constituents in their districts as a form of political patronage—a sort of carp barrel politics. The national fish commission shipped young carp by railway to the state fish commissions, which then arranged for "gratuitous distribution" to those who applied. Some 300 individuals from 25 states (including Wisconsin) and territories received a total of 12,265 carp in 1879, and the number of applicants increased year after year. In 1880 Minnesota's Fish Commission announced with great pride that a "good thing has come to us this year." Its annual report continued, "We have at last received a lot of small carp." On October 21 the commission distributed its first 15 in lakes near Buffalo in Wright County. 23

By 1882 Minnesota's commission had secured 69 of the "much coveted German carp" from Washington: St. Paul's Lake Como got 6, and 8 went to western Minnesota's Stevens County. To assist fish culturists in raising carp, the commission reprinted a 39-page article entitled "Carp and Carp Culture" in its annual report. The shallow lakes in southern. Minnesota, often inhabited only by native buffalo fish and suckers, seemed particularly likely to benefit from imported carp. 24

By 1884 the carp crusade gained more momentum. The state agency stocked another 9,000 from Washington in 90 different places in Minnesota. The largest batches went into several lakes in Ramsey County, most notably 500 in Lake Como. Most applicants seeking carp received 20 fish for introduction to local lakes. Carp had saturated the state. 25

Adaptable to many types of water, fair or foul, carp became common inhabitants of Minnesota's lakes and rivers south of a line drawn from Moorhead to Duluth. They also lived in but did not dominate colder lakes north of the line. Carp could live in low oxygen waters and even tolerate some sewage. 26

A typical Minnesota carp enthusiast was Wadena County's John Wesley Speelman. In the railroad town of Verndale, Speelman had a tree nursery that he had started upon his arrival from Nebraska in 1882. In that state he had sold trees to farmers who needed to plant them on their "tree claims." (Under provisions of the Homestead Act, claimants who planted 10 acres in trees could get a second 160 acre homestead.) In Minnesota, Speelman sold fruit trees-apple, crab apple, plum, and cherry—to help farmers diversify their farms. One variety he favored was the Russian mulberry tree, a foreign import that he thought could improve the fruit-growing prospects of Wadena County. If a Russian tree could grow in Minnesota, he reasoned, surely the German carp could also flourish in the waters near Verndale. This would diversify the fish populations of local rivers and lakes and help settlers reap a bounty of fish. A tinkerer by nature, Speelman also raised different breeds of chickens in order to find the fowl that could best adapt to local conditions. The logic of discovering the best fruit trees, chicken breeds, and fish stocks for Verndale was elementary to a man who worked closely with nature. 27

In the spring of 1884, Speelman explored local rivers, including the Shell and Crow Wing, to determine the feasibility of launching a steamboat enterprise. At the same time, he discovered places that seemed suitable for stocking German carp into the watershed, and he ordered his first shipment of twenty from the state. 28

In 1885 Speelman, described in the local newspaper as a "good and reliable" man, secured 40 more carp from the fisheries commission for further distribution around Verndale. His carp were a small part of a total of 3,105 stocked in the state that year. Two other varieties—mirror and leather—carp, also appeared in the commission's annual report of stocking activities. 29

The high point of carp-stocking in Minnesota came in 1887, when the state distributed a total of 2,695. Their numbers diminished afterward, with 522 listed for 1888, 1,385 for 1889, and only 154 for 1890. By that time the species had proven so "prolific" that it had established a permanent presence in the state and required no further assistance. According to the commission's annual reports, consumers could readily "buy either the dead or living fish in the markets of St. Paul or Minneapolis," and carp was especially popular among "foreign born citizens," who extracted "great satisfaction and gustatory enjoyment" from it. 30

Carp apparently showed up on many dinner tables, aided by a spate of published recipes. In1880 New York's fish commission had publicized carp as the "fresh water fish of the future," possessing "delicate" flesh "with a taste peculiar to itself." It was judged excellent when boiled and dipped in melted butter or a white sauce, "admirable [when] baked," and "wonderful when stewed." In 1881 the New York Times reprinted recipes from Food and Health magazine for broiled, stewed, and stuffed carp served with a brown gravy. The "savory, aromatic" fish went well with potatoes, salad, parsnips, stewed cabbage, or mushrooms. Some more finicky sources suggested that the white flesh was good for cooking but the narrow streak of brown (sometimes called the "mud vein") running down the middle of each side should be removed lest it ruin the taste. 31

Central and eastern European immigrants, in particular, were happy about carp-stocking and relished the fish. Carp had been raised in ponds in Europe since the twelfth century, and carp culture was well known in Germany, Poland, and Austria-Hungary in the nineteenth century. Commercial fisherman harvested the fish from the Mississippi River and other places, shipping great quantities to Chicago and eastern markets. Minnesota's railways were happy to assist in transporting carp east. They also had a financial interest in helping stock the fish in areas that benefited immigrant settlers carried west on their trains. 32

Some Minnesotans were not as pleased about carp stocking, however, and by the late 1880s complaints about the fish became almost as plenteous as their offspring. People swore that the fish tasted muddy, and the Fish Commission admitted that "carp, like pigs, will stand much abuse; either will survive being kept in a mudhole, but it spoils the flavor of the meat of both." To counteract this problem, the commission recommended that carp be raised in "plenty of water," noting that at least one carp-raiser tried (unsuccessfully) to keep his fish in a "wash tub full of water in the warm cellar all winter." Others criticized carp for their wariness around hooks and "sluggishness," which made it difficult for anglers to catch them. (Spearing and netting were another story, of course). 33

By the 1890s in Minnesota, popular attitudes about game and fish resources began to change. As professional market hunters killed and shipped out great masses of meat from the state and as residents speared, netted, and caught fish without limits, the state began to suffer a shortage of wild game in its more settled areas. Anywhere that the railways took upper-class sporting tourists, market hunters, or newer immigrants, the lakes were becoming fished out. Newspapers reported that netting seemed to be a "principal cause for the deficit in game fish." Sporting anglers added to the problem, taking long strings of bass, walleye, and trout, fish that did not quickly reproduce. 34

Finally acknowledging that overfishing was a great problem, concerned sportspersons decried the sad fact that the game reserves of the former sporting paradise were "fast becoming depleted through the indiscriminate hunting and fishing both in and out of season." A call came forth from upper-class outdoor sports enthusiasts such as William L. Tucker of the Voluntary Minnesota Game and Fish Protection Association for new state laws that would protect wildlife from this depletion. Accordingly, in 1891 the state government began to limit its citizens to taking only as much wild game and fish that "can be used immediately for food purposes." 35

This movement coincided with the growing national demand for conservation of trees and protection of natural scenery in parks. The effort to preserve some of the north's remaining great white pine stands through creation of the first state park at Lake Itasca in 1891 brought forth a corresponding effort to preserve other aspects of Minnesota's natural resources. 36

By the 1890s, meanwhile, the newly named Board of Game and Fish Commissioners had turned its attention to stocking other fish with greater promise both for angling enjoyment and as high quality table fare. Walleyes had proven amenable to artificial fish culture in hatcheries, and authorities began to stock them by the millions (as opposed to thousands of carp). The fish commission distributed 625,000 young walleye pike in 1885, and the numbers grew to 3.9 million in 1887 and 15 million by 1892. The state had given up stocking Atlantic and Pacific salmon by 1885, switching its efforts to large-mouth bass, stream trout (brook and rainbow), and trout from Lake Superior. 37

Nationally, the U.S. Fish Commission stocked carp in great numbers throughout the 1880s, but efforts diminished by 1890 and ceased by 1897 because the fish had clearly "taken" in all of the states and even in Canada. Years later a spokesman for the national commission contended, "It was not the intention of the Fish Commission to introduce the carp into waters that were already stocked with good native species," The indiscriminate distribution of the fish guaranteed the proliferation of the species. 38

Although Minnesota abandoned its carp stocking program, carp did not abandon the state. The species continued to roil the state's watersheds, rousting out nutrition from muddy lake bottoms. In the early twentieth century carp were increasingly held responsible for depletions in desirable fish stock because they supposedly crowded out the better species and ate food that might better go to walleyes, bass, and crappies. Carp were also blamed for clouding lakes and streams as they rooted out seeds and insects from the bottoms. Although the suspended soil in the water actually resulted from runoff from plowed fields and clear cut forests, the "insidious advance" of carp was falsely deemed responsible. 39

Anglers and duck hunters who noted the depletion of game fish, the disappearance of aquatic vegetation favored by waterfowl, and the "excess of carp" now began demanding state intervention to exterminate all carp. As early as 1910 Minnesota wildlife officials designated carp its "deadly enemies" and declared that the state was "fighting with all her might to rid the inland waters of German carp and suckers." 40

The Game and Fish Commission's primary weapon for fighting carp was nets, the deadly efficient tool that had already been used by unscrupulous or unthinking Minnesotans to deplete the sport fishery. Beginning in 1909, the state issued winter seining licenses to chosen contractors whose assignment was removing rough fish, chiefly carp, from key lakes and rivers. Netters were allowed to sell the fish to market buyers in Chicago, New York, and other eastern cities. Most fish were shipped live to New York in specially constructed railway tank cars. The commission then received a percentage of the profit from sales. 41

From a small beginning, the rough-fish removal plan grew, and by 1918 the state issued more contracts to provide fish for consumption during World War I. Even though the commission realized that netting could never wipe out the state's entire carp population, it recognized that carp fishing employed 50 to 60 men, provided money for Game and Fish programs, and helped improve game fishing. Much of the netting took place in southern Minnesota, where carp were most numerous, especially in waters connected to the Minnesota or Mississippi Rivers, or in larger lakes. 42

After 1927 the state's portion of the rough-fish-removal sales was placed in a Fish Lakes Improvement Fund used to build bass-rearing ponds and place carp screens between lakes to prevent migrations to hitherto uninfested lakes. (Later, state crews constructed carp control dams on waterways between lakes.) 43

In 1942 the state Department of Conservation began hiring crews to remove rough fish from smaller lakes not suitable for commercial fishing operations. This program grew in size throughout the 1940s, becoming the main component of the state's carp-eradication program for several decades after World War II. 44

Science provided another option for killing carp, and in the early 1960s the Conservation Department began using the fish poison rotenone (first used in the United States in 1934). Chemical eradication of rough fish became a new technique of fish management that offered a chance to start fresh in small lakes. After rotenone produced "total mortality," lakes could be restocked with sport fish. At least 79 lakes were treated with fish poisons from 1962 through 1868. This mentality was little different from the interventionist mind-set that had created the problem in the first place. 45

Even with the miracles of chemistry, total elimination of carp from Minnesota waters was recognized to be impossible. By 1905 a knowledgeable observer had announced that the problem was as intractable as exterminating English sparrows or the "green grass of the fields." Eventually Minnesota settled for controlling the number of carp in the state, much as a farmer controls weeds. Carp have spread so extensively that the species is the most abundant fish in the inland waters of North America. 46

Attitudes toward carp among sporting anglers have begun to change somewhat. By the 1950s and 1960s, fishing magazines began to promote bow-and-arrow fishing for carp and even recognized the value of carp angling. Still categorized as rough fish, carp are now protected by the Department of Natural Resources from spearing, archery, harpooning, and netting—practices previously allowed—between mid February and May 1. Nonetheless, anglers are limited to 100 bullheads and 50 suckers, while there are no limits on carp that can be killed, kept, sold, smoked, or eaten. 47

The carp experiment of the late nineteenth-century changed the fisheries of the United States for all time. Carp stocking is regarded by most sporting anglers as one of the greatest mistakes ever made. As a result, modern fisheries policy wisely stipulates that "new fish species should not be introduced into waters of North America without careful consideration of the effect on the indigenous population" of fish. 48

Oddly enough, however, the story of carp came full circle after the 1970s, when immigrants from Asia and Southeast Asia, long accustomed to eating carp, began providing a ready market for the fish others would not touch. Admiration of carp among other groups such as enlightened anglers and town promoters has made carp a cultural icon, and the Internet contains a massive linkage of carp information in the website "Carpnet." Residents of southwestern Minnesota's Fulda have made carp the centerpiece of the town's annual "Fish-A-Rama" since 1955; participants pay $5 for all the smoked carp they can eat. Beginning in the 1970s, however, consumers were advised to eat only small amounts of bottom-feeding fish such as carp, which accumulate heavy metals (especially mercury) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). This has greatly reduced the commercial market. 49

For the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), management of the sport fishery is a massive responsibility entirely in keeping with the state's image as an angler's paradise of 10,000 lakes. The DNR currently tends about 4,500 lakes as "fish lakes," micromanaging water resources and fish populations in an effort to combat problems such as overfishing, the declining average size of game fish, and the increasing use of sophisticated electronic gear by anglers. Each year the DNR raises and distributes about 325 million fish—mostly walleyes, muskellunge, northern pike, and trout but no carp. 50 It continues to use science to study, interpret, and intervene in the natural order to the point that no truly natural order remains, For good or ill, Minnesota's outdoors has become another resource, like taconite, to be managed by state government.

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