Tag Archives: Ponca State Park

Carp-o-Rama

April 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

“Are you ready to see some flying fish?” asks Rich Porter, tournament director for the Bowfishers of Nebraska. Porter steers toward the river’s confluence, and we nock arrows on bowstrings. We are ready. Or so we think.

Cruising the banks of the Missouri River, we are hunting for Asian carp—the invasive fish wreaking havoc across Midwestern waterways.

As we glide into the mouth of the Little Sioux River, Porter revs the boat’s outboard motor. It’s as if he flipped a switch, sending an electrical current through the water. The noise startles hundreds of silver carp, suddenly airborne in an explosion of shimmering scales and bulging eyes.

“Shoot them, shoot them!” Porter yells, laughing as he shields his face from floppy carp-missiles leaping in every direction. Carp launch themselves into the boat, crashing into our bodies, flip-flopping across our gear, bouncing over the steering wheel.

Omaha Magazine creative director, Bill Sitzmann, lets a barb-tipped arrow fly from a specialized “lever” bow (rigged with fishing reel and 200-pound test line). But the wriggling wall of flying fish proves to be a more difficult target than isolated underwater carp, which we have been stealthily approaching all day along the riverbanks.

Silver carp, grass carp, and bighead carp are three varieties of Asian carp that infiltrated the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. All three species are firmly established in Nebraska waters. They are different species than common carp, but they are all bad news.

Rich Porter displays a grass carp caught by bow.

Why are they bad? Silver carp, in particular, are notorious for jumping when scared. Most weigh between 10 and 25 pounds (and grow upwards of 50 pounds) and have been known to jump eight feet. Boats traveling at moderate speeds can suffer broken windows from collisions with the fish. Passengers on boats have reported cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.

Bigheads don’t jump, and grass carp seldom jump, Porter says. Both grow much larger than silver carp (Nebraska’s state bowfishing records for bighead and grass carp each weighed about 80 pounds). But all carp varieties have proven themselves disastrous for the North American ecosystem.

They are prolific breeders; a single carp is capable of laying millions of eggs each year, and they disrupt food chains by crowding out native fish. “The biggest problem with silver and bighead carp is that they are filter-feeders. They eat the plankton and zooplankton that all other fish fry [i.e., baby fish] rely on,” Porter says. Grass carp, on the other hand, feed on aquatic plants.

Common carp—also known as German carp—were introduced to North America in the 1800s. They are also considered a pest (and a target for bowfishers nationwide). Their bottom-sucking omnivorous feeding disrupts aquatic habitat, increases water siltation, and contributes to algal blooms.

Silver and bighead carp arrived in the United States around the 1960s. Aquaculture farmers in Arkansas introduced them into catfish ponds. After floodwaters breached the fish farms, Asian carp escaped and proliferated in the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

“The first bighead and silver carp that I remember being shot was at Gavins Point Dam in 1993,” Porter says, adding that fisheries management officials worldwide have introduced grass carp in lakes to control aquatic vegetation. But he says grass carp have become a nuisance in rivers, too.

Major Mississippi River floods during the 1990s helped Asian carp migrate upstream to Nebraska. When they arrived, Porter was ready. “I’ve been shooting carp for 30 years. Invasive carp are a national problem, really,” he says, noting that he got started with common carp.

Porter makes a weighty contribution with his bow and arrow. “Last year I probably shot 20,000 pounds of fish, and my very best year was pushing close to 30,000 pounds,” Porter says. “Bowfishing is a great method for selective harvest of non-game fish. We removed close to 15 tons of invasive species fish during Nebraska tournaments in 2016, and that was just five tournaments.”

On May 13, the Bowfishers of Nebraska will host the 30th annual Carp-o-Rama. The tournament is open to the entire Missouri River Valley system (which includes the Missouri River itself and nearby lakes). Weigh-in takes place at Cottonwood Cove Marina in Blair at 5 p.m.

“Last year we had more than 60 teams, and this year we’re expecting 75-100 teams,” he says.

The months of May and June, Porter says, are the best time of the year for bowfishing carp, when warming water temperatures drive carp to spawn and feed. But we set out late in the season, on an overcast day in mid-August.

We meet Porter at a gas station in Tekamah, Nebraska (roughly an hour north of Omaha). Following him to the nearest Missouri River access ramp, we board his flat-bottom boat and embark on our mission to save the environment (and slaughter as many Asian carp as we can manage).

Porter’s camouflage-painted boat is the perfect seek-and-destroy attack vehicle in the war against invasive carp. It’s a 20-footer outfitted with an elevated platform for bowfishing anglers to scan the water for invasive prey.

The Missouri River’s water looks like chocolate milk. Recent rains have disrupted visibility, making it difficult to identify carp hovering underwater. Polarized sunglasses help cut glare from the sky’s reflection. Luckily, the river’s surface remains relatively calm. Porter says conditions are not optimal, but he is confident we will have plenty of action.

We start with some instructional target practice. The first carp we come across is a silver. Scared by the approaching boat, it jumps onboard with us. We don’t have a chance to shoot.

Porter offers a quick tutorial. “Look for shadows or backs sticking out of the water, or fish jumping,” he says. Upon identifying a shadowy form, Porter shows how it’s done. He draws fast and releases. He pulls in a large silver carp. Then, he effortlessly snipes a few more.

I miss over and over again. But, soon enough, we are all landing fish.

Turning off of the Missouri River, Porter steers his boat into an intersecting canal lined with homes and docks.

A local resident waves from her canal-facing porch. From her deck chair, she yells a greeting: “Shooting Asian carp?” Porter responds in a friendly drawl, “Yup.” She shouts back, “Great! Shoot ’em all!” as we float down the canal.

Ripples have begun forming about six feet ahead of the boat, like the wake of a hidden submarine. “Can you tell where the carp are?” Porter asks. We are herding them like a fish stampede. At the end of the canal, the carp scatter in all directions. We retrace our route, hunting back to the canal’s entrance.

Over the course of the day, the three of us fill the boat’s cooler with silver carp, grass carp, and gar. Gar are another species of rough fish popular with bowfishing anglers. Although native to Nebraska (not invasive), they are fun to catch with bow and arrow. But their armor-plated exterior makes their meat difficult to access.

In Nebraska, there is no particular season for bowfishing carp or other unprotected “rough fish” (any fish that is not game fish, such as carp or gar), though there are some practical limitations. First and foremost, a valid fishing license is required to bowfish in Nebraska waters.

In shallow bays during the spring, spawning common carp boil to the surface in massive piles that bowfishers target from shore or boat (this can be found statewide in waters). The most popular destination for shooting Asian carp, however, is Gavins Point Dam on Nebraska’s border with South Dakota (about three hours north of Omaha, where the Missouri River curves west).

Nebraska regulations prohibit bowfishing of game fish (e.g., trout, panfish, bass, pike, etc.) until after July 1, when bowfishing gear can be used to target both rough and sport fish. Using a bow and arrow makes catch-and-release impossible, so bowfishermen are responsible for being able to identify the fish species they target.

An often-discussed threat of environmental and economic catastrophe involves Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes via Chicago canals that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk already into research, electrical gates, and various safeguards protecting the Great Lakes’ $7 billion commercial and sport fisheries.

It has been said: “If you can’t beat it, eat it.” Asian carp demonstrate the axiom with mouth-watering results. Unfortunately, carp have a bad reputation with many American diners due to the large quantity of bones in their flesh.

Porter has a secret recipe (and, no, it doesn’t involve baking carp on a wood shingle for 10 hours, then discarding the fish, and eating the shingle, as the jocular folk recipe suggests). He uses a dishwashing machine to poach fillets:

“Take a fillet of Asian carp, wrap it in aluminum foil with your favorite seasonings and butter, place it on the top rack of an empty dishwasher—believe it or not, I’ve told people this recipe, and they’ve tried it while doing dishes—run a full cycle, and when you remove it, the meat flakes off the bone and can be used in fish tacos, fried for fish sandwiches, or used in crab cakes. Once you poach it, you can use the meat for any recipe that calls for fish. Blackened fish tacos are my favorite.”

On a successful early summer day of bowfishing on the Missouri, Porter says he might take home 500-1,000 pounds of carp. Since he usually has more than enough at home, he donates the meat to the community.

Whenever he finds himself with a literal boatload of carp, he makes a call to a friend in the North Omaha neighborhood where he grew up. He pulls up to the house, and a crowd gathers around his boat trailer. Porter climbs up and hauls carp from the cooler until everyone is satisfied or the cooler is empty—whichever comes first.

“The guys I’m giving fish to know, but the general population does not realize how good these Asian carp taste,” Porter says. “It’s the association with the common carp. People don’t realize they are two different species.”

One of the best known Omaha establishments to serve carp is Joe Tess Place (5424 S. 24th St.), famous for its deep-fried carp, where the fish is cooked at such a high temperature that the bones dissolve. The carp is harvested fresh from lakes in Iowa.

“In Illinois, the government has started up a fish processing center for Asian carp, and on a national level, there is already one state that is trying to utilize a surplus of edible fish,” Porter says. “My understanding is that fishermen will bring them in, and they are selling them back to Asia or to the Asian markets.”

Aside from winning taste buds, Porter says hooking youths on the sport of bowfishing is the next best means of controlling the invasive species.

Carp-o-Rama’s family festival atmosphere offers one method of attracting future carp-hunters. The Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program, established by volunteer organizer Nick Tramp, is another lure.

The mentorship program is entering its fourth year. In 2017, Tramp (based out of Allen, Nebraska) will take students of all ages to Ponca State Park and Gavins Point in July. Meanwhile, Zac Hickle of Elkhorn will focus on Omaha youths with trips to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in May and June.

“We’re just doing it to get kids off the couch and away from video games and teach them some life skills,” Tramp says, adding the program starts with a bow tutorial. All the gear will be provided, and Bowfishers of Nebraska volunteer as instructors. Youths under the age of 16 do not need a fishing license in Nebraska.

Carp is not considered a “sport” fish, but the fight is comparable to many larger game fish in faraway locations expensive to reach from Omaha.

“If you stick an arrow in a 20-pound-plus river carp, you better sit down and hold on, because it’s going to strip your reel; you’re going to have a strong fish that has grown up fighting the current,” Tramp says. “They are going to pull you right around the river.”

Porter demonstrates the fight when he lands the biggest catch of Omaha Magazine’s bowfishing trip. He sinks an arrow into a massive carp. The fish runs. Ten minutes later, Porter lands the 25-pound grass carp.

By the end of the day, my arms are sore from shooting fish and hauling carp into the boat. I head back to Omaha content, with a pile of Asian carp fillets ready to deep-fry at home (or poach in my dishwasher, if I’m brave enough to follow Porter’s advice).

Visit carp-o-rama.com for more information about Carp-o-Rama. More information about the Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program is available on the group’s Facebook page.


Dishwasher-Poached Fish

Rich Porter’s Favorite Recipe for Asian Carp

  1. Take a fillet of Asian carp.
  2. Wrap it in aluminum foil with preferred seasonings and butter.
  3. Place it on the top rack of an empty dishwashing machine.
  4. Run a full cycle (without any dirty dishes).
  5. When the dishwasher turns off, the fish is poached in the aluminum foil packet.
  6. The poached meat flakes off the bone and can be used any recipe that calls for fish.
  7. Rich Porter’s favorite: blackened Asian carp tacos.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Harvest Fun

August 16, 2013 by

Fun festivals don’t end when autumn rolls in—there is still plenty to do in Nebraska as the dog days of summer draw to a close and the school year begins.

Harvest festivals are a great way to celebrate the end of summer and the transition to a new season. It’s a time to enjoy the prosperous crop and an exposition for the year’s produce. Many communities statewide celebrate the harvest with their own autumn festivals.

Nebraska City’s 45th Annual Applejack Festival is one such festival. The whole family can enjoy a parade, a car show, and an arts and crafts fair from September 20-22. If activities are what you’re looking for, participate in the Fun Run/Walk, boogie at the AppleJam Carnival street dance, and stop by Kimmel Orchards or Arbor Day Farms to pick your own apples and feast on homemade apple pies and sweets.

And there’s more than just apples. You can pick your own produce at Roca Berry Farm in Roca, Neb., Martin’s Hillside Orchard in Ceresco, Neb., or Bloom Where You’re Planted Farm in Avoca, Neb. Kids will love scouring fields for pumpkins, picking raspberries, taking in the sights on hayrack rides, eating caramel apples, and exploring all kinds of farm-related activities.

After you’ve enjoyed the state’s fall harvest festivals and picked your bounty, head to one of Nebraska’s state parks for cool autumn events. Visit Mahoney State Park and gaze at the stars on August 16 and September 13, or listen to and tell great stories on September 14 at the 11th Annual Moonshell Storytelling Festival.

If adventure is what you’re looking for, head up to Ponca State Park September 21–22 for the 9th Annual Missouri River Outdoor Expo to learn about wildlife-related and outdoor recreation activities including wildlife viewing, fishing, hunting, archery, shooting sports, camping, off-highway vehicle recreation, and boating recreation.

The season may change, but the fun doesn’t have to stop!

Go to VisitNebraska.com to find more festivals and events to make your autumn truly festive.

Family Camping

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There’s something about lying under the stars in a sleeping bag surrounded by trees and chirping crickets that’s calming. It’s the spirit of camping—that feeling of being completely absorbed in the wonders of nature.

It’s also a feeling that many people don’t experience anymore. Some say it’s because they don’t care much for being outdoors; others say it’s because they’d miss the comforts of home too much; and still others say it’s because they don’t have the patience to spend that amount of “quality time” alone with their families.

But ask any camper, and they’ll tell you that you’re missing out on a peaceful experience, one that all family members can benefit from and appreciate.

Papillion firefighter Michael Borden, 33, is a big proponent of camping. While growing up in Harlan and Underwood, Iowa, he went camping often with his parents and grandparents. “My grandparents had a Winnebago at a spot near Stanton [Iowa],” he says. “They slept inside while we slept outside in a tent. We’d set up all season long on the weekends with them, so I have a lot of fond memories of camping.”

Borden says that, while he could do without the bugs, he still thoroughly enjoys camping as an adult. “My idea of camping is a backpack and maybe a tent. Just hiking out where we won’t see anybody and spend a couple of days out there.” His wife, Tracy, however, doesn’t share the same view of camping. “If it were up to her, she would have an RV and be out at Mahoney [State Park] with a swimming pool and activities for the family.”

Borden explains their different takes on camping reflect their different personalities. “She’s the worrier and likes to plan things. I’m more go-with-the-flow and just like ‘whatever’…but we usually compromise. We’ll take the car out and set up tents. We find middle ground.”

“My idea of camping is a backpack and maybe a tent. Just hiking out where we won’t see anybody and spend a couple of days out there.” – Michael Borden

But it’s not just Borden and his wife that go out camping. They also bring their two daughters, Ella, 8, and Ayda, 6, who enjoy creating memories while family camping.

“Two years ago when we were camping, the cicadas were coming out, and the shells were everywhere,” remembers Borden. “My oldest, Ella, was 5 or 6. I consider her to be the girlier of my two, but she thought the shells were so neat.

“She had a friend there, too, and both of them were filling all of the cupholders in our camping chairs with the shells. It’s fun to watch kids go camping because they see things so differently—like everything is just fascinating.”

The family used to go camping nearly every free weekend, spending a lot of their time out at Two Rivers State Park, but Borden says it’s harder to go camping now because his daughters are older. “They’re involved in things, so we’ll try to get out as much as we can, but it depends more on schedules—swimming lessons, soccer, and everything else.”

_DSC0906_WebThey have a few camping trips planned for this summer, so long as the weather cooperates. “I wish we did it more often,” he says. “But it’s nice during the summer because I have odd hours [as a firefighter], and Tracy is a teacher, so she has the entire summer off. We can go out on a Wednesday during the summer instead of a weekend, which is usually busier.”

Borden believes it’s good for kids and their parents to spend time outdoors because it’s a perfect opportunity to be together as a family. “We just got Ella an iPod Touch for her birthday, and she always wants to be listening to music, playing games, and texting friends. I remember playing when I was a kid. We didn’t have cell phones or computers. There’s almost too much accessibility with that stuff, so it’s nice to get away from all of it and just be in the moment.”

Like Borden, Elkhorn native Elizabeth Bullington, 27, grew up camping. “It’s always been a part of the family tradition,” she says. Bullington’s brother, uncles, and grandfather were all Eagle Scouts, so her family has been very involved with the Boy Scouts, which meant plenty of camping opportunities.

“One camping trip I’ll always remember was a Boy Scouts outing my sister and I went on with our dad and the scouts,” Bullington recalls. “It was almost wintertime, so it was really cold. My sister and I were sleeping together to keep warm, and our dad came in and tucked us in to make sure we’d stay warm. The next morning, our bodies were warm, but our heads were freezing,” she laughs.

Bullington, who now works as a program supervisor with Childhood Autism Services, says camping is a tradition that she’s been able to share with her husband, Nick, and almost 2-year-old son Reese.

“There’s something about being lost in nature that develops imagination and other useful skills. It’s important for kids to discover the outside and learn to relax and have fun.” – Elizabeth Bullington

“I think a lot of people find it hard these days to go camping because of the comfort issue. [Nick and I] have a queen air mattress in our tent, but sometimes people in my family like to sleep under the stars in sleeping bags. We’ve done a camper once before, but we prefer a tent because it feels more like camping.”

For Bullington, it was easy to share this experience with Nick because his entire family camps also, gathering every year at Ponca State Park for an annual camping trip. In fact, the idea of doing an annual family camping trip spread to Bullington’s family as well. “My parents wanted to find something we could all do, and we thought, ‘Let’s go camping!’”

Bullington says she and her family are planning to meet for their annual camping trip in Clear Lake, Iowa, this July, and she’s looking forward to it. She and Nick have gone on the family trip for the last three years. “We try to choose somewhere between Madison, Wis., and Omaha because my sister lives in Madison and the rest of us live here. We’ve camped in Iowa the past few years.”

Nick and Elizabeth Bullington on a family camping trip outside the Amana Colonies in Iowa before the birth of son Reese.

Nick and Elizabeth Bullington on a family camping trip outside the Amana Colonies in Iowa before the birth of son Reese. Photo by John Gawley.

The annual trip became a lot more special for Bullington when she was able to bring Reese, even though he was still fairly young when he went for the first time last year. “We’re not going to let the age of our child stop us from camping. The way we see it, he’ll adapt to the outdoors just as we do,” she says.

Though Reese wasn’t yet walking the first time they went camping, Bullington says it was fairly easy to take him with on the trip. He slept on his changing pad in the tent with them, and they brought toys to keep him entertained while they were inside and outside of their tent. “We didn’t do a whole lot of water activities or hiking, but you have to give up some of the things you like to do to include family. [But] that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun.”

Bullington agrees that society’s dependence on technology has made it difficult to get children (and even other adults) to spend time outdoors. But she maintains, it’s an essential part of childhood. “There’s something about being lost in nature that develops imagination and other useful skills. It’s important for kids to discover the outside and learn to relax and have fun.”