“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.
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.
Rich Porter’s Favorite Recipe for Asian Carp
- Take a fillet of Asian carp.
- Wrap it in aluminum foil with preferred seasonings and butter.
- Place it on the top rack of an empty dishwashing machine.
- Run a full cycle (without any dirty dishes).
- When the dishwasher turns off, the fish is poached in the aluminum foil packet.
- The poached meat flakes off the bone and can be used any recipe that calls for fish.
- Rich Porter’s favorite: blackened Asian carp tacos.
This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.