Carpe Mensis

As the worst month of the year wound down, I fully expected to be without a meaningful blog post. It seemed like the fish had been snubbing their nose at my every offering, and I just wasn’t feeling inspired. I was about ready to give in and wait for the arrival of warmer weather and foolhardy stocked trout when my friend called. His message? Just four short words: the carp are back.

You may remember my friend Ben from the fall, when I helped him catch his first trout on a fly. Ben is an excellent bass fisherman, outcatching me many times; when it comes to other methods of angling, however, his skills could use some improvement.

In the spring of 2019, I caught my first ever carp, and the first carp any of my friends and I had seen in real life, at Ben’s family’s property on a pond. For my first time, I was certainly granted some beginner’s luck, hauling the 3-foot long, 22-pound fish in on my medium-light rod and eight-pound test line.

My carp from 2019. Photo credit: Katie Workman

Previous to this catch, Ben had always speculated that there may be carp in the pond, but I had never believed him. I figured carp could only be caught further south, or in the famous waters of Europe. Little did I know just how many carp-fishing opportunities we have in New England, and around the US. One late March day, Ben spotted what looked to be golden torpedoes lazily swimming in the shallows. He took a video and sent it to a few buddies and me. Immediately, I knew I had been wrong to doubt him for all those years.

No one knew how they got in the pond, but locals have seen them in there for 15 years. Some speculate that eggs survived a trip through a duck’s digestive track, transferred from another body of water. More likely, though, it was probably just a case of bucket biology, which luckily hasn’t been entirely detrimental to the pond like some other cases have.

After I caught my carp, our friend Ryan soon followed suit. Having caught both at his house, Ben gained a deep desire to land one of the beasts himself. At first, though, he employed, shall I say, less ethical methods for hooking them. Thanks to their unfortunate reputation as “trash fish”, he assumed they were highly invasive, and treated them such. Unsurprisingly, his attempts didn’t pay off.

This year, Ben was done waiting. He did his research, purchased the right gear, and tied the right rigs. All he needed was for those pesky suckers to return to the shallows. When they did, he was all over them, peppering the spot with bread balls and other assorted baits day-in-and-day-out to no avail.

After days without a bite, he was fed up, and we decided we’d spend the latter part of our half-day at school fishing at his house, as we so often do. But there was a catch: I had to help him hook a carp. I brought along my trusty 7-foot medium-light setup with a typical long, light leader carp rig, a bag of corn, and, being the fly fishing purist I am (just kidding!), my 7-weight rod, just in case the fish stuck around after we (hopefully) landed our first.

When I arrived at his house, Ben had already caught a few fish, including his first open-water bass of the year. The wind was howling, gusting 25 despite it still being relatively early in the day. My hopes of catching one of the beasts on the fly immediately went down the drain. Although the mercury read 65 degrees, the warmest day of the spring, it sure didn’t feel like it with the billowing clouds above.

The first step was to chum, which was done by spreading corn around the proposed fishing area, presumably enticing the carp to begin feeding. I threaded two kernels onto the hook and blindly cast into the choppy waters. We had no way of knowing whether or not the creatures were around, but boy, we sure hoped they were.

In the meantime we caught a few pickerel, an underrated species much like the carp. Unlike the carp, though, the pickerel are native, and deserve to be treated so. Following a quick bout with our spoon or swimbait, they were quickly released back into the chilly water.

After about 30 minutes of fishing, we noticed the line on the carp rod begin to go taught. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Ben blurted. I looked over, but didn’t need to because the clicking of the drag was enough to tip off even the most inattentive angler. Ben set down the rod he was currently fishing, then slowly lifted the other pole from its spot on the dock. He cranked down on the drag and waited, hoping to feel the weight of a brute. After a few seconds, though, he felt nothing, evidence enough that there wasn’t a fish on. We figured it had probably been the wind. He reeled in the rig, but the corn on the hook was missing. Our eyes bulged nearly out of their sockets. Before you could say “carp” we had a line back in the water, and the mission was resumed.

Within moments, our drag was once again ticking. This time it was different, howbeit, because the drag didn’t just tick a few times and stop. No, now it full-on screamed as if there were a fish on the other end sprinting across the small pond. Both Ben and I reeled in our lures with urgency, then set them aside. “This is it!” I said excitedly. He gingerly picked up the rod for a second time, not wanting to make the same mistake as we apparently made previously. Without hesitation, he cranked down the drag, and the rod doubled over.

The rod bent to the butt.

“Fish on!” we exclaimed simultaneously. “But I think it’s a bass,” he murmured. “Or a beaver.” I just laughed. Anything but I carp, I supposed. Sometimes when we want something so bad, we deny achieving it is actually possible for fear of coming short and disappointing ourselves.

His rod bent deeply, and he just held on, attempting not to be towed across the water like a skier. Every now and then, line would be ripped off the reel ferociously as the fish (or mammal) gained the upper hand. Then the tables would turn, and Ben would get the chance to reel in a few feet of line. I continuously mentioned to back off the tension on the drag, probably unnecessarily. We were using light line, and if it was anything like my carp, it could easily snap it with one head shake.

With perfect timing, my Mom arrived with our lunch to the sight of us battling the beast. At this point, it had probably been about three minutes of tug-of-war with little progress made. Ben’s mom came out to greet mine, but at the mention of a carp on the line, the rest of his family was soon standing behind the dock. We all cheered on Ben as he continued to battle, getting a good forearm workout in the process.

Finally, after maybe five minutes, we got our first glimpse of the bronze-scaled behemoth, assuaging our concerns that it may be something other than the target species. It boiled just beneath the surface, obviously exhausted, but then took off again, taking drag with it. I squatted down with the net in an attempt to lessen the chances of it spotting me, but this was probably futile. For many more minutes the fish swam back and forth just beneath the dock, but like a lure snagged on a massive boulder, Ben was unable to move it. It had to be getting tired; Ben was getting tired, and he weighed well over 100 pounds more than it. “You’d be tired too if you were swimming for this long on a hook,” my mom reminded us.

Golden hues began to become more and more visible beneath the stained water. Then, everyone recognized just how incredible this fish truly was. “Holy!” Ben’s sister shouted. “That thing is huge!”

“Holy moly! That is big,” my mom once again remarked. From my crouched position, I could see the carp slowly being lifted up, and my nerves were skyrocketing as my big job approached. I launched the basket of the net into the water, scooping hard as the weight of the fish was added.

Scooping the carp into the net. Photo credit: Heather Belson

“Let’s go!” we all proclaimed, our characteristic catchphrase for a big fish. I carried the net up to the bank, and we got to work. We wanted to properly document the catch, but also hoped to healthily release it for others to enjoy. From tail to nose the length went 31.5″ – a few inches shorter than mine and Ryan’s, yet much fatter than either. Despite this, he didn’t want to weigh it, wishing to get it back in the water as soon as possible. After a few quick pictures, the carp was back in the net and once again breathing refreshing dissolved oxygen through its gills.

Ben making the massive fish look tiny. Photo credit: Heather Belson

Stronger than it had started, the fish kicked off. Wordless, Ben and I fist bumped. It was a fish of a lifetime, but I don’t think we fully comprehended how meaningful the moment was until after it was over. That carp was two years in the making, and we caught it at the most unlikely time. It really goes to show you that even the dreariest months of the year can be significantly brightened if you set your mind to it. I know I’ve said it in the past, but March can be truly spectacular if you seize it. Get off your couch, grab a rod, and get on the water. There really is no better cure for cabin fever, especially during a time when we’ve spent more hours indoors than ever before.

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