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One Man’s Trash Fish …

Of hooks, lines and stinkers.
by Published on

Trash fish, trash fish swimming in the big ditchTrash fish, trash fish swimming in the big ditchAll the way from Jericho to the Gulf of Mexico. —”Trash Fish,” Ralph White, 2002

The West Fork of the San Jacinto River was dammed to form Lake Conroe in 1973. By the early 1980s, the 20,118-acre lake was choking on hydrilla, an exotic aquatic weed originally imported to Florida for use in aquariums. From there boat trailers and dirty props flushed it into the ecosystems of the southeastern United States, where it took hold like waterborne kudzu. In 1981 and 1982, some 270,000 weed-eating Asian grass carp, aka white amur, were dumped into Lake Conroe to control the weed. A few years later, the hydrilla was almost gone, at which point sport fishermen started complaining that aquatic plant cover in the lake—not just the hydrilla—had been chewed to shreds. They wanted more weeds for bass habitat. By the mid-1990s, the carp were dying out and hydrilla made a comeback, treated this time with spot applications of herbicide. The dance has gone on, back and forth, trying to balance the imported carp and the invasive plant in a manmade lake.

Lake Conroe’s hydrilla, rumored to offer prime nesting habitat for water moccasins, was nightmare-inducing to a shaky-kneed young water skier, but the carp, despite being ugly, didn’t much bother me. As vegetarians, they kept the hydrilla in check without crowding out the game fish. They ate three times their weight daily and grew fat in a predator-free zone.

I remember fishing for the heavy suckers—bigger fish than any other we could catch in the lake—off a pier with soft dog kibble for bait. I never caught one, but I was around people who did. We left some big carp onshore to die, but we never ate them. We considered them vaguely unclean—something about them feeding in the muck at the bottom of the lake, which seemed to make sense until you remembered how good bottom-feeding catfish taste. But catfish were named after cats, with their whiskers, and carp were just a dyslexic whisper from crap.

An aside: Hydrilla, common across the globe, is native to Esthwaite Water, a little-known waterway in northern England’s Lake District National Park, whence the plant’s alternate name: Esthwaite Waterweed. Esthwaite Waterweed has been extinct in Esthwaite Water since 1941. What most Americans call “trash” fish are commonly called “rough” fish in Britain, and fishing for various varieties is a national sport of no small esteem. Largemouth bass, so prized in Texas, are considered an invasive nuisance in Japan, which has spent millions trying to eradicate them.

Biology is complicated, and then you plug taste into the equation.

Fisher-writers Rob Buffler and Tom Dickson were enthusiasts ahead of their time when they published Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit and Cuisine of Carp, Suckers, Eelpout, Gar, and Other Rough Fish back in 1990, but University of Minnesota Press may hook the tenor of the times full in the lip with the title’s recent reissue.

Buffler and Dixon make clear that the carp’s reputation as a trash fish was unearned. They were imported to the U.S. in the 1800s because of the species’ longstanding status among cultured Europeans as a prized eating meat. It turned out that carp could survive in waters too fouled for most other species, and despite the fact that our dirty water was hardly the carp’s fault, the two facts—fish and filth—came to symbolize each other. Plus, the fish was so successful that it became widely available to the poor, whereupon, the authors suggest, cultured Americans turned to a more exclusive menu.

That tide may be turning. Some Texas trash fish have already begun their reputational rehab, attracting specialized cliques of aficionados. There’s an annual carp-fishing tournament on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake and a slew of Web sites dedicated to promulgating the sport and its peculiar techniques.

Bowfishing for trophy alligator gar, which can grow up to 7 feet long and 300 pounds over their 50-year lifespan, has become so popular with trophy-baggers in certain Texas backwaters that the Parks & Wildlife Department has moved to limit the carnage. A new regulation goes into effect Sept. 1 limiting Texas gar hunters to one fish per day. The agency argued the dinosaurs were being decimated by bowhunters, especially in the polluted Trinity River downstream from Dallas, and sold for meat in markets on both sides of the Texas-Louisiana border. Apparently fried gar patties are a delicacy, as is gar broth.

So are carp, at least when they’re taken from clean water, according to Buffler and Dixon, whose book includes recipes for filets de carpe mariniére and carp dumplings.

Still, the average swimmer reacts to alligator gar the same way he’d react to a freshwater hammerhead shark, and the average fish-eater would as soon eat carp as swallow the dyslexic version. I sympathize. I don’t care what you’ve read, I’m not eating any carp out of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake.

Reading and fishing both involve long periods of sitting around doing apparently nothing, and advocates of each insist they reap rewards beyond the tangible.

Still, like the ever-elusive big one, fish-lit hits are few and far between. There’s Moby Dick, though of course a whale’s not a fish, and it’s not entirely clear who catches whom. Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America isn’t really about trout fishing at all. There’s Jaws, if Peter Benchley can be forgiven for being so successful. A River Runs Through It is an exceptionally lovely book by Norman Maclean that’s been overshadowed for a brief historical moment by the movie version’s Brad Pitt. David James Duncan’s The River Why spawned a thousand wooly imitators, ushering in the age of the quasi-spiritual fly-fishing memoir. Zane Grey did some nice writing on the subject (see Zane Grey on Fishing; The Lyons Press), as has Tom McGuane (see An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, or Ninety-Two in the Shade for the coked-up version). Just last year, Montana fisher-poet Greg Keeler published a self-deprecating memoir titled Trash Fish: A Life.

The granddaddy of them all, the ultimate bigger-than-yours fishing tale, The Old Man and the Sea, ought truly be titled The Old Man and the Marlin. I just read it again. It’s still pretty plain. It’s still really depressing. It remains a remarkably humble disguise for a pompous treatise in defense of just keeping on, with sadness galore and a little bit of honor, by a writer who offed himself in his bathrobe just seven years after winning the Nobel Prize for the book.

Even when you catch the fish, the fish isn’t necessarily yours to keep.

I couldn’t care less. Any fish I catch in Austin is going back in the water anyway. Still, I wanted to try to catch a carp, and I’d read that they like to pile up in deep pools below dams, especially in the heat of summertime. So I drove down to the city park on the bank beside Longhorn Dam at the downstream end of Lady Bird Lake and climbed down the riprap slope to the river below. There was hardly any river; the dam was barely releasing. I walked out into the middle of the fluted limestone bed through shin-deep water. Immediately below the spillway were concrete holding ponds of deep-looking green water. A gray heron stalked one cell. A white egret stalked another. This looked like a good place to try. I had what I figured was close enough for a carp rig, an egg-shaped lead weight knotted a foot and a half above a little Eagle Claw hook baited with a chunk of Vienna sausage. I sat my tote bag of tackle on a dry, flat rock and hiked up toward the center cell, where I intended to stand outside the small weir, plunk my bait, and wait.

That’s when I realized I would be, and to a great extent already was, standing in a dry riverbed beneath a hundred feet of penned-up water that might be unpenned, as far as I knew, any time. I recalled a favorite sentence from a visitor’s center pamphlet in Big Bend: “Do not camp in dry creeks or arroyos; they may become raging rivers while you sleep.”

I imagined a passerby’s YouTubed video of my demise and a family-shaming Darwin Award and tried not to look panicked as I waded safely downstream to practice-cast at holes that weren’t deep enough for fish by half.

I came home empty-handed, like Hemingway’s old man: hungry. The nightly news had a report on Asian carp marching up the Mississippi watershed to threaten the Great Lakes. Houston Public Radio had a story about Parks & Wildlife stocking Lake Conroe’s Caney Creek with water plants that are supposed to be less tasty to the latest round of 100,000 sterile grass carp dumped in the lake last year. A friend had sent me a link to a Detroit Free Press story about how the economic downturn was driving more Michiganders to fish for their dinner in the land of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” despite the prevalence of pollution-prompted consumption advisories.

Someone had written in the comments section, “… I don’t know what you do when you are out of work [but] I fish as I did not have time when I had a job. Hell I don’t even like eating fish period but I sure like catching them.”

I made myself a dinner of wild-caught Alaskan halibut, cubed, flour-dusted, dredged in egg, rolled in panko flakes and deep-fried. Central Market had the halibut on special. They didn’t have any carp, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see that change. After all, they had Chilean sea bass at $27.99 a pound, and that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, before marketers changed the name. Prior to that, the poor ichthyoid was neither particularly Chilean nor even a bass, just an unappetizing-sounding Patagonian toothfish.

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.