Pittsburgh’s newest river ambassador: the carpEdit

Source: Added Feature from City Paper's Health and Fitness Guide from 6/22/2006, Writer: Al Hoff

Carp get a bad rap: They eat other fish eggs and they don’t taste particularly good. They were imported from Europe, and anglers can be partial to native species. But the worst slur on their reputation isn’t even their fault: They can survive in dirty water.

Sean Brady, development director for Venture Outdoors, likens the carp’s 20th-century fate to “being at the dance with the ugly kid — that’s all you could get for a date, so you hate ’em for it.

“Our rivers were so polluted back at the turn of the century that there was almost nothing in them except for carp and catfish,” Brady explains. “Much of the distaste for carp has been passed down generation to generation, from the time when that fish was an indication that the rivers were dirty.”

Currently, Pittsburgh’s much-cleaner rivers boast about 50 species of fish. Yet Brady thinks it would still be a mistake for anglers to overlook the maligned carp: “If you went out fishing without knowing anything and you hooked into a fish of that size, you’d be excited.” Carp are the largest fish you’re apt to pull out of the area’s rivers; they’re robust, heavily girthed fish that can grow to over 50 pounds. Enthuses Brady, “When somebody hooks a big carp down at the Point and it surfaces about 30 feet offshore, a crowd will start gathering, and you get ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ It’s a big, really impressive-looking fish.”

Karen Gainey, a local fishing expert, instructor and host of PCTV’s Karen’s Fishing Corner, concurs. “In Europe, carp is considered a game fish; here it’s a garbage fish. But it’s a fantastic sport fish, it fights like crazy.” She adds, “Some people hate the fish, but it doesn’t warrant its reputation as a junk fish.”

A bright spot in the carp’s public-relations rehab has been the annual Carp All Night, held concurrently with Lawrenceville’s Art All Night. The all-night fishing event started in 2002, as a jokey riff on the art exhibit’s title. In spite of the event’s somewhat snarky claims — “Guaranteed no art. Just fishing.” — art and carp actually have a long association: Brady points out that carp often appear in Japanese art because of their unusual features (large eyes, triangular scales and flowing fins), and Venture Outdoors uses carp in its fish-printing classes.

Carp All Night, now coordinated in part by Venture Outdoors, draws upward of 100 attendees, including grungy artists, men in business suits and others who’ve never been that close to the river before. Attendees continue to be surprised by the recreational opportunities that the rivers offer. The 2006 Carp All Night was held at a new river access point at the 40th Street Bridge. Explains Brady, “This is a local amenity that Pittsburgh needs more of, and by using it and drawing new people there, we can get more people to support this kind of initiative.”

Showing off our rivers in the dark seems counterintuitive — especially since carp don’t generally feed after dark. (Anglers at Carp All Night mostly land catfish.) Even so, Brady believes night is an ally. “At night, people become curious about things — about art, or about what lives in the river,” he explains. “The misperceptions run deep here about the health of our rivers. Like any environmental topic, it’s very complex, and can be difficult to explain, hard to grasp. But once people are outside, their minds open up. Seeing a fish leads to questions and to information that they wouldn’t have gotten if there wasn’t a fish in front of them. The fish are a conduit.”

And Brady is convinced that the once-lowly carp is instrumental to the event’s success, whether anybody catches one or not. “People come down because there’s a picture of a fish on the poster,” he says. “It’s the mystique of the carp.”

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