One of the largest members of the minnow family and a close relative of the goldﬁsh, the common carp was also one of the ﬁrst ﬁsh whose populations were regulated to increase production. Propagated for centuries and distributed widely, common carp are both beloved and despised. In North America, they are abundant but among the least favored targets of freshwater anglers.
Three varieties of common carp exist—the scaleless leather carp, the partially scaled mirror carp, and the fully scaled common carp, which is the most abundant of the three.
IdentificationThe common carp has a deep body form and a heavy appearance. Distinctive features include a short head, a rounded snout, a single long dorsal ﬁn, a forked tail, and relatively large scales. The mouth is toothless and suckerlike, adapted to bottom feeding, and the upper jaw projects slightly past the lower one. It has a single serrated spine at the front of the dorsal and the anal ﬁns and two pairs of ﬂeshy barbels on either side of its mouth.
The pigmentation of the common carp ranges from gold to olive to brown, with a yellowish coloring on the lower sides and belly and a reddish tint to the lower ﬁns. Each scale on the upper sides of the ﬁsh has a concentrated dark spot at its base and a conspicuous dark rim.
Juveniles and breeding males are usually a darker green or gray, with a dark belly instead of a yellowish one, and females are lighter. Males develop tiny tubercles, which are found in a random pattern on the head and the pectoral fins. The common carp superficially resembles the bigmouth buffalo.
Size/AgeGrowing quickly and to moderately large sizes, the common carp is said to reach weights in the 80-pound range, although the average ﬁsh is considerably smaller. The all-tackle rod-and-reel record is 75 pounds, 11 ounces. The maximum life span is disputed but may be a half century; the average carp seldom exceeds 15 years of age.
Life history/BehaviorBy their second year, males are able to reproduce, whereas females are able to do so once they are 3 years old. Carp spawn in the spring and the summer, depending on latitude, becoming active once temperatures rise to the 60°F range.
During the day or the night, several males will accompany one or two females to shallow, vegetated waters and splash and thrash as the eggs are released and fertilized. A large female can carry millions of adhesive eggs, but the average amount is 100,000 eggs per pound of body weight.
The eggs go unattended, hatching in 3 to 10 days. Each fry is born with an adhesive organ that it immediately uses to adhere to bottom vegetation; after the ﬁrst day, fry must go to the surface and gulp air to survive.
Common carp fry are quick to grow and may reach about 9 inches in length during the ﬁrst year of their lives, if they escape the hungry jaws of their primary predators. Juvenile carp make good baitﬁsh, but their use is forbidden in some areas where trout are the main species.
Food and feeding habitsOmnivorous feeders, carp favor predominantly vegetarian diets but will feed on aquatic insects, snails, crustaceans, annelids, and mollusks. Aquatic plants and ﬁlamentous algae are the most popular food groups of common carp.
Their feeding habits are noteworthy, because they grub sediment from the bottom with their suckerlike mouths, uprooting and destroying vegetation and muddying the water. They have done severe damage to habitats by causing the loss of large quantities of plant life. This has proved detrimental to native ﬁsh populations and other animals.
Carp primarily spend their lives in small groups and are inclined to roam for food. They can gain several pounds a year in rich fertile environments but may remain smaller in those that are less fertile and where there is overcrowding.
Other NamesEuropean carp, French carp, Italian carp, German carp, Israeli carp, leather carp, mirror carp, king carp, koi, sewer bass, buglemouth; French: carpe, carpe commune; German: karpfen; Japanese: koi; Spanish: carpa.
DistributionThe common carp was one of the ﬁrst species to be introduced into other countries. Its native range was restricted to temperate Asia and the rivers of the Black Sea and the Aegean basins in Europe, speciﬁcally the Danube. At some point, the carp found its way to England, and in the nineteenth century it was brought from Germany to the United States.
HabitatCommon carp are incredibly hardy and ﬂexible in their preferences for living conditions. Primarily bottom-dwelling ﬁsh, carp like quiet, shallow waters with a soft bottom and dense aquatic vegetation. Although they favor large turbid waters, they also thrive in small rivers and lakes. They can live in low-oxygen environments and can tolerate temperature ﬂuctuations and extremes, with the ability to survive in 96°F water for 24 hours. They tend to monopolize some of the bodies of water they inhabit.
Most of the time carp prefer to hold in quiet, shallow places with a muddy or sandy bottom, which they browse over. In some northern waters where the ﬁsh are abundant and such terrain is lacking or offers no food, carp will cruise over shallow, rocky ﬂats and shoals, browsing along the rubble bottom. They are often observed during the day in protected areas, sometimes adjacent to deep water, although they are seldom caught in deep water.