Carp Pits Along The Buffalo


Richard Loller 


Copyright 2001 by Richard Loller 


Photo of Hanley and 10 pound carp.  Photo by the author.
                    Photo by the author.

"Eeeeeooowch!" I couldn't stifle the yelp of pain. I'd just launched an ill-considered lunge after a hefty carp. The result was an abrupt meeting between tender portions of my underbelly and several waterlogged but prickly cockleburs. The carp had squirted through my mud-slick arms and steamed off for parts unknown.

My slightly fish-crazed ten year old laughed tolerantly at my bulldogging technique. "Watch me," he advised as I sat down ruefully and muttered a few choice maledictions into my muddy beard. By this time I was ready to admit that carp grappling might take more expertise than I presently possessed.

With a look of deadly concentration my fanatic son crawled slowly down the center of the slough, arms spread in front, chin grazing the chocolate water. Suddenly he froze. Gradually, his left arm began to lift and inch forward. Then . . . SPLASH! POUNCE! His head went under as he lunged. All I could see were pants bottoms and elbows. His head reappeared slinging muddy water in all directions.

"It's a big one!" he yelled happily, spitting out about a pint of the muddy water. He staggered to his knees and I saw a huge brownish-silver carp bucking mightily in his fanatical ten-year-old death grip. "I got him!" A lurch to his feet, a few staggering steps, a desperate escape and recapture, and my son had landed a twelve-pound bugle mouth bass (southern for carp) with his bare hands.

By now you've probably deduced that my kid has a pet chimp and his mother's name is Jane. Not so. I'm just your run-of-the-mill fisherman. Before the events just described I had no idea that Hanley, my offspring, had talents comparing favorably with those of Johnny Weismuller in his prime.

But maybe I had better back up and "put you in the picture" as we sometimes say in the editing trade.

It was a fine mid-April day in middle Tennessee. The Saturday sky was clear with a soft spring breeze from the West. The kind of weather that says, "Let's Go Fishing.''

Go we had. My son and I had beaten the early bird up and caught plenty of worms, but no trout. We were about seventy miles southwest of our Nashville home on one of the several trout harboring tributaries of the Buffalo River. For over six hours we had tried one hole after another with nothing to show for our efforts. I was especially disappointed for Hanley's sake. It was his first real chance at small stream trout and he had tried hard. It was turning into the kind of day fishermen recognize all too well--perfect conditions and no action.

At noon I mumbled something about food. Maybe a break for bologna and crackers would give the trout time to reconsider their surly ways. Hanley gave me a look which I took to mean that even he, with broad experience of bream, crappie, and catfish (but little of trout), knew when to hang it up. Secretly, I agreed with him, but a father has a duty to play the optimist--at least I thought I did.

The gravel road tilted sideways around curves at the base of cliffs, rattled over the twisting creek on one-lane wooden bridges, and climbed straight up the rolling hills among oaks and cottonwoods sporting pale spring leaves. By the time we had chugged five of the seven miles to the crossroads store my spirits were lifting with the beauty of the Tennessee spring.

We came around a hairpin curve and the road flattened out into the river bottoms of the Buffalo. Here it hugged the sides of the foothills on the right, curving in and out of the points and bays. On the left the shoulder dropped about ten feet down to the nearly-flat cornfields of the bottom lands. The fields were prickly with the rotten stalks of last autumn's harvest. Up ahead I noticed a shallow slough lying between low rises, evidence that the Buffalo had recently gotten out of its banks.

"Daddy, stop!" I jammed on the brakes and skidded to a dusty stop on the gravel. The slough ran from the base of the road to the Buffalo River half a mile away. As we watched, occasional splashes shot into the air and sparkled in the bright spring sun.

"What's up?" I asked, squinting into the sun and trying to figure out why a few splashes in a slough had brought us to an abrupt stop.

"It's fish splashing!" Hanley yelled.

Before I could turn off the motor he was gone. By the time I got halfway across the soggy field He was running toward me with a two-foot-long bugle mouth in his arms. "I've got two more," he gasped as he dropped the sad-eyed captive. "There are millions," he called as he ran back. Thirty minutes later he had caught eleven big carp, all of them in the five-pound class.

If you've ever seen a ten year old with a 55-pound stringer of fish you'll know how far his smile spread. We had discovered what you may already know---carp like to carry on their springtime courtships in a soft mud of flooded fields. They cavort shamelessly in water so shallow that the upper halves of their homely bodies often stick out. The splashes I had seen from the road came from the energetic lunges of their tails necessary for them to bulldoze their way around their muddy love nests.

That was our first visit to the "carp pits" as Hanley dubbed it. That night we broiled one of the carp over charcoal. Ummmm, good! We didn't have any trouble giving away the other ten either. In the South a good many people know that carp is just plain tasty if you skin it, slash the sides, and then soak it in salt water for awhile before cooking. Oh sure, I know fishermen who claim they wouldn't touch carp. Sheer ignorance and snobbishness. One friend of mine gave me a lecture on the subject at lunch while greedily wolfing down a plate of fish sticks. Did he realize what kind of fish generally make up the bulk of commercially prepared fish sticks? Yup. Old bugle mouth.

On that fish trip, I hadn't even tried to catch a carp and Hanley had caught all of his in water five or six inches deep. Then too, those love-sick carp had been preoccupied. Although the kid had enjoyed it, it had seemed too easy to challenge my prowess. So, when Hanley requested a return trip 1 was only lukewarm. It was two weeks before I could shake loose a Saturday for the expedition.

When we arrived, we sat for several minutes in silence. The slough had shrunk. All that was left was a narrow pot hole about 100 feet long where the ditch was deepest. It looked as if all those courting carp had returned to the river to set up housekeeping.

"Look," Hanley whispered.

I began to notice faint vee's moving slowly here and there in what was left of the slough. The dorsal fins of carp.

"You're right, some of them are trapped," I said. "But it looks pretty deep," I added, doubtfully. I was talking to an empty seat. By the time I got to the slough Hanley had been charging all over it trying to run down carp. It was already churned to a thick yellow soup. But this wasn't the same game we had known in the shallow water. Here the greater depth cancelled Hanley's efforts. He could locate them by occasional swirls or the appearance of dorsal fins, but no matter how hard he tried they simply scooted away into the murky depths. After about 15 minutes of watching his frustration (and secretly wanting to try my hand) I joined in to help. But after an hour of hard, slogging work we had managed to corner only three fish.

"Kid, this is too much fun for me. I'm going to take a little rest and give you a chance."

"O.K. I've got an idea I want to try." Over the next hour my little Einstein worked out a procedure that I can express abstractly something like this: C=S + Q + G2. That is: The number of carp caught (C) is equal to the degree of stealth (S) coupled with quickness (Q) plus the strength of the grip in both hands (G2). He found that he could feel his way forward very slowly with his arms spread until he lightly bumped a carp. If he had been properly stealthy the carp wouldn't lunge away. Evidently they bump into one another pretty often in the thick water. Then he gradually moved his hand over the carp's back. Quickness was now essential to smash the carp down into the oozy mud before the slippery rascal bucked and slithered free. From there on out the most difficult part of the procedure called for a grip of steel with both arms smashing the fish as tightly as possible against the chest. It sounds easy, but the writhing, mud-smeared bugle mouths simply wouldn't cooperate and fully half of those captured got away again during this critical maneuver.

I watched fascinated during the hour it took him to work out this technique. Finally, it was obvious that even I could catch carp if I carefully followed his advice. Before long our capture/encounter ratio had improved at least 500 percent. We wallowed and splashed and slid in that mud hole for another hour. I was hoping we could clean it out, since the prospects for any fish left were pretty grim. At the rate it had been drying, I felt it would probably vanish completely in another dry week, and such proved to be the case. We made a valiant try but finally had to call it a day with twenty-three, all five pounds or over. The twelve pounder Hanley landed, described earlier, was the capstone of the day. 

It was a weary father and son that dragged over 125 pounds of fish across that corn stubble. They filled and overfilled the old wash tub we'd brought to hold them. After the excitement died, however, we realized how tired we were. We also began to notice the scratches and bruises we'd picked up in the heat of the chase wherever we'd been unprotected. Our scraped and burning arms and stomachs should be sufficient warning to anyone else nutty enough to try carp grappling--wear long sleeved shirts and long pants with heavy socks.

Still, a day that had been so much fun was worth a little discomfort. During the long drive home we relived the fun and the excitement. 

When we weighed the two biggest fish at the neighborhood market Hanley's happiness was complete. Four or five of his schoolmates were there to envy our washtub full of fish. After that we took most of the fish to an old friend of ours whose church stages a mammoth fish fry every July 4th. We kept two for our own freezer.

Later on that night I thought about the events of that day as I ruefully applied lotion to my raw arms and stomach. I know carp aren't trout and naturally I hope my boy will someday learn to love trout fishing the way I do. But a ten-year-old boy isn't prejudiced when it comes to fish. He likes plenty of action and big results. The little guy had taught me a lot about catching fish and having fun. Too often, I think, fathers feel as if they have to teach.

Why don't we admit there might be a few things we could still learn? 
Photo of Hanley and Richard with carp.

Hanley had taught me how to grapple carp after figuring it out for himself.  Oh, I know he was probably only reinventing the wheel. Fish grappling is still done all over the rural South and I'm sure it's been done worldwide since the first time primitive folks noticed fish wallowing in the shallows. But nobody showed Hanley how, and his pride at figuring it out for himself and teaching me gave a real boost to his confidence. I think it will be a solid basis for a lifetime of innovative fishing.

Well, that's about all the story. Winter's over now and I'm trying to decide which trout stream to try next Saturday.  

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