"If they get their density high enough they'll even cause microcystis, which is one of worst toxic algae bloom producers in the world," Chapman warns. "It can cause whole towns to get flu- or cold-like symptoms if the water treatment plant picks up that water."

To combat the carp conundrum, ecologists are emphasizing a containment strategy. To keep them out of the Great Lakes, two underwater electric fences have been erected in a ship canal outside of Chicago that connects the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan. A federal law enacted in 1900, the Lacey Act, imposes steep fines for transporting a live carp across state lines.

As for actually reducing or eliminating the nuisance fish, Chapman says there is but one option: "The only method we have in the short term is harvest enhancement."

Tom Carlson
Robin Parks poses with a 25-pound bighead carp he bagged on the Mississippi River.
Robin Parks poses with a 25-pound bighead carp he bagged on the Mississippi River.

As the Aim Low fishing boat motors down the center of the Ohio River, cameraman Jerad Wofford, an ex-Marine with the height and build of a power forward, huddles between the steel bars that prop up his camera stand to protect himself.

Dozens of silver carp are leaping from our wake, some reaching six feet in the air before splashing back into the water. Minutes earlier, one landed in the boat, flailing madly across the deck, slapping our ankles and coating everything it touched with its familiar goo. Now, as we pick up speed, it's an uneasy feeling knowing that one could pop out of the water and deliver a fierce, unexpected slap in the face.

"The thing that scares me isn't when you hear 'em jump," Wofford says nervously, "It's when you can't hear 'em land."

Silver carp are the slightly smaller cousins of bigheads. They jump when spooked by low-frequency vibrations and disturbances at the surface of the water, precisely the conditions created by an outboard motor on an aluminum-hulled fishing boat.

In the summer of 2004, Chris Brackett was living in his father's basement and struggling through his third year trying to make it as the host of his self-produced hunting and fishing TV show. Then he took a bowfishing trip with a handful of friends near his hometown of Peoria.

"I shot a few bigheads but got tired of it because they were too easy," recalls the 31-year-old Brackett, who appears in his videos sporting a backward hat and a black goatee. "I said 'Let's see if we can get some of them jumping ones up.' About the twelfth try, I shot one clean out of the air.

"The next day, I found another guy to take me out, and I paid a local kid twenty bucks to hold the camera. The first fish that jumped, I drilled it. Right then, I knew I had something pretty cool. I had to capitalize."

Brackett marketed his videos as Extreme Aerial Bowfishing. The tapes depict him and his buddies hooting and hollering as they cruise the river surrounded by swarms of fish, the water seemingly boiling with carp. He says he sold 10,000 DVDs in the first year.

"Even the misses are hilarious," Brackett says. "They're jumpin' in the boat and hittin' people on the face. People around here loved it."

He parlayed the success into his own cable show called Aerial Affliction, in which he hunts with a bow and arrow, everything from pheasants and doves to frogs and snapping turtles. These days when he goes bowfishing for silver carp he wears a hockey goalie's mask to keep from getting beaten up by the fish.

"It goes back to those primal instincts you had as a little kid," Brackett says of his show's appeal. "Somebody would always tell you, 'Man, you should have been here yesterday, they were jumping in the boat.' Well, now they really do."

But while the flying fish are good fun for Brackett and his buddies, many are quick to point out the silver carp's impact on the Midwest's recreational boaters.

Says Robert Rice, who calls himself an anti-carp environmental activist: "Just imagine little Jenny Johnson driving her jet ski at 40 miles an hour and getting whacked in the face with a fifteen-pound fish."

On the afternoon of May 4, 2008, Darin Opel was bowfishing for carp along the shore of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton, Illinois. He ran into a group of rod-and-reel fishermen sitting on the bank and stopped to strike up a conversation. The men had never seen a bowfisherman before and asked for a demonstration.

After a couple of misses, Opel spotted ripples on the water about 40 yards away. When the swell moved closer and the distinct suction-cup mouth of a bighead carp breached the surface, he took aim and unleashed the shot of his life.

The line snapped taut and screamed out of the reel. Opel worked the fish in only to see it take all of his line out again. Finally, he fought the carp to within a few feet of the bank. That's when Opel, who stands six-foot-four-inches and tips the scales at more than 300 pounds, wedged his bow behind a rock and jumped into the chest-deep water to engage his foe in hand-to-fish combat.

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