Just when you thought the list of invasive pests to sneak into Texas couldn’t get any longer, it did.
Silver carp, a prolific variety of freshwater carp native to China, were recently discovered in Choctaw Creek in Grayson County. The creek rises about 15 miles downstream from Lake Texoma near Sherman and runs northeast about 38 miles before dumping into the Red River along the Texas/Oklahoma border.
In June, Sherman bow fisherman Stephen Banaszak arrowed two of the carp, including a 13 pounder. TPWD fisheries biologist Dan Bennett of Pottsboro said the fish were turned over to TPWD and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who identified them as silver carp. On July 19, Banaszak turned in an even bigger fish arrowed from Choctaw. That one weighed nearly 21 pounds, Bennett said.
Although this marks the first time silver carp have been found in Texas, Bennett says the fish were documented back in 2019 in other areas of the Red River, including just downstream from Lake Texoma in Oklahoma waters.
Silver carp aren’t the first invasive Asian carp species that have been found in Texas, either. Bennett said bighead carp — a cousin to the silver carp — were documented several years ago in the Red River and tributaries downstream of Lake Texoma. Bigheads also have been identified in Big Cypress Bayou downstream of Lake O’ the Pines and Sulphur River downstream of Lake Wright Patman.
Like the bighead, the silver carp is a peculiar-looking fish with a scaleless head, low-set eyes, upturned mouth and no teeth. As juveniles, both can easily be mistaken for shad or minnows.
How’d They Get Here
It’s anybody’s guess as to how long the lowly-looking silver carp have been finning around in Choctaw Creek. Or how many. But there is little doubt how they got there.
Silver carp are among several invasive carp species purposely imported from Asia into the U.S. in the 1970s to help clean up nuisance algae blooms and aquatic vegetation in aquaculture facilities, farm ponds and sewage lagoons.
Subsequent flood events flushed the fish out of private ponds and aquaculture facilities into creeks, canals and other waterways. The fish since have infiltrated major river basins like the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee, the maze of tributaries that feed them and invaded numerous reservoirs by way of lock/dam systems that allow boats and barges to travel between river pools.
Live bait releases and intentional stockings also are believed to contributed to the spread of an invasive species known to reproduce rapidly, grow beyond 60 pounds, damage fragile aquatic ecosystems and threaten valuable sport fish populations.
Silver carp also can spell trouble for recreational boaters, jet skiers, water skiers and fishermen. That’s because they are prone to jump several feet out of the water when startled, often in schools numbering into the hundreds. Run face first to a 10-20 pound fish in a boat speeding along at 30 m.p.h. and the consequences won’t be pretty.
The fish have been found in at least two dozens states including Texas and bordering states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Bennett feels certain the fish found their way into Choctaw Creek by way of the Red River.
“They came down the Mississippi River drainage, hitting tributaries and now they are slowly making their way up the Red River,” he said. “I anticipate that all the high river flows we’ve seen since 2015 have facilitated their migration upstream.”
Thankful for Dams
To date, invasive carp have not been documented in any Texas reservoirs. Even though the fish are knocking at the backdoor of Lake Texoma, fisheries experts believe the non-navigational dam has been successful at stopping them in their tracks thus far.
“We are fortunate in the regard that we don’t have navigational locks for barge traffic that would enable the fish to move upstream from dams on their own,” said Craig Bonds, TPWD inland fisheries director.
What scientists are concerned about are tailrace cast netters who might mistake juvenile silver carp for shad and transport them upstream them to the lake, or a different water body, to use as bait. While there are already state laws in place that prohibit the transport or possession of live invasive carp, one careless or ignorant fisherman could do a wealth of damage in short order.
This is especially true on Texoma, which supports valuable populations of striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and blue catfish. The lake’s striped bass fishery alone is believed to generate more than $25 million annually for local economies.
Bonds said the river-fed lake sets up perfectly for the current-loving fish to make annual spawning runs upstream, which could allow numbers to swell in a hurry. Plus, the fish are planktivores that feed almost continuously on plankton that is vital for shad and early growth of juvenile sport fish.
That’s a bad thing. In theory, the forced competition for the same food source could reduce baitfish biomass and lead to negative impacts to the sport fish populations that feed on them.
“My concern is that they will be moved upstream above the dam and into a system that has enough river miles above the reservoir for them to be able to spawn,” Bonds said. “Texoma is a prime candidate for that. They could impact shad populations and indirectly do harm to a prized striped bass fishery and other sport fish populations. We don’t want to see what happened at Kentucky Lake and other places happen to our valuable reservoir fisheries in Texas.”
Bennett cited the possibility of collisions between leaping fish and boaters, fishermen or other recreational users as another potential problem that could arise if silver carp become established in Texoma or any other Texas reservoir. Located just north the D/FW Metroplex, Texoma is a hotbed for anglers and weekend pleasure boaters.
“It could definitely be a problem,” Bennett said. “These fish (silver carp) are jumpers. They would definitely create a recreational risk of people getting injured out there. The bow fisherman that shot the fish in Choctaw Creek told me they jumped into the side of his boat and busted some of his night lights.”
Lance Freeman knows all about what can happen when the water’s surface erupts with silver bullets.
Freeman is a 26-year-old bass angler from Eddyville, KY. He grew up fishing on Kentucky/Barkley reservoirs along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. He’s been running a commercial fishing operation targeting silver carp since they infiltrated his home waters in significant numbers in 2015.
Early on Freeman and his crew were netting 300 days year using gill nets 1,200 feet in length. He’s sold fish for human consumption, lobster/crawfish bait and to protein markets for use in dog food, cat food and fertilizer for as much as a quarter to as little as eight cents per pound.
Daily catches upwards of 10,000 pounds are common, but Freeman has made much bigger hauls. His record day catch is 26,000 pounds. Freeman estimates he and his crew have removed 10-12 million pounds of silver carp from the two lakes.
“We’ve made a dent in them, but they aren’t under control by any means,” he said. “We’ve had them for a while, but they got in here big time in 2015 when we had a high water flow at just the right time. It was the perfect storm for them to spawn and the population exploded.”
Freeman claims he has seen 8-10 pound silver carp in massive schools more times than he can remember. He said things can get pretty bizarre — and dangerous — when hundreds of fish breach the surface around a moving boat.
“I’ve got videos where there are so many that you couldn’t see another boat 40 feet away,” he said. “It doesn’t happen every day, but it’s pretty intense when it does. When one gets excited they all get excited. I’ve been hit and knocked out of the boat before. I know of a water skier that got knocked out on a competition ski course near Paducah. Think about it. Eight pounds of anything thrown at you is going to hurt, especially if it hits you going 30 miles per hour.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com.
Rule to Prevent Spread of Bighead and Silver Carp
According to TPWD, it is unlawful to transport live, non-game fishes from the Red River below Lake Texoma downstream to the Arkansas border, Big Cypress Bayou downstream of Ferrell’s Bridge Dam on Lake O’ the Pines (including the Texas waters of Caddo Lake), and the Sulphur River downstream of the Lake Wright Patman dam. Nongame fishes collected from these waters may be used as live bait on the water bodies where they were collected.