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Bighead carp are large, heavy bodied fish that can grow to about 60 inches and 110 pounds. The back and upper sides of the body are dark gray fading to off-white on the lower sides and belly. There are many dark irregularly-shaped blotches scattered over the entire body. The scales are very small, like trout scales. Bighead carp have very large heads with eyes located far forward and projecting downward. The large mouths have a protruding lower jaw and no teeth.
Bighead carp are native to large rivers of southern and central China. They were first brought to the United States in 1972 by an Arkansas fish farmer to improve water clarity and increase fish production in culture ponds. Bighead carp began to appear in the wild (Mississippi and Ohio Rivers) in the early 1980’s, likely the result of escape from aquaculture facilities. They quickly spread to other rivers in the Mississippi River Basin and have been recorded from within or along the borders of at least 18 states.
Zooplankton and phytoplankton.
93 lbs 8 oz.; 56 in. - Rathbun Reservoir, Appanoose County, June 2012 - Larry Sparks, Mystic, IA
The bighead carp is a plankton eater (microscopic algae) native to Asia. The bighead carp was originally introduced in Arkansas in 1973. By 1982, it was present in the Missouri sections of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers where it is now widely distributed and well established. The bighead carp was first recorded in Iowa in the late 1990’s. Found in both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, it has also been documented in the Big Sioux River, the Cedar River, the Des Moines River below Red Rock dam, the Iowa River below Coralville Dam, and considered to be numerous in the Chariton River below Rathbun dam.
The bighead carp comes from the big rivers of China (Yangtze and Huang Ho) so it has adapted well to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Using gill rakers to filter plankton and detritus the bighead carp can easily adapt to various environments. Both young and adults prefer the lower reaches of tributary streams and overflow waters in the river floodplain. Large concentrations of bighead carp have been seen in the tailwaters of several impoundments.
Netting studies in the Mississippi River conducted by the Illinois DNR have found that bigheads school with paddlefish and may compete with the paddlefish for food. Since bighead eat microscopic food, it is feared they will also compete with young larval native fishes for food. They can get quite large, with individuals over 60 lbs. having been collected.
Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.
Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames.