Common Carp

Common Carp, illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing.


The Common Carp is a large minnow, with the adults weighing up to 50 pounds or more. Its robust body is compressed laterally, and a soft, fleshy mouth opens ventrally. A stout, serrated, spinous ray at the leading edge of the dorsal and anal fins is a distinctive physical characteristic. There are more than 16 soft rays in the dorsal fin (native cyprinids have less than 10) and from 4 to 6 soft rays in the anal fin. Pectoral fin soft ray counts range from 14 to 17, and pelvic fin soft ray counts vary from 8 to 9. A conspicuous barbel extends from the posterior corner of the upper jaw and a smaller, less conspicuous one is found along the side of the upper jaw. The lateral line is complete and may contain from 33 to 44 scales. Body scales are large, displaying a diamond-shaped appearance and have a black dot in the front of each scale. Body color is gray to olive dorsally, golden-yellow to bronzy-golden laterally, and yellowish-white ventrally. Pectoral, pelvic, and caudal fins are yellow to orange-red in adults. Young fish have a dusky vertical bar on the caudal peduncle which fades with increasing age. Pharyngeal teeth are broad and form three rows in the formula 1, 1, 3-3, 1. Molar-like grinding surfaces characterize the middle rows.


Common Carp Distribution

The Common Carp is one of the most abundant and widely distributed fish in Iowa. They were initially introduced into our waters from Europe more than a century ago, and since that time this fish has naturalized into nearly all waters. They occur in nearly every stream, river, man-made lake, and natural lake unless specific effort has been made to eliminate them. They are least common in coldwater streams and farm ponds.


Carp are omnivorous feeders, taking both vegetable and animal matter in their diet. Aquatic insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks make up the bulk of their forage. They are particularly fond of tender roots and shoots of young aquatic plants and often "root-up" large quantities of vegetation and silt in their search for food.

State Record

50 pounds - Glenwood Lake, Mills County, May 1969 - Fred Hougland, Glenwood, Iowa

Expert Tip

carp love to explore and feed in newly flooded areas, try using worms or dough balls when the river is rising!


The Common Carp was introduced between 1870 and 1880 and is now one of the most widespread and abundant large fishes in Iowa. This exotic species occurs in nearly all waters unless specific effort has been made to eradicate it. The common carp is least abundant in coldwater streams and farm ponds.

The Common Carp is extremely adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, however it is least successful in clear, high gradient streams. It is abundant in low-gradient, warm waters of lakes, reservoirs, and soft-bottomed, weedy pools of streams. Especially high populations can be found in lakes and reservoirs that are artificially fertilized with organic wastes or runoff from farmlands, essentially eutrophic. The Common Carp is often found about piles of drift, logs or other submerged cover. It is tolerant of a wide range of turbidities, bottom types and temperatures.

Common Carp prefer warm water, either standing or with sluggish flow. They are most abundant in large rivers, man-made lakes and natural lakes where there is abundant, soft organic matter on the bottom. Carp adapt better than most fish species to pollution caused by sewage or agricultural run-off. They actually "thrive" in heavy effluent stretches and are very tolerant of turbid waters.

Carp are omnivorous feeders, taking both vegetable and animal matter in their diet. Aquatic insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks make up the bulk of their forage. They are particularly fond of tender roots and shoots of young aquatic plants and often "root-up" large quantities of vegetation and silt in their search for food. They are a nuisance in shallow, weedy habitat where their activity creates high turbidity in otherwise clear water. For this reason, carp have a limited use in nuisance aquatic vegetation control programs.

Spawning occurs from mid-April through June when the adhesive eggs are scattered in the shallow water over vegetation, debris, logs or rocks. Splashing carp, with their backs out of the water, may be observed in shallow waters during spring. Females can spawn more than 500,000 eggs over a period of several days, leaving several thousand at each spawning site.

Three varieties of Common Carp are found in Iowa. By far, the most abundant and widespread is the fully scaled specimen. Leather carp are scaleless, and mirror carp are covered with only a few large mis-shapen scales. Both leather and mirror carp are rare, and the former variety may have been extirpated because of its very unique genetic make up.

The reputation of carp has gone through an interesting transition since its North American introduction. Originally, its purpose was to furnish a fine food-fish to replace rapidly dwindling native fishes -- notably Eastern trout. Its easy adaptation to pond culture and high-quality protein were touted as major attributes. Carp were distributed widely across the United States by the U.S. Fish Commission during the latter part of the 19th century, but problems developed rapidly as carp escaped from pond culture and spread into other habitat -- soon distribution and stocking ceased.

Carp are able to dominate other fish species -- for two reasons. Carp, in their normal activities can change the aquatic habitat, and man has in many instances altered natural environments that favor carp.

This fish was viewed with disdain, and many eradication projects were undertaken in the early 1900`s through the 1960`s. Most projects failed to eliminate carp, and few showed improvements in native species populations. During this same time period, carp became a major commercial food-fish, being taken from the Great Border Rivers and natural lakes. Care is still exercised to prevent stocking of carp, and it is illegal to release this species into public waters. Eradication projects are still carried out for carp as a part of overall fish management efforts, especially as the capstone effort of a lake and watershed restoration project. Another trend is carp utilization through commercial harvest and an increased awareness of sport and food potential of this naturalized species.

Common Carp are harvested by commercial fishermen extensively from the Mississippi River. Approximately 200,000 pounds of Common Carp valued at nearly $25,000 are annually harvested from the Mississippi.

Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.


Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.

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

Illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing

Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
Red Rock Reservoir Marion 4 miles north of Knoxville 15250.00
Pool 18, Mississippi River Louisa Amenities listed are for the Toolsboro Ramp. The ramp at Toolsboro is paved but the road to the ramp is gravel. There is some shore fishing along the parking area and at the outlet of Lake Odessa. Amenities vary by location in pool 18 13300.00
Pool 16, Mississippi River Scott The amenities list are for Buffalo Shores campground in Buffalo, Iowa. Amenities at other locations in Pool 16 vary by location. 13000.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. This ramp is located in downtown Muscatine. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5280.00
Saylorville Reservoir Polk North edge of Des Moines 4970.00
Storm Lake (incl Little Storm Lake) Buena Vista south edge of Storm Lake 3097.00
Lost Island Lake Palo Alto 3 miles north of Ruthven 1162.00
Five Island Lake Palo Alto north edge of Emmetsburg 973.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Big Creek Lake Polk 2 miles north of Polk City 814.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 747.00
Chain-O-Lakes Area Linn 2 miles East of Palo 700.00
High Lake Emmet 6 miles east of Wallingford 467.00
Rock Creek Lake Jasper 4 miles northeast of Kellogg 466.20
Elm Lake Wright 5 miles Northeast of Clarion 458.00
North Twin Lake Calhoun 4 miles north of Rockwell City 453.00
Pleasant Creek Lake Linn 4 miles North of Palo 401.00
West Swan Lake S.W.M.A. Emmet 3m SE Gruver 379.00
Snyder Bend Lake Woodbury 1 1/2 miles west of Salix 375.00
Swan Lake Dickinson 2m N Superior 371.00
Ingham Lake Emmet 6 miles east of Wallingford 357.00
Carter Lake Pottawattamie North edge of Carter Lake. 315.00
Roberts Creek Lake Marion 6 miles northeast of Knoxville 288.00
Blue Lake Monona 3 miles west of Onawa 269.00
Elk Lake Clay 1 mile west, 3 miles south of Ruthven 261.00
Lake Cornelia Wright 3 1/2 miles north, 2 miles east of Clarion 243.00
Blue Heron Lake (Raccoon River Park) Polk southwest of West Des Moines; Raccoon River Park 232.00
Center Lake Dickinson 2 miles west, 1/2 miles south of Spirit Lake 220.00
Easter Lake Polk southeast edge of Des Moines 179.10
Don Williams Lake Boone 5 miles north of Ogden 151.00
Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake Story North side of Ames, west of Grand Avenue/Highway 69. 137.00
Volga Lake Fayette Located 3 miles north of Fayette. 135.00
Deep Lakes Muscatine 130.00
East Nishnabotna River Fremont Red Oak city limits has river access and hard surface boat ramp 123.00
West Nishnabotna River Fremont 121.00
Skunk River (Rose Hill to Coppock) Washington McKain's River Access : Dogwood Avenue on the South side of the River. 3 miles North of Lake Darling State Park. 110.00
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa 104.00
Hickory Grove Lake Story 3 miles southwest of Colo 100.30
Union Grove Lake Tama 4 miles South of Gladbrook 100.00
Diamond Lake Poweshiek 1 mile West of Montezuma 98.00
Grays Lake Polk Fleur Drive, Des Moines 96.00
Sand Lake Marshall On the Northeast edge of Marshalltown 95.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
Terry Trueblood Lake Johnson 1.5 miles south of Hwy 6 on Gilbert Street in Iowa City. 90.00
Morse Lake Wright 3 1/2 miles west of Belmond 90.00
Beeds Lake Franklin 2 miles west, 1 mile north of Hampton 90.00
Cedar Lake Linn 84.00
Otter Creek Lake Tama 6 miles Northeast of Toledo 74.00
Wapsipinicon River (Oxford Junct to Mississippi R) Scott Wapsi River Environmental Education Center : 31555 52nd Avenue, Dixon, Iowa 52745. Northeast of Dixon along the Wapsi River. And Sherman Park across the River in Clinton County 66.00
Skunk River (Coppock to Mississippi River) Des Moines Mac Coon Access is located five and one-half miles north of Lockridge just east of Willow Blvd. 65.00
Atlantic Quarry Pond 3 Cass 60.90
Briggs Woods Lake Hamilton 2 miles south of Webster City 59.00
Des Moines River (Stratford to Saylorville Lake) Polk The Highway 30 Access is in the middle of this river section and is located 3 miles west of Boone on the north side of Highway 30. 57.00
Little Sioux River (Correctionville to Missouri R) Harrison Little Sioux Park, 2 miles SW of Correctionville, Woodberry County Conservation Board 57.00
Keg Creek Lake Mills 2 miles southwest of Pacific Junction 52.00
Spring Lake Greene 4 miles northwest of Grand Junction 51.00
Des Moines River (Saylorville to Red Rock) Marion 50.00
Dudgeon Lake Benton 2 miles North of Vinton. 45.00
Folsom Lake Mills 2 miles west of Glenwood 45.00
Copper Creek Polk North side of University Ave. in Pleasant Hill along Four Mile Creek. 42.50
Prairie Park Fishery Linn 1.5 miles SSE of Cargill on Otis Road, along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids 42.00
Lake Hendricks Howard Located 0.5 miles northeast of Riceville. 40.00
Lake Meyer Winneshiek Located 2.5 miles southwest of Calmar. 40.00
English River Washington Riverside Access : on the South side of Riverside. Has a hard surface ramp but it is only usable during highwater, mostly used as a canoe take out. 37.00
Des Moines River (Farmington to Keokuk) Lee Redwing Access : 3941 Valley Road just west of Keokuk. 35.00
Des Moines Water Works Recharge Basins Polk George Flagg Pkwy. Des Moines 35.00
Boyer River (Dunlap to Missouri River) Pottawattamie Highway 30 bridge in Woodbine. Easting 275280 Northing 4623540 34.00
Petersons Pit, West Story 4 miles northeast of Ames 33.00
Cedar River (Moscow to Columbus Junction) Muscatine Saulsbury Bridge Recreational Area :•2007 Saulsbury Road, Muscatine, Iowa 52761 •From Highway 61 in Muscatine go 2.5 miles north on Mulberry Rd., then 4 miles west on Saulsbury Rd. 32.00
Iowa River (Columbus Junction to Mississippi R) Louisa Cappy Russell Access : West of Oakville 6444 County Road X-71, Oakville, IA 52646 30.00
Nishna Bend R.A. Ponds Shelby 4 miles south of Harlan 30.00
Iowa River (Coralville Lake to River Junction) Johnson 29.00
Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve Lake (west) Jasper 6 miles southeast of Kellogg 28.00
Mohawk Park Lake Linn East side of the Cedar River off J Ave. 26.00
Jay Carlson Pit (west) Boone 3 miles west of Boone 25.60
Banner Lake (south) Warren 4 1/2 miles north of Indianola 24.00
Iowa River (River Junction to Columbus Junction) Louisa River Forks Access : 1001 Main Street, Fredonia, IA 52738 24.00
Lake Oelwein Fayette Located on the south edge of Oelwein. 23.00
Bartlett Lake Fremont ½ mile west of Bartlett 22.00
Percival Lake Fremont 1 mile north of Percival 20.00
Murphy Lake Linn 1 mile Northwest of Bertram on the West side of Highway 13 20.00
Mariposa Lake Jasper 5 miles northeast of Newton 17.90
Black Pit Cerro Gordo SW Edge Mason City 16.00
Arbor Lake Poweshiek On the Southwest edge of Grinnell 13.00
Savery Pond Monona 2 miles southeast of Moorhead 11.00
Miller Poweshiek On the Southeast edge of Grinnell 10.00
Gilbertson Area Lake Fayette Located east of Elgin off of county highway B64. 7.00
Schley Park Pond Harrison 1 mile east Persia 7.00
Big Lake (Including Gilbert's Pond) Pottawattamie North 25th street exit off interstate 29. Nash Blvd to Big Lake Road. Northeast Council Bluffs. 5.00
Ashton Park Pond Osceola 2.00
Iowa River Landing Pond Johnson Just south of I-80 at Iowa River Landing 1.90