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Bighead Carp

Bighead Carp


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 whole 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 Distribution

Bighead Carp are native to large rivers of southern and central China. An Arkansas fish farmer first brought them to the United States in 1972 to improve water clarity and increase fish production in culture ponds. Bighead Carp started to appear in the wild (Mississippi and Ohio Rivers) in the early 1980’s, likely escaping 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.

State Record

93 lbs 8 oz.; 56 in. - Rathbun Reservoir, Appanoose County, June 2012 - Larry Sparks, Mystic, IA

Expert Tip



The Bighead Carp is a plankton eater (microscopic algae) native to Asia. It was originally introduced in Arkansas in 1972. By 1982, it was 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 many environments. Both young and adults prefer the lower reaches of tributary streams and overflow waters in the river floodplain. Large groups 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 them for food. Since bighead eat microscopic food, it is feared they will also compete with young larval native fish for food. They can get very large;  individuals over 60 pounds have 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.




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
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
Spirit Lake Dickinson One mile North of Spirit Lake 5684.00
Missouri River (Sioux City to Little Sioux) Harrison Chris Larsen Park: 1280 Larsen Park Road/Sioux City, IA. Located on the Sioux City riverfront along the Missouri River. Larsen Park offers 110 acres on the Sioux City Riverfront. Managed by the City of Sioux City. 64.00
Missouri River (Council Bluffs to state line) Fremont Lake Manawa State Park: 1100 South Shore Drive/Council Bluffs, IA 51501 phone: 712-366-0220. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Lake Manawa State Park has boat ramps on the Missouri River within the park. 61.00
Cedar River (Cedar Rapids to Moscow) Cedar This stretch is found in Linn and Cedar County. A popular access is found in Palisades State Park which is on Hwy 30 between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon. 55.00
Missouri River (Little Sioux to Council Bluffs) Pottawattamie Wilson Island State Recreation Area: 32801 Campground Lane/Missouri Valley, IA 51555 phone-712-642-2069. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Wilson Island Recreation Area has 544 acres along the Missouri River near Missouri Valley Iowa. 53.00
Des Moines River (Farmington to Keokuk) Lee Redwing Access : 3941 Valley Road just west of Keokuk. 35.00
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 (Coralville Lake to River Junction) Johnson This stretch is located in Johnson County. A popular access is the Tailwater East Ramp located right below the Coralville Lake Dam, East of North Liberty and Coralville. 29.00