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Common Carp

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


A large minnow, with 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 4 to 6 soft rays in the anal fin. Pectoral fin soft rays are 14 to 17, and pelvic fin soft rays are 8 to 9. A visible barbel extends from the posterior corner of the upper jaw and a smaller, less visible one is found along the side of the upper jaw. The lateral line is complete and may have 33 to 44 scales. Body scales are large, displaying a diamond-shaped look and have a black dot in the front of each scale. The body 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

One of the most abundant and widely distributed fish in Iowa. Initially introduced into our waters from Europe more than a century ago, and since then this fish has naturalized into nearly all waters. They live 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 cold water streams and farm ponds.


Carp are omnivorous feeders, taking both vegetable and animal matter. Aquatic insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks make up the bulk of their diet. 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 is extremely adaptable and can be found in many habitats; 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. High populations can be found in lakes and reservoirs that are artificially fertilized with organic wastes or runoff from farmlands, essentially eutrophic. It is often found by 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 thrive in heavy effluent stretches and are very tolerant of turbid waters.

Carp are a nuisance in shallow, weedy habitat where their activity creates high turbidity in otherwise clear water. 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 seen in shallow waters during spring. Females can spawn more than 500,000 eggs over several days, leaving several thousand at each spawning site.

Three varieties of Common Carp are found in Iowa. The most abundant and widespread is the fully scaled fish. 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 provide 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 last part of the 19th century, but problems developed quickly as carp escaped from pond culture and spread into other habitat -- soon distribution and stocking stopped.

Carp can dominate other fish species. Carp, in their normal activities can change the aquatic habitat, and man has altered natural environments that favor carp.

This fish was viewed with disdain, and many projects to remove carp occurred 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, carp became a major commercial food-fish, being taken from the Great Border Rivers and natural lakes. Care is still used to prevent stocking of carp, and it is illegal to release this species into public waters. Projects to remove carp are still carried out as a part of overall fish management efforts, especially during lake and watershed restoration projects. 

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

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:

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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
Spirit Lake Dickinson One mile North of Spirit Lake 5684.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5340.00
Saylorville Reservoir Polk North edge of Des Moines 4970.00
West Okoboji Lake Dickinson northwest edge of Arnolds Park 3847.00
Clear Lake Cerro Gordo south edge of Clear Lake 3684.00
Storm Lake (incl Little Storm Lake) Buena Vista south edge of Storm Lake 3097.00
East Okoboji Lake Dickinson east edge of Okoboji 1835.00
Big Timber Complex Louisa Two miles south of Muscatine, IA off of X-61/Stewart Rd. 1252.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Three Mile Lake Union 3 miles northwest of Afton 880.00
West Swan Lake S.W.M.A. Emmet 3m SE Gruver 830.00
Big Creek Lake Polk 2 miles north of Polk City 814.00
Big Lake (Lansing) Allamakee 3 m N Lansing 800.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 784.70
Chain-O-Lakes Area Linn 2 miles East of Palo 700.00
Lake Icaria Adams 4 miles north of Corning 648.00
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 400.00
Snyder Bend Lake Woodbury 1 1/2 miles west of Salix 375.00
Swan Lake Dickinson 2m N Superior 371.00
Middle Sabula Lake Jackson W edge of City of Sabula 350.00
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 275.00
Bays Branch Guthrie 2 miles southeast of Yale 270.00
Martens Lake Bremer 1 mi E of Tripoli 255.00
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
Easter Lake Polk southeast edge of Des Moines 162.60
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
Norwegian Lake Clayton 130.00
Deep Lakes Muscatine Southern edge of Muscatine on Pettibone Avenue, East of Fruitland. 130.00
Middle River Warren There is not a public access to the Middle River within Warren County. 127.00
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
Middle Raccoon River (above Redfield confluence) Dallas The best access is the hard surface ramp below the dam in the city of Redfield. 110.00
North River Warren There is not a public access to the North River within Warren County. 107.00
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa This stretch is located in Marshall, Tama, the SW corner of Benton, Iowa, and Johnson County. A popular access is at the Hwy 21 Access, which is part of the Iowa River Corridor Wildlife Area, just south of Belle Plaine. 104.00
Union Grove Lake Tama 4 miles South of Gladbrook 100.00
Diamond Lake Poweshiek 1 mile West of Montezuma 98.00
Bob White Lake Wayne 2 miles west of Allerton on the north side of J46 96.00
Grays Lake Polk Fleur Drive, Des Moines 96.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
Sand Lake Marshall On the Northeast edge of Marshalltown 95.00
Morse Lake Wright 3 1/2 miles west of Belmond 90.00
Five in One Dam Linn On Cedar River under I-380 in Cedar Rapids 90.00
Beeds Lake Franklin 2 miles west, 1 mile north of Hampton 90.00
Cedar Lake Madison 2 miles northeast of Winterset 90.00
Terry Trueblood Lake Johnson 1.5 miles south of Hwy 6 on Gilbert Street in Iowa City. 90.00
Turkey River (above Clermont) Fayette This section of river includes the headwaters in Howard county and flows through Winneshiek and Fayette Counties. A popular access is at Vernon Springs Park just 2.5 miles southwest of Cresco. 89.00
Purple Martin Lakes Polk Located at the Dead-End of Army Post Road near Walnut Woods State Park, Des Moines 87.20
Cedar Lake Linn 84.00
Loch Ayr Ringgold 2 miles north of Mt. Ayr 83.00
Backbone Lake Delaware 4m SW Strawberry Point, Backbone State Park. 80.00
East Fork Des Moines (state line to Algona) Kossuth This stretch or river is in Kossuth County. Plum Creek Dam on 240th Street is a popular place to access the river. 80.00
Otter Creek Lake Tama 6 miles Northeast of Toledo 74.00
Prairie Park Fishery Linn 1.5 miles SSE of Cargill on Otis Road, along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids 66.80
Iowa River (Iowa Falls to Marshalltown) Marshall This stretch is located in Hardin and Marshall County. A popular access is located in Pine Lake State Park, just east of Eldora on County Road S56. 66.00
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
Turkey River (below Clermont) Clayton This stretch is found in Fayette and Clayton County. A popular scenic and historical area is the Motor Mill Access about 8 miles southeast of Elkader on Galaxy Road. 65.00
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
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
Cedar River (above Nashua) Floyd This stretch is found in Chickasaw, Floyd, and Mitchell Counties. A popular multi-use location is the Charles City Whitewater Park in downtown Charles City on Hwy 14. 63.00
Fontana Mill Lake Buchanan .5m S Hazleton 63.00
Des Moines River (Ottumwa Dam to Farmington) Van Buren This stretch runs through Wapello and Van Buren counties. There are 11 boat ramps in this stretch. 61.00
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
Atlantic Quarry Pond 3 Cass 60.90
Alice Wyth Lake Black Hawk Located on north edge of Waterloo in George Wyth State Park. 60.00
Briggs Woods Lake Hamilton 2 miles south of Webster City 59.00
South Skunk River (Cambridge to Pella) Marion A hard surface access is located South of Cambridge on the north side of Highway 210, 3 miles east of Interstate 35. 58.00
Shell Rock River (above Greene) Floyd Located in Worth, Cerro Gordo, and Floyd Counties. A popular access point is Wilkinson Pioneer Park located at the end of CR B20 in Rock Falls. This park is the start of the Shellrock River Greenbelt and Preserve featuring 7.5 mi. of scenic bluffs. 58.00
Little Sioux River (Correctionville to Missouri R) Harrison Little Sioux Park, 2 miles SW of Correctionville, Woodberry County Conservation Board 57.00
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
Cedar River (La Porte City to Cedar Rapids) Linn This stretch is located in Benton and Linn County. A popular river access is in the Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area right of Hwy 150 on the North side of Vinton. 56.00
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
Big Woods Lake Black Hawk Northwest edge of Cedar Falls 55.00
Wapsipinicon River (Troy Mills to Oxford Junction) Jones This stretch is located in Linn and Jones County. A popular access on this stretch is in Pinicon Ridge Park, just off Hwy 13 by Central City. 53.00
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
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 A mid-section access point for this stretch of river is at the Pleasant Hill Boat Ramp. This ramp is located on SE Vandalia Drive immediately east of Highway 65. 50.00
West Fork Des Moines (Emmetsburg to Humboldt) Humboldt 48.00
Lake Hendricks Howard Located 0.5 miles northeast of Riceville. 47.40
Folsom Lake Mills 2 miles west of Glenwood 45.00
Dudgeon Lake Benton 2 miles North of Vinton. 45.00
Lidtke Impoundment Howard This impoundment is adjacent to Lidtke Mill and located on the Upper Iowa River just north of Lime Springs. 43.40
McKinley Lake Union 42.80
Copper Creek Polk North side of University Ave. in Pleasant Hill along Four Mile Creek. 42.50
Avenue of the Saints Pond Bremer 2m SW Waverly 41.00
Vernon Springs Impoundment Howard Located 2.5 miles southwest of Cresco. 39.40
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