When Fish Fly

by Stevie Zvereva

This July, a timely, new festival will raise awareness about the fish everyone loves to hate.

As the boat motor whirs just beneath the surface, the water comes to life. A dozen or more fish revolt, their bodies flailing up and out of the river in the engine’s wake. The boat picks up speed, a steady stream of flying fish trailing its stern.

But these are no “flying fish.” That mystical title belongs to a nobler group of species that evolved wing-like fins and a gliding ability to evade predators. Real flying fish spring high into the air with calculated resolve, linger airborne, and return to the water with grace. The haphazard jumps of these fish, however, offer no such elegance. Their bodies flounder helpless as they flop onto boat decks, are struck by propellers, or perish mid-leap, pierced by anglers’ arrows. These are Asian carp.

The Great Invasion 
As far as we know, Asian carp invaded the Illinois River about 15 years ago, making their way up from a flooded Mississippi River basin where two of the five species—the Bighead and Silver carp—were first introduced from Southeast Asia to help southern wastewater treatment facilities keep their retention ponds clean. Happily laying claim to the warm currents and shallow pools of central Illinois’ river bluffs, the carp continued to spread, and Peoria held a particular allure for the invasive species. According to a recent study led by researchers at Southern Illinois University, Asian carp densities are higher in the “Peoria pool”—the stretch of water from Peoria to Chillicothe—than other sites in the Illinois River.

“The temperature’s right, the water’s right, all the conditions are perfect for the fish here,” explains John Hamann, rural economic development director for Peoria County. Hamann has become something of an expert on the species over the past year, as he’s sought to find a viable solution that would both halt the fishes’ devastation to area waterways and allow the region to capitalize on the problem. Last September, he joined the local economic development group, Focus Forward Central Illinois, in hosting an Asian carp summit to engage stakeholders on bringing a fish processing plant to Peoria. Under the theme “Carpe diem, Carpe carpio” (“Seize the moment, seize the carp”), a concerted discussion ensued, including opinions from national representatives in the field.

“The Army Corps of Engineers recently released a report to Congress revealing an $18-billion plan that essentially calls for the use of electric fences and other protocols near Chicago and in the Great Lakes… to halt the Asian carp spread,” Hamann explains. “[These measures] do nothing to reduce the population and are controls only. We believe our [plan] here with a processing plant is a viable solution to actually reducing those numbers.”

The location is ideal, agrees Rick Swan, executive director of the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce. “We have the supply, that’s for sure,” he affirms. “There’s some 10 million pounds here on any given day… and the source is being constantly replenished from the Mississippi. There doesn’t seem to be an end to the supply.”

So far, foreign interests have dominated the scouting activity in Peoria, as the fish is in high demand in several Asian markets. “We’ve had 10 interested companies—several of them from China,” Hamann says. “There’s a variety of things you can do with the fish: One is surimi—a product where you use the carp to create imitation crab meat or lobster. It’s very popular in China, but there’s a big domestic market here, too.”

“There was one company interested in the fish heads only, because they’re used in fish soup,” Swan notes. “In several countries, [the carp] is considered a delicacy. It sounds strange to us but… there’s a use for every part of this fish—from the lips to the tail.”

In addition to prospects for human consumption, Asian carp byproducts can be turned into liquid fertilizer and fish meal, or repurposed for pharmaceutical purposes, as the species contain very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. “Some of these companies recognize that there’s enough domestic market to make money here, rather than having to… ship them overseas,” Hamann says.

“You have pockets of demand all over… like Chicago’s Chinatown, for instance,” Swan adds. “A lot of domestic cities have regional-type food markets with people who would buy the fish.” But part of increasing the domestic market’s viability means reversing preconceived notions that have tarnished the Asian carp’s local reputation.

Acquiring the Taste
“You know … they really smell funny,” confesses Sharon Williams, Peoria County Board member and committee member for the 2014 Flying Fish Festival and Bow Fishing Tournament. “I didn’t know if I could get over the smell, but when they fry ‘em up, they don’t taste fishy—they’re actually pretty good.”

On July 12th, Williams and a host of sponsors and partners will attempt to convince Peoria-area residents, as four chefs will be on-site to fillet, cook and serve up the fish in a variety of formats for visitors to sample at no charge. “These carp are different,” Hamann explains. “They’re not bottom-feeders—that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the fish. They feed on algae on the top of the river—that’s what makes the meat… very white and very mild.”

The idea is two-fold: a family-friendly “flying fish” festival held in conjunction with a competitive bow-fishing tournament. Williams explains how two initially distinct ideas converged through several groups’ shared resolve to solve the carp conundrum. “John [Hamann]’s been working behind the scenes trying to get a processing plant in Peoria, and bow fishing has really taken off in this area over the last several years… so, we’re really trying to make this negative a positive.”

Experts will be on hand to discuss the species and the havoc it’s wreaked upon the river, while chefs showcase the fish “to let area residents know that ‘Hey, it’s not that bad!’” Swan adds. “It’s readily available, and it’s the fish we have here that we need to utilize.”

No Sport for the Meek
To area fishermen, “readily available” is a significant understatement. Nathan Wallick, owner of Peoria Carp Hunters, charters groups on the Illinois River to bow-fish Asian carp, providing equipment and know-how to curious clients. They may be a nuisance, but the fish have fueled his business as this region has become ground zero for sportsmen looking to hunt Asian carp.

Wallick grew up learning to trawl shallow waters for fish below the surface under the guise of traditional bow-fishing. The Asian carp have brought a new aspect to the sport, he says. “You’re no longer going through shallow waters on the hunt—they’re jumping into air.” This chaos, paired with the adrenaline of shooting, sets aerial bow-fishing apart.

“The reason why a lot of people don’t like to hunt and fish is because it’s boring,” Wallick explains. “This sport fuels the A.D.D. culture that we’ve become… it’s just constant activity. You’re shooting so much that you have plenty of time to catch on… By the end of the day, [my clients] become pros.”

Tournament organizers expect between 100 and 200 teams—a mix of amateur and experienced, local and out of state—to register to compete in the tournament for a piece of the $7,500 in prize money.

“Our area is a draw for this kind of thing,” explains Jim Goff, general manager at Bass Pro Shops in East Peoria. “We’re one of the very few places in the United States where you can go and experience flying fish. Archery is a growing sport, but then you mix in fishing with it, and over the last five years, it’s just really exploded in the Midwest.” Goff calls Bass Pro’s sponsorship of the event “a no-brainer,” adding that “fishing is a big part of our heritage.” While the tournament speaks to the store’s support for bow fishing as recreation—it sells everything one needs to get into the sport—the festival is a perfect fit for its proximity to the river, correlating perfectly with Bass Pro’s Family Summer Camp, which wraps up the same weekend.

For Goff, the festival’s mission to raise awareness about the invasive species was just as important as promoting the sport. “We want to clean up the river, too,” he stresses. “A lot of hook-and-line fishermen come into the store and they’re constantly [saying] ‘Gosh, I wish the river would get back to the way it was—it was a great fishery…’”

Thousands of carp will be harvested at the tournament, an effort for which Goff was happy to offer up Bass Pro’s facility as host. Weigh-ins will take place along the river near the store at 2pm, where a semi-truck will be waiting to haul the catch to Shafer Fisheries in Thompson, Illinois—currently the area’s nearest fish processing facility.

Fun for Everyone
“The one thing I’d like to say about this whole festival and tournament is to point out the cooperation of all these different groups that have come together,” Williams expresses. “We have Focus Forward CI, the City of East Peoria, City of Peoria, Peoria County, Tazewell County… there’s so many different entities involved, and we’ve all collaborated to work on this problem and really turn it into a positive.”

Cooking demonstrations will be provided by Clint Carter, a carp-expert chef from Springfield, Illinois, and Louisiana-based chef Phillipe Parola, as well as chefs from Peoria’s Two25 restaurant and Bass Pro Shop’s Uncle Buck’s FishBowl and Grill. Meanwhile, kid-friendly activities will dominate the festival: a Wildlife Prairie Park representative will be on site with some animals for an interactive presentation, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will showcase a large stuffed Asian carp, answering questions about the species. Proceeds from tournament fees and Friday night’s kickoff dinner will go toward restoring the Labor Temple at 400 NE Jefferson Avenue in Peoria, and to preservation and conservation efforts on the Illinois River. A&S

The Bow Fishing Tournament will be held from 5am to 2pm on July 12th, with a Meet & Greet from 6 to 8pm on July 11th at Bass Pro. The Flying Fish Festival is 11am to 3pm on July 12th. For more information, find “Peoria Flying Fish Festival” on Facebook.