Brooks Niedziejko has always loved fishing for carp and there’s plenty to fish. A number of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes are challenged by the prolific reproducer.
Common carp are not native, but have been swimming here for years. Europeans prized carp as a game fish, so they brought it along when settling in America.
(Just a note: We are not talking about Asian carp, which is an invasive species many worry will make its way into the Great Lakes.)
The Wisconsin DNR contracts with commercial fishermen like Niedziejko to try to reduce the nuisance carp that now crowd out the game fish anglers desire, especially in smaller lakes.
Niedziejko and three helpers drove all the way from Prairie du Chien in western Wisconsin to 131-acre Comus Lake in Walworth County.
His fishing boat is called a plate. “It’s a homemade boat and it’s all plate aluminum – actually this one was made in 1978 by another commercial fisherman,” Niedziejko says.
The boat is outfitted with large fish-holding boxes, he hopes to fill with carp.
The cost of their operation is fairly low – two fishing boats, four workers and their muscle, so there is money to be made.
“There’s some Jewish holidays right now, because if we can catch them, we can ship them off,” Niedziejko says.
He says there’s a healthy Asian community market as well. Niedziejko adds, “Everyone should try smoked carp. It's delicious.”
Niedziejko cruises the long, narrow Comus on this cloudless morning with his oldest fishing buddy Luke LeRoque.
He stands at the boat’s bow, occasionally thrusting a long metal pole, called a fish finder, into the water. He’s checking the firmness of the lake bottom while scouting for carp.
"Looking for them to boil up in the water, some jumpers too. Sometimes there will be so many taking off the whole lake turns brown,” LeRoque says.
They swing back to shore, pull on waders and fetch two more guys and a second boat. Together they buzz to the opposite shore.
Then it’s everybody into the lake where they erect a large carp playpen. It’s a net enclosure in the water to hold the carp they herd. The crew thrusts metal rods into the lake bottom to hold the net in place, leaving one end open.
Luke LeRoque explains how they will stretch the seine – that’s the heavy duty net – across the lake to create a wall.
“We’ll pull it out sideways to get it set, then we’ll anchor the seine and then we’ll go out and pound the fish from up here,” LeRoque says.
Their boats roar back and forth across the lake. Two of the men bang metal rods, while another pounds a homemade metal plunger into and out of the water.
Their racket rouses the fish. The lake begins to bubble as carp race toward the netted trap.
The men use every muscle in their bodies to pull in the water-logged net – slightly assisted by a small generator-powered winch.
The wind picks up, making their task tougher. Finally they sequester the carp in the aquatic playpen.
Luke LeRoque collapses onto the boat bow for a few minutes.
“There’s a few there, not many, maybe 1,000 pounds. We were hoping we’d get at least 10,000 pounds,” he says.
He says they’ll probably try the water once more that day.
Brooks Niedziejko’s mood remains sunny. There are buyers even for smaller catches.
“One of the fish buyers just texted and said yellow carp will be 20 cents because of the Jewish holidays,” he says.
After I leave, the crew’s second haul was bountiful – more than 40,000 pounds of carp. Then, late that night, a storm blew through, loosening the playpen that held the fish.
Yet, Niedziejko salvaged enough to attract a fish purveyor from the shore of Lake Erie. He didn’t want to talk with me, but Niedziejko says the buyer filled his semi tank with 20,000 pounds of carp and beelined directly to the East Coast to take advantage of Jewish holiday shoppers.
The Wisconsin DNR says commercial carp removers can give a small lake’s ecosystem a boost, even though Niedziejko’s interest is strictly business.
He says there’s no fish he’d rather chase. You’ll even find him in the dead of winter fishing on the frozen Mississippi River for carp.