The giant grass carp had to die. I pondered a well-placed .22 bullet to its skull as it swam just under the surface of the pond, nosing its snout into the air to pluck fresh-fallen leaves from the water’s surface. Or I could try and net the monster fish and hope to bash its head with a rock as it flailed on the shore. No matter the method, it wouldn’t be easy to murder the venerable carp, but it had to be done.
The grass carp, or White Amur, had prowled our small pond, cleaning leaves and Hoovering algae for at least 40 years – maybe even 50 years. The fish’s age was uncertain, but it was at least 40 inches long, and perhaps its length roughly matched its age. The pond was built around 1974, and the carp could’ve been in the pond from the beginning. It shared the water with four large Coy fish when we moved here in 2017, and all were likely stocked by the pond’s original owners many years ago, judging by their enormity. The Coy are at least 2-feet long, perhaps 30 inches, a size that takes decades to obtain. The carp was nearly 4-feet long and likely 30 solid pounds.
I didn’t hate the grass carp, even though I wanted it dead. The half-ugly fish was a familiar, silver-gray phantom, slipping from shadow to shadow in the pond. Somewhat shy and rarely seen for months, somedays it was clearly visible for hours suspended stoically in the pond’s still water. Often, it seemed to watch warily with its weird, down-turned eyes as I walked past on shore, before speeding away with one sweep of its sail-like tail, leaving a wavey wake that rocked the entire pond.
Together with the Coy fish, they all seemed more at home in a faraway Buddhist monastery reflecting pool than in an old Arkansas farm pond. Unfortunately, the pond is flawed and was built from sandy soil. Most of its water drains away within a month after filling full with spring rains. As a result, the fish are left doing slow circles in a daily-dwindling, ever-muddier water hole. The giant grass carp made the situation worse for all the fish, and muddied the water further with each swing of its massive tail. Even without swimming more than a foot in either direction in that murky bathtub, the big fish fanned fine silt from the pond bottom day and night.
Each summer, when the rain stops falling and the pond is deprived of fresh water, it looks like a scene from a drought-stricken watering hole on the African savannah. Trapped in a cloudy pool of crowded water without sufficient food or oxygen for months, the fish somehow manage to exist in that stagnant pool year after year. In winter’s deepest cold, the remaining water freezes nearly solid, and only flashes of the bright-orange Coy are visible beneath the thick ice. By the time spring rains again fill the pond, all the remaining catfish, Coy and others have breathed stagnant mud-water for months. Mortality is high, and fewer fish survive each year. Except the grass carp, which seemed to thrive and grow larger despite the hardships. That giant carp’s uncanny ability to weather winter freeze and summer drought finally ended last weekend when it died unexpectedly.
I heard the loud splashing in the pond all the way from the barn. I’d just passed the pond on my way to fetch the tractor, and had seen the grass carp casually sipping leaves that were floating on the surface. Again, I wondered how to remove the pond-fouling fish, but reminded myself that the difficult chore could wait, and continued to the barn. Along the way, I saw one of our free-range chickens strolling the pond shore for snacks.
When I heard the first splashing – more like the sound of a boulder slapping water than a playful sloppy slosh – I wondered if the pond’s resident snapping turtle had grabbed the wandering hen and she was fighting for her life. Again and again, the crashing water boomed across the farm, but the view was obscured and I couldn’t determine the cause. As I reached the pond, the surface rippled with rings but nothing seemed amiss. The chicken hen strutted calmly around the water’s edge, and our Tabby cat, Sassafras, napped peacefully on the nearby bench. Whatever caused the ruckus had vanished.
That calm disintegrated instantly, and the grass carp exploded without warning like a depth charge onto the pond’s quiet water. Once. Twice. Then three times, the great fish breached like a Humpback whale, slapping its entire 25-pound bulk onto the pond’s surface time and again. Then the flailing stopped, and the fish vanished beneath the muddy water. Stunned by the carp’s shocking antics, I stared transfixed at the pond, which was quiet and still as if the fish’s violent display never occurred. That silence ended when the carp made one final slap of its great tail and propelled itself like an errant torpedo out of the water and onto dry land. The old fish never moved again.
Flabbergasted by the bizarre spectacle, I ran to the grass carp and inspected the scene. I expected the carp to flop back into the water as I neared, but the fish was deathly still. The gills didn’t open and close. I grabbed a stick and poked the carp’s broad leathery head, but instead of swimming away, its tail twitched twice, then stopped moving entirely. The ancient grass carp was dead, sitting upright like a beached dolphin that would never again see the ocean. My fish-killing chore was done without lifting a finger!
As I buried the big stinky fish with the tractor, I wondered exactly why it died. Was it injured from leaping out of the water and crashing back into the pond repeatedly? Were those great splashes merely death throes of a dying giant? Perhaps it was decrepit and wracked by age, or had a parasite slowly turned its brain into death-inducing goo?
Or had the fish committed a form of piscatorial suicide? Tired of endless circles around the same shallow pond, breathing muddy water all summer and freezing nearly solid each winter, the big old carp had enough of life. It finally decided to pull the proverbial trigger and cease its misery, leaping and crashing its body onto the water until death. There is no way to learn the cause, the coons have now pulled the fish from its grave and cleaned the bones. Perhaps the fish actually wanted a witness to its final moments, and used its last breath to push itself onto shore before me? Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that the old grass carp died one of the strangest deaths a fish has ever died.