Brad Pennington initially thought someone had thrown a brick at him from the shores of the Missouri River.
It turns out it was a flying silver carp.
Duane Chapman of the Columbia Environmental Research Center, an expert on carp species, offers six tips for how to remain safe in the Missouri River with the increasing carp population.
- Stay in the current. The Carp tend to congregate in lower velocity waters, though they are still sometimes found in the river’s faster channels.
- Don’t follow another boat. Carp are more afraid of powerboats and tend to jump behind them. Water Skiers and tubers are even more at-risk of being hit because of this.
- If you happen to see a carp coming at you, get your hands up to protect your face. The majority of carp injuries are in the facial area.
- Protect the throttle mechanism on your watercraft. Carp can hit the throttle, especially if it’s near the edge in the rear third of the boat, and throw the boat into gear, causing accidents and crashes.
- Be especially careful if canoeing and kayaking. Silver carp are capable of jumping up to 10 feet out of the water, but generally they stay closer to the surface, putting paddlers in greater danger of bodily injury.
- Stay away from the banks, especially the wing dikes. When a silver carp is trapped between your boat and the bank, its first instinct will be to jump.
Check out a podcast that features Duane Chapman speaking about leaping carp.
For more on Brad Pennington's kayak racing, click here.
Pennington was near mile 35 of the Missouri River 340 boat race about 11 a.m. Tuesday when the airborne fish hit him in the side of the face and nearly caused him to capsize his kayak.
“My first thought was ‘What hit me?’” Pennington said. “The second thing was that I couldn’t believe I didn’t capsize with a boat like I had.”
Pennington, 43, an accomplished river racer from Houston, was paddling an Olympic-style kayak that measured 17-feet long and just 12-inches wide at its widest point. With the river's depth approaching its extreme for this time of the year, a spill into the water could have meant legitimate danger for Pennington.
“I could have been swimming for miles,” he said. “I’m relieved to get hit by something like that and stay upright.”
Silver carp, which are not indigenous to North America, have become a genuine problem in the Missouri River, injuring fishermen, water skiers and other recreational boaters. Another species of Asian carps, the bighead carp, is affecting the health of native fish according to Duane Chapman of the Columbia Environmental Research Center.
The species was originally brought to this county from Asia in the 1970s in an attempt to control algae and plankton in aquaculture (fish farming) and sewage treatment. The theory was that these carp would eat excess amounts algae and plankton, lowering the amount of harmful elements like nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. The plan failed, but along the way, some bighead carp escaped the lagoons and aquaculture areas, spreading into streams and spawning.
The first recorded bighead carp catch in the Mississippi River Basin was in 1981 and by the early 1990s, scientists began to publish findings of largely increasing populations. Because these carp have been found to spawn in high waters, the floods of the mid 90s only exacerbated the problem. Now, bighead carp have penetrated the electric barrier that blocks fish from the Mississippi River Basin into the Great Lakes Basin, creating a growing economic concern that threatens the multi-billion dollar fishery industry in that area.
“There is a great fear right now in the (Great Lakes) area,” Chapman said. “If the carp can populate in that area, the fisheries could lose money due to the carp.”
While the bighead carp is creating a larger portion of the overpopulation problem, the silver carp is leaping out of the Missouri River and causing injuries such as broken noses and jaws and threatening the food supply for native fish such as the big mouth buffalo and gizzard shad.
“The silver carp jump in crazy ways,” Chapman said. “Their sides have rough parts on their pectoral fins that can cut a person’s face and their heads are hard and can cause serious injury.”
Pennington avoided serious injury Tuesday. He was attempting to tie up to a three-man canoe, which was going to help him repair his rudder, when suddenly one of the carp landed about 2 feet in front of him. An instant later, he was struck by what the men in the canoe later described to Pennington as a 2- to 3-foot, 20- to 30-pound fish.
“I just went down the river laughing afterwards,” Pennington said. “I got face-slapped by a flying fish.”
Because of his rudder, which only allowed his kayak to steer left, Pennington had to withdraw at the race's first checkpoint, 52 miles into the race in Lexington.
He did report some headache and dizziness for a few hours after being hit by the fish, but a check for a concussion from a nurse in Lexington came back negative.
Pennington notes that the carp incident actually wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to him in his river racing career.
“In Texas,” he said. “We’ve been shot at with BB guns during races.”