Ralph Gardner, Jr: A Fish With No Name

May 13, 2017

Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
Credit U.S. Geological Survey / Public domain - Wikimedia Commons

I own exactly one fish. Lately I’ve been thinking I ought to give him a name.

He’s not a pet fish that lives in a bowl, though he feels more pet-like with each passing season.

He’s a grass carp, a species rumored to control aquatic weeds. He’s also the last of five I bought a few years back from a fish farm in Hillsdale, NY.

They suggested five in case one or two got picked off by hawks or herons. They were being overly optimistic. They’re all gone now except for that yet-to-be-named carp.

Avian predators aren’t the fish’s only foes. Hard winters also take their toll.

One spring I found every member of the previous batch I purchased deceased. They’d grown to quite a substantial size. Fishing them belly up out of the pond wasn’t something I’d recommend for weekend fun.

I also threw a goldfish that didn’t play well with others into the pond. We came to call him “Fat Bastard,” after the obese henchman in “Austin Powers,” because he grew to such a robust size. He’d even let us pet him. It was only other goldfish he had issues with. I haven’t seen him in years and can only assume that what goes around comes around and he got his.

So each spring I head out to the pond fingers crossed that my carp survived the winter.

A couple of summers ago scientists from the New York Botanical Garden visited – they were in the region surveying lakes and ponds for an invasive algae called starry stonewort. Fortunately, they didn’t find any at our place. In fact, they took water samples and pronounced my one-third acre inland sea wonderfully healthy.

It teems with turtles, a couple of them the snapping sort, frogs, salamanders, snakes and, of course, one fish.

I’m the only family member who swims in the pond regularly. I can’t seem to convince my wife and daughters that doing so on warm spring and summer mornings constitutes a quasi-religious experience.

The spring-fed pond, as opposed to a swimming pool, feels very much alive – which some apparently consider a deterrent. I feel more alive, too, as I turn my face to the sun while swimming and listen to the birds and the wind rush through the tall oaks that surround the pond.

I subscribe to the belief that all the fauna, snapping turtles included, are more afraid of me than I am of them and will run for the exits as soon as I make my ungraceful entrance off our dock.

So far, I’ve managed to avoid any unlucky encounters.

I never visit the pond without thinking of my grandparents. They bought our place in the 1940’s and really wanted water on their property. But an expert from the cooperative extension service examined the swamp they were planning to excavate and told them it wasn’t worth it. The thing would never be more than a few feet deep.

After my grandparents passed away we were having some land cleared. Our contractor took one look at the swamp, said he’d dug a hundred ponds in his time, and told us we could have a pond there if we wanted.

Today it’s ten, probably fifteen feet deep in places. I only wish my grandparents were around to see it.

For some reason, it’s hard to spot my fish in early spring. I’m not sure why. Maybe the water is too murky. Or too cold and he prefers to linger in the pond’s depths. Who knows?

Come mid-spring he’s more socialable, or at least less enigmatic. He lolls just beneath the surface. And while his responsibilities include keeping the weeds around the pond’s edge at bay, I rarely see him at work. Mostly, he just seems to bask in the sun.

Before I bought my first round of carp I asked Peter Bodo, a friend and wildlife writer, what he thought the chances the fish would keep the cattails that crowded the edge of the pond in check.

Peter predicted the result would be both fat carp and flourishing cattails.

He was mostly accurate. In fact, the fish seems to have eliminated the cattails. But not other plants that have taken its place, nor a seaweed-like substance that grows from the bottom and can make pond swimming less appealing come midsummer.

I’ve come to think of my carp as a pet, with only occasional benefits.

But when I haven’t seen him for several weeks at the start of the season, I start to worry he perished over the winter and begin writing his eulogy.  

So I’m pleased to report that I spotted the carp last weekend. And, at well over two feet long, he appears to have survived the winter just fine.

He was engaged in doing what he’s always done. Which was pretty much just floating, though I prefer to think of him as patrolling for invasive species.

It’s just a matter of time until I join him in the pond, content in the knowledge that we’ve both passed another winter largely unscathed, ready to resume our relationship.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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