PHOENIX — Like a silent wraith, the massive golden beast slurped bugs off the surface.
The warm light of the streetlamp broke the darkness and put the elusive fish on display, and I marveled at both its size and peaceful menacing in the balmy Arizona night.
Creeping slowly so as not to be seen, I grabbed my rod and gently flipped the my bait into the path of the feeding monster, but the motion spooked it, and a remarkably powerful tail swipe soaked the grass at the edge of the pond and left me alone, reeling in more ways than one.
These gentle giants are well-distributed worldwide, but grass carp are relatively inaccessible to many anglers due to their unique, almost entirely vegetarian diet, and the fact that most states place heavy protections on these Asian imports.
Grass carp can routinely grow to 30 or 40 pounds, making them among the largest freshwater fish in just about every waterway they inhabit out West — especially in landlocked ponds.
Unlike common carp, which are incredibly hardy and will eat almost anything an angler throws, the skittish nature of grassies, their vegetarian diet and susceptibility to die after mishandling make grass carp a unique trophy.
Even sweet corn, the go-to bait for common carp, is rarely taken by grass carp because grassies typically feed in shallow water and on the surface.
That warm November night, I was sitting on corn after I scared the golden ghost off of its feeding grounds. Channel catfish and a single Nile tilapia had obliged me, but I hadn’t been able to entice a grass carp. In fact, I never had.
I sat on the side of the Arizona State University Research Park, a facility not far from downtown Phoenix, hoping beyond hope that I hadn’t scared away my chance at success.
“Slosh. Crunch. Slosh.”
The sound interrupted my pining. It had to be another grass carp feeding nearby. I reached my hand into the corn to grab a handful of chum, and I brushed the back of a feeding cockroach.
After dry heaving once or twice, I quickly grabbed the filthmonger by the hind legs and tossed it into the water to feed the catfish.
I shuddered and resumed fishing, the incident causing me to switch from corn to bread.
I began to ball up small pieces of bread and chum the area awash in light. The man who’d sold me my Arizona license suggested this, so I followed his advice.
A school of small tilapia shattered the silence as its members began feeding in earnest. Most of the fish were to small to even eat the bread balls, so I watched, slightly amused, as the little white orbs danced around on the surface of the water.
Before long, the tilapia either ate their fill or got chased away.
In the blackened silence, I again heard that almost-imperceptible sound I’d heard while the grassie fed earlier — unaware of my presence.
My rod doubled over, and I knew I had something big on.
The fish was every bit as powerful as I’d expected. It ran, stripped line and made my reel sing.
After more than five minutes of battling, I finally got it to my small net.
The 5-pound channel cat was a nice prize, but it was not the grassie I was hoping for.
Using the self-timer on my phone, I took a quick photo and released it back into the night.
I’d been using a small slip sinker above a 2-foot leader. My hope was to keep the bait in place while allowing it to float up near the surface. It clearly wasn’t working, though, as the bottom-feeding catfish had proved.
I switched to a small baitholder treble hook and mashed a bread ball around the metal, having tied it straight to my main line — no weights, no swivels.
Almost instantly, I was rewarded with a fish. This time, I knew it was a grass carp. It swam straight in, not really fighting but rather swimming toward me in the way a dog drawn by its owner’s leash would.
The moment it saw me, its massive tail again swiped vigorously, spraying dirty water into my face as I reached for the net and liberating 50 feet of line from my reel in no more than two seconds.
I worked it to the net again, this time coaxing it headfirst into the too-small rubber net. I went to grab its tail with my left hand. The second my fingers brushed its tail, it was gone again, this time snapping my 15-pound braid like thread and leaving me dripping with disappointment and foul-smelling pond water.
The night wore on. I had to be up early the next morning, and it was fast-approaching 10 p.m. Setting the timer on my phone to get me out of there by 10:30, I prayed for another chance.
Another catfish. That made six. Fortunately, this one didn’t take as long to bring in.
I released it and caught a glimpse of glittering gold scales.
I froze and tossed in my bread ball a few feet from its face.
As it turned, I momentarily thought I’d blow it again. Then, it resumed feeding.
The wait was torture.
My line went taught, and then began to fly off the reel.
This carp fought better than the first. For five or six minutes, I’d ease it up close, it would see me, then dart out again.
When I netted it this time, I made sure to get more than half of the fish in the net.
It measured 32-and-one-quarter inches and weighed in at 11 pounds, two ounces. It was slightly smaller than the first fish, but as I smiled for the terribly-lit photo, a part of me thinks this golden ghost smiled a little, too, knowing it had been bested.