It's Mr. Doughball and the Gefilte Fisherman against the world this week along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in a contest to see who can reel in the biggest bottom feeders.
The World Carp Championship has come to U.S. shores for the first time, attracting a field of 103 two-man teams that will fish nonstop from today until Friday morning in search of rod-bending fish the size of toddlers.
Tommy Robinson of Baltimore, aka Mr. Doughball, and Mark Metzger of Silver Spring, aka the Gefilte Fisherman, haven't been competitive carpers for very long, not when compared with their rivals. But they have moxie, a van full of gear and a battle cry: Carpe carpio -- "Seize the carp."
What they are doing bears little resemblance to Andy and Opie at the fishing hole. Maryland's team will be propped up in riverside lawn chairs, cooking fresh guava-scented bait in a portable turkey deep-fat fryer while fighting off mosquitoes, black flies and the incredible urge to doze deeply.
Sleep experts and nutritionists have advised them to graze instead of eating prepared meals, avoid the sugar buzz of junk food and rely on power naps.
"We figure 15 hours of sleep in 115 hours. We're going to be seeing monkeys flying around," says Metzger, owner of a Washington tailor shop that caters to the famous and powerful.
A pair of trucks and $50,000 cash await the anglers who record the highest weight total at the end of 115 hours. New York guides estimate it might take nearly 3 tons of fish to win.
"Two men, two rods each, four fish an hour is doable," Metzger says. "I like fishing as much as the next guy, but this is heavy-duty work."
Even more enticing than the tournament money is the pot sweetener from the American Carp Society: $1 million to the angler who breaks the New York carp record of 50.25 pounds.
Radio Europa is sending a broadcast crew to the championship. Romanian and Hungarian television teams have arrived to beam the action back home.
European and Asian anglers are crazy about the common carp, or Cyprinus carpio. They are drawn to the easily spooked fish, whose fighting spirit can snap ordinary fishing line like a strand of uncooked spaghetti. A carp permit and permission to fish a particularly popular spot in Britain can cost $1,000. Japanese anglers sign up with travel agents to fish Washington's Tidal Basin during the Cherry Blossom Festival in hopes of breaking the record of nearly 58 pounds.
The championship has drawn teams from all over Europe, Asia and South Africa, and a Native American tribe.
The frenzy has not translated well in the United States, where carp are regarded as junk fish filled with toxins from feeding along polluted river and lake bottoms. Anglers here turn up their noses at a fish that was imported from Asia in the mid-1800s as a food source to replace overfished domestic stock.
New York officials, who are welcoming carp anglers this year, issued an emergency regulation last year to ban the importation of most live Asian carp because they threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem. Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), bighead carp (H. nobilis) and black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) reproduce rapidly and eat the plankton needed by other established species such as bass and walleye pike.
"We hear a lot about garbage fish," says Phil Saunders, like Metzger and Robinson a member of the local chapter of the Carp Anglers Group. "Nobody likes them. But we catch fish that weigh 20, 30 pounds. What trout or bass fisherman can say that?"
Indeed, when the group gathers each May at the Tidal Basin for its "Carp-In," tourists take more pictures of their catches than they do the surrounding monuments.
Carpers are especially gentle with their catch. They use soft mesh nets or cloth slings to lift the fish from the water. Handling is kept to a minimum to prevent harming the scales. After a quick measurement or photo, the fish is lowered back into the water and held until it revives and can swim away.
The world championship is catch-and-release, with judges to do the weighing and measuring.
Team of opposites
In many ways, Metzger and Robinson are opposites. Metzger, 45, moved around as a kid and travels the world measuring famous athletes and politicians for shirts and suits ("I only had one ruthless dictator," he says). His French cuffs are pinned with silver cuff links in the shape of carp.
Robinson, 33, a Baltimore native, didn't take his first plane ride until a year ago, when he flew with Metzger to Austin, Texas, for a competition. His one-week trip to the world championship this week will be his longest separation from his wife and children.
Both men are lifelong fishermen but didn't become disciples of carping until about two years ago. Robinson, like many Mid-Atlantic anglers, was hooked on bass fishing. Metzger grew up fishing Lake Michigan for whatever he could hook. When his catch was a carp, he'd strap it to his bicycle and pedal it to a merchant, who would turn it into gefilte fish, a Jewish specialty.
The anglers were drawn to the quirky world of carp fishing, or "that way," as Metzger calls it, in which 12-foot rods are rigged with lights and alarms to signal strikes and many anglers make their own dough-based bait, called boilies.
"I'm still just a beginner," Robinson says. "There's an amazing amount to learn."
But on that spring weekend at the Austin tournament, Metzger and Robinson went from nobodies to somebodies. Fishing against some of the nation's best, Metzger and Robinson finished fourth out of 35 teams. But more important, Robinson landed a 45-pound, 9-ounce carp, good enough for the American Carp Society's annual "Big Fish" competition.
Work prevents the two men from fishing together often, but they get together to make their secret-recipe baits.
"I used to be a corn-and-doughball man," says Robinson, discussing the standard bait and the genesis of his nickname. "Now, I make my own. My wife gets mad because I leave the kitchen a mess."
'Why not us?'
The two men scraped together the $2,500 fee to enter the championship, and Metzger hit up people he knew for small sponsorships: a crawdad farmer, a tow-truck driver, some customers and a newspaper.
A first American win on home soil would go a long way to putting U.S. carp fishing on the same page as trout fishing, with its elegant appearance, or bass fishing, with its megabucks tournaments, he says.
"Why not us?" Metzger says, "Who's to say that at 10 a.m. on Friday, we won't be sitting pretty? I've told Tommy to be prepared to drive home a new pickup truck."