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Their carp runneth over

The Baltimore Sun

On a hazy spring morning, George Malone steers his johnboat toward the head of the Back River in Essex, passing the twin golden domes of the sewage treatment plant and gliding under the Eastern Avenue bridge.

In the shallow area he calls the flats, where the water is the color of beef broth, a ripple catches his eye.

He draws an arrow. Fires. And reels in what looks to be a grotesquely overgrown goldfish.

Each year this time, the waters of the Back River "boil" with spawning carp, says Malone, a retired Eastern Technical High School teacher.

"Stand still long enough and they'll come to you," he says of the fish. "They're so busy with all this lovey-dovey that they don't think of anything else. Sometimes they run right into the boat."

When the carp are splashing, Malone, 67, his 45-year-old son, Dave, and a few other friends and relatives take to the water. It's an unusual pastime, stalking these so-called "trash" fish with bow and arrow in one of Baltimore County's most polluted waterways. But George Malone, a master plumber who writes poetry and keeps a display of Native American artifacts in his home, is not afraid to be unconventional.

"I've hunted wild boar in the Smoky Mountains, bear in Canada and caribou in the tundra," he says. " But I'd just as soon do this as anything."

Bow fishing carp is, for Malone, a pursuit that allows him to pay homage to the Native American traditions that fascinated him since childhood.

"When we'd see the Lone Ranger and Tonto," he says, "I'd always want to be Tonto."

He retired last year from Eastern Technical High, where he had taught plumbing and construction for nearly three decades. He volunteers at his church, teaches at a community college, helps with the Boy Scouts and travels to senior centers and schools with objects from his collection of Native American artifacts.

For Dundalk's Fourth of July parade, he is creating a Native American-themed float.

In his home in the North Point area of Dundalk, where he and his wife, Betty, have lived for more than 40 years, he built an addition to house his collection. He has authentic items, purchased at powwows or given by friends. Others, such as the spear adorned by feathers and painted symbols, he has crafted himself.

Guided by Native American craft books, he has fashioned knives from hacksaw blades and deer antlers, and a javelin from a clothes closet pole. On the water, he and his son wear matching necklaces that the older man crafted from deer antlers and wooden beads.

Sometimes, he wakes up in the middle of the night and scribbles down poetry that was inspired in a dream. When he talks about his passions, his dark-brown eyes flash under his thick gray eyebrows.

When spring comes, he is on the water in search of carp a couple of times a week.

Large targets

He chooses to bow fish carp because they are plentiful in Back River, and they provide a relatively large target. The fish are said to have no natural predators.

When he first started hunting them back in the early 1980s, he gave the fish to needy people or soup kitchens. But the carp contain hazardous levels of chemicals and should not be eaten, according to Maryland Department of the Environment guidelines.

These days, Malone tucks the carp between rows of tomato plants in his garden as fertilizer - another Native American practice that he has adopted.

Carp, which are closely related to goldfish, originated in the Adriatic Sea, says Peter Sorensen, a University of Minnesota scientist who has studied the species extensively. Roman soldiers and Christian monks carried living fish across Europe and set them free in rivers and streams so that they could be caught and eaten. In parts of Asia, where carp have been cultivated for millennia, the fish are considered a delicacy and a symbol of prosperity.

In the late 1800s, congressmen fought over the opportunity to bring carp to their districts as part of a national program to introduce the fish to the United States, Sorensen says. The lake at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore was among the first places were the fish was introduced in America, according to the Web site of the American Carp Society.

Although the fish have flourished here, they are not frequently eaten - and are often referred to as "trash" fish. In Europe, carp fishing is a much more popular sport, Sorensen says.

Phil Stockwell runs a carp fishing Web site from his home in another Essex - the county in eastern England.

"The carp is our biggest freshwater fish to aim for and has a huge following who target this fish every weekend or all week," he writes in an e-mail. Sport fishers lure carp with cooked bait balls known as "boilies." After they catch the carp with a rod and line, they let them go, according to Stockwell.

"We do not eat the carp, that would be devastating as the carp is held with great respect," he writes. "As you can see ... our methods and ideas on carp fishing are very different, if anyone was caught fishing with a bow in our country they would not be very popular to say the least!"

But carp can destroy aquatic habits by stirring up mud and uprooting plants, Sorensen, the University of Minnesota scientist, says. And unlike many other species of fish, carp can thrive in murky waters.

Their specialized mouth parts dig along the bottoms of lakes and streams, sucking in gulps of mud and spitting out the inedible parts - a process that Sorensen compares to a pig rooting.

Polluted waters

In Back River, their feeding ground is the bed of a body of water with a long history of being highly polluted. In the early part of the past century, raw sewage from the city and county flowed directly into the water, says Robert M. Summers, the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. Later, industrial sites poured waste into the water.

Several tributaries of the river flow through the former site of the 68th Street Dump, an area that has long been the center of legal disputes and concerns about contamination, according to the Department of the Environment. Today, the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant pumps out matter that has been highly processed to remove nutrients that could further pollute the river, which flows directly into the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet the storm water system still dumps trash and pollutants into the water, and chemicals that were dumped in the river decades ago remain, Summers says.

Malone says that he feels a connection to the river, as polluted as it might be. When he was 11 or 12 years old, his family moved from Highlandtown to an Essex home near the banks. He has lived in eastern Baltimore County ever since.

On a May morning, he and his son push off from Cox's Point in Essex. As the men glide along the river, a train rattles by on nearby tracks every half-hour or so. A construction crane beats out a steady rhythm. Cars and trucks whoosh across the two bridges that flank the Malones' fishing spot.

But father and son say the noises don't bother them much. They're happy to be out on the water, together, though in separate boats. As they plow through the river, the wakes churned up by their boats intermingle.

Standing in his boat, The Carp Guru, George Malone scans the shallows for movement among the traffic cones, tires and rusted shopping carts that litter this part of the river. The carp are especially active in late spring, tussling and flirting and laying heaps of eggs on the river bottom.

When he spots a fish, he shoots it with a fiberglass arrow about the diameter of a drinking straw, then pulls it into his boat. The fish flail wildly and red blood drips from their wounds. To put the fish out of their misery, Malone uses two tools that he keeps in a contraption he built from PVC pipe - a hook with which he grasps the fish and a metal rod that he brings down on the fish's head with a swift blow.

He calls his technique "whack 'em and stack 'em."

Although he hunts and fishes other creatures in other spots throughout the year, he says that he relishes his spring days on the Back River.

As he puts it, "If you can't relax in this atmosphere, you need a therapist."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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