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Holy Carp! How an IL fishery is fulfilling a Polish holiday tradition

Every December, Schafer Fisheries processes 300,000 pounds of 'Christmas Carp,' which is sold to Polish households across the world.

THOMSON, Ill. — It's a rather fishy holiday custom. 

For many Polish families, Christmas Eve wouldn't be complete without 'Christmas Carp' on the table. Traditionally, the carp would be brought home alive, then live in a family's bathtub for a few days before the big meal. But nowadays, fisheries largely take care of the butcher and filleting. 

Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, IL, is no exception. 

The family-run business has been fulfilling Christmas Carp orders for decades, and now counts on the holiday rush as one of its most important few weeks of the year. 

Typically, Schafer handles between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of fish each month. But for the first few weeks of December, the team can process more than 300,000 pounds of carp alone. All those fish add up to 10-20% of Schafer's annual sales. 

"We're scrambling to get fish everywhere right now," laughed James Schafer, the fishery's plant manager. He sends the carp all over the place, from New York to Chicago, L.A, Texas and Florida, as well as Poland, Romania, the Dominican Republic and beyond. 

"We've got fish everywhere, we've got ice everywhere, we've got packaging everywhere. We're just preparing orders as fast as they come in," Schafer said. 

To sell all that fish, the company relies on both small and large-scale fishermen. Every morning, boats loaded down with thousands of pounds of freshly-caught carp line up outside Schafer's production plant. When it's time to back it into the fishery's garage, a team of workers climb up and begin sorting the fish by species. 

While News 8 was filming, local fisherman Damian Seidemann pulled up with three boats of carp, totaling nearly 18,000 pounds of the massive fish.

"This time of year you can sell them for 30 cents a pound," Seidemann said. "Usually you only get like ten cents." 

The fishery will be particularly busy from about the second week of December up to the 23rd. 

"In the past, we've been here till one or two in the morning sometimes, just trying to get things done and complete," said Brad Wickes, Schafer's operation manager. "It's something we look forward to every year, income-wise." 

Fillet by fillet, the fish are descaled, gutted, cut, washed and then packaged up into boxes filled with ice. To maximize freshness, they're shipped out the same day they're caught. 

But despite the demand, actually procuring the fish is becoming more and more difficult. 

"It's harder to get the fish now, to get the larger quantities," Wickes noted. "There's a lack of fishermen. It's not an industry that a lot of people want to get into now." 

Schafer also has to compete with so-called 'live-fishers' who sell their carp before they're killed. And on top of that, invasive Black and Asian Carp species are pushing Yellow Carp (which is preferred for Polish families) out of the Mississippi River. 

Still, the fishery says this is one tradition worth pursuing, in spite of all the challenges. 

"We have a lot of Polish customers that are really, really wanting that fish," Wickes said. "It's a big part of their tradition every year. We try our best to take care of them." 

After all, what could be more Polish than a Christmas Carp straight from the Mississippi River? 

Note: this is the final story shot and edited by award-winning News 8 photojournalist Stephanie Mattan. We can't thank her enough for years of tireless work, capturing beautiful stories. 

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