As far as carp go, fly fishers have become a somewhat enlightened bunch. We are far less likely these days to wrinkle our noses when these fish come up in conversation. We no longer threaten to excommunicate members from our fly fishing clubs when they suggest heading to the local lake for an afternoon of carpin’. And even the most respectable fly shops are likely to have a book on the shelf dedicated to catching carp on the fly. Can you imagine that?
That said most fly anglers still seem hesitant to embrace the mighty carp as a primary game fish. Many seem to consider the carp a bit of a novelty, a sideshow to the main event of browns, brookies, etc. Why the second rate status? Well, there are the usual arguments – they’re ugly fish (matter of opinion), they’re trash fish, etc., but I think there’s another reason. Mainly that carp are darn tough to catch on the fly. Many an otherwise superb angler has been severely humbled by a couple of hours of carp fishing. After a while said angler gives up, shrugs his shoulders and heads back to a favorite trout stream to catch some fish. Ok, he thinks, I’ve tried this carp thing now, and it wasn’t much fun, so now I’m going to get back to real fly fishing.
Or something like that.
Anyway, my theory is that the lack of initial success is a deal killer for some folks and so they never really give carpin’ a solid chance. With that in mind I’ve decided to put a few words down here in an attempt to demystify the art of fly fishing for carp and offer a sort of plan or formula for catching them. Carp really aren’t more difficult than trout or any other fish, but there are a few things that you need to figure out before you’ll be able to catch them with any consistency. Below are three rules that will virtually guarantee success with these great fish:
Rule 1 - Understand that this is serious ninja fishing. The ability to be stealthy is absolutely essential. You will be sight-casting to individual fish that are in very shallow water. Their tails and even their backs are often completely out of the water as they work shallow mud flats for food. They are acutely aware of their vulnerability in this skinny water and are in High Alert mode. They will skedaddle first and ask questions later at the slightest hint of danger.
I have seen huge pods of carp spooked by nothing more than a small bird passing overhead. I have dropped my forceps in the bottom of my canoe and watched every carp within a hundred feet bolt for deep water. Anything unusual - a sudden movement, a foreign sound, etc. - will send these fish running. Even the plop of a large fly, like a woolly bugger, will often spook carp (which is why I favor small nymph patterns like pheasant tails, etc.) So yeah, you could say stealth is a priority. If you don’t have this part of the game down cold, you are wasting your time. Stay low, be quiet, and be invisible.
Rule 2 – Carp are not especially selective and will eat just about any well-placed fly. Well-placed – that of course is the rub. You must be able to put that fly on the carp’s nose, or dang close anyway, if you want to consistently catch these fish. Now I realize that some anglers recommend leading a carp by a couple of feet as it cruises along sucking up morsels of food. When the carp comes near the fly, the idea is to give the line a small twitch to jump the fly out of the bottom muck, thereby mimicking a fleeing bug and inducing a take. This particular technique doesn’t require much in the way of accuracy and seems to work for some folks, but I’ve found only moderate success with it.
For one thing, this method requires a lot of cooperation on the part of the fish, and the carp here in north Georgia apparently haven’t read the script on how this thing is supposed to play out. Sometimes they continue heading toward the fly, sometimes they don’t. Even if they do keep moving to the fly, only occasionally will they actually take it when I twitch it up off the bottom. Sure, I can pick up a few fish here and there, but I find this technique to be inconsistent.
On the other hand an accurate cast, by which I mean a cast that puts the fly immediately within the carp’s vision, almost always, gets a take. When casting to a tailing carp, I imagine that there is a dinner plate just in front if his nose. I try to put that fly right in the middle of the plate. When I do make a good cast and hit the plate, the carp eats just about every time.
Trout flies work best for this. They make just enough of a “plip” to attract the fish’s attention, but not too much so that the fish is spooked. Sometimes they spook anyway, but that’s carp fishing. Some carp anglers talk about using woolly buggers and other large flies. If you can get away with the larger flies, bully for you. Go to it. On the other hand, if the carp you’re chasing consistently spook when the fly hits the water, you need to go smaller.
Rule 3 - You probably won’t feel the carp eat the fly or otherwise have any indication that you have had a take. You won’t see the leader move or the fly line jump. The carp will suck that fly in and spit it right back out with you being none the wiser. I have on a couple of occasions been able to get close enough to a feeding carp to dap a fly in front of its nose. I watched the fish tilt up slightly and suck the fly in. I never felt a thing. I only knew the carp ate the fly because I saw it. Since you are not as a rule going to be in a position to see the carp eat the fly, you need another plan. That plan is anticipating the take and then setting the hook accordingly. Yeah, I know. Sounds kind of tough, and it is. You have to develop a knack for it, but this is part of the fun. Here is how I do it:
If I make a good cast right in front of the carp’s nose (i.e. hit the aforementioned plate) – I pause for a half second and then give a short, sharp strip of the line to set the hook. (The strip set is important because it’s less likely to spook the carp than if you attempt to set by raising the rod tip. With the strip set, a miss means the fly simply darts away from the fish. Raising the rod tip, on the other hand, means you will likely rip the fly out of the water, which is an excellent way to scare the bejeebers out of the carp and send him off to parts unknown.) If my cast is a bit off and lands well in front of the carp, I wait to see if he makes a move for it. In these situations the carp will sometimes dart forward to eat the fly as it falls toward the bottom. I wait until he reaches the fly and stops, then I pause for that half-second, and strip set.
And yes, you do have to develop a bit of a feel for this. Sometimes you’ll strike early and pull the fly out of there before the fish takes, or, more likely, you’ll be just a fraction too late and strike as the fish is spitting the fly. But with some practice you’ll start nailing them. In fact, I guarantee that you will catch carp just by following these three rules – be invisible, cast accurately, and anticipate the take. And once you’ve had a taste of success, there will be no turning back. You’ll be a die-hard carper, leaving those trout and other lesser fish to other anglers.
Sidebar: Getting into the Carp Game
The best thing about carpin’ is that you probably have everything you need to get started. A good 6 or 7 weight rod, a reel with a decent disc drag, and a handful of trout flies, and you are good to go. All you need to do is sniff out some carp water and go to work.
Where can you find carp?
Well, pretty much anywhere. Carp are one of the most widely distributed species in North America. Here are some good resources that you can use to start finding the prime carp water in your area.
Message boards – Especially bass fishing message boards. These guys are out on the lakes and rivers all the time. If there are carp out there, these anglers will know where they hang out. I find that these guys are only too happy to share this info.
Observation – Got any neighborhood ponds nearby? Go take a stroll around it and see if you spook anything near the bank. Always be on the lookout and scan any potential carp water for the tell-tale signs of the presence of carp – tails or backs sticking out of the water, a pod of large shadows just under the surface, etc. I found one of my favorite carp flats as I was driving over a bridge that spans a small section of a lake near my house. Looking out of the window, I saw dozens of big carp stacked up along the bank. Jackpot!
Web research- Google is your friend.
Although many carp waters like public ponds can be accessed from the bank, it does help to have a canoe, kayak or similar small boat to access mud flats on larger lakes. But regardless of whether you are fishing from a boat or from the bank, you should be able to find plenty of carpin’ water with a little research.