Carp are extremely challenging to catch, accessible, and hard fighting, but for some reason almost nobody is fishing for them. So to spread some awareness about them, I collaborated with RM Lytle, and we each wrote a post detailing some of the basics of carp fly fishing and the particular ways we like to target them. RM is extremely knowledgeable and I know I certainly learned a lot, so read all about the how to catch carp here, and then head over to his blog (link below) and check out the post I wrote on a slightly different manner of fishing for them!
It’s early in the morning on what will undoubtedly be a very hot summer day. The streams are low and warm and fishing them would put the trout at risk. I’m still going fly fishing though… I gear up before the sun has even begun to peek over the horizon. 9 foot 8 wt rod, floating line, four foot leader, one box of flies.
After breakfast and maybe some coffee, I hop on my bike and take a short ride. In less than 10 minutes I am at the lake. I rig up my rod hastily, as I can already see my query: a large common carp, tail and dorsal waving in the air as she feed over the gravel bottom. I tie on a “carp carrot” and get down low. I shuffle my way towards the carp and it continues to feed, vigorously digging away at the bottom. Before I am a rod’s length from the edge of the water I stop and carefully sit down. As gently as I can I swing my fly out in front of the fish and just a little bit to her left. I see the carp turn and look at the fly. She pauses, contemplating whether what just fell in front of her is actually a real food item or not. And then, for some reason I do not fully understand, she bolts, leaving nothing but a boil on the surface and a cloud of sand above the bottom, and me on the shore wondering what I did wrong.
THAT is what I love about fly fishing for carp. They are geniuses in comparison to every other fish I have ever targeted. They make trout look mentally disabled. If you want to truly test your skills as a fly angler, fish for carp. They will put you through the ringer and you will come out the other side a far better angler than you were when you first decided to try to catch a carp. Nothing is more gratifying than fooling a fish when the odds are stacked so strongly against you.
Perhaps one of the best things about carp is that there is probably a body of water holding them within a short drive of your house. They are everywhere. In CT there are a lot of water bodies well known for their carp. The Connecticut, Shetucket, Housatonic, and Thames Rivers all have thriving populations. Candlewood, Gardner, and Saltonstall are all lakes of interest to carpers. That carp populations are so frequent makes it easy to get out for an hour before or after work, during a lunch break, or after dinner. In the summer I may fish for only two hours in the morning. I get up, get on my bike, and ride the shoreline of my local lake looking for tailing or carp; fish that have their nose in the bottom and their tail sticking up, sometimes completely out of the water. I can easily cover a mile of shoreline on my bike, riding slowly and stopping at sections of shore where I have seen carp feed before.
When I find fish it is usually in one of two different situations: either tailing in shallow water or bubbling in deeper, muddy or sandy water. The tailing fish are the easier of the two for a beginner to find, they will often be plainly visible and making a lot of disturbance on the surface. You must be slow and careful when approaching these fish. They can see you and feel vibrations if you stumble or stomp. I wear muted, natural colors and get as low to the ground and I can. When I first started I actually went as far as dressing fully in camo, sticking leaves in my hat and even painted my face with mud. I make short casting strokes, no false casts, and often swing and drop my fly rather than casting so as not to make a loud “plop” when it hits the water.
Since you can usually see exactly what the fish is doing in these situations you can tune your presentation to match. If the fish is moving around a lot or “shopping” (cruising and quickly picking off food as it sees it) cast a few feet in front of it with a fly that has a moderate-slow sink rate. If it is sitting in one place for minutes at a time, use a very heavy fly and cast it either to the right or left of the fish rather than directly in front of the fish in its blind spot. It is important to watch the fish’s every move. Sometimes you need to have a sort of 6th sense to know when it has taken your fly. A quick turn, a flash of the lips, a little headshake, the slightest twitch of the line… all signs telling you to make a short quick lift of the rod.
In deeper water you can’t always see the fish or any sort of disturbance. Fortunately chemistry and biology are here to help! In muddy, sandy, or leafy bottom, decomposition of organic matter creates pockets of nitrogen and methane, which the carp knock out while they are digging around. This is evident as a patch of tiny rising bubbles that are plainly visible on a calm surface. These bubbles generally come out of the fish’s gills and you must wait a minute or two to see what direction the carp is going so you can present your fly in front of the bubbles. It is important to remember here that you must get you fly within a foot of the carp’s head to have a chance at a take, and as your fly sinks it will move towards you. You need to cast past the point where you want your fly to land. Fortunately carp bubbling in deeper water are far less likely to spook and may give you as many as 20 shots. But if you prick them, they’re gone!
In large rivers like the Connecticut it may be much harder to find carp if you don’t know where to look. Though there are lots of carp in the main river, we fly fisherman will probably not have any luck fishing that. If you can’t tell where exactly a carp is, you can’t catch it on an artificial, so leave the main river to the Euro carpers.
Fly anglers should focus on flats, tributaries, oxbows, backwaters, and coves. On the Connecticut, Wethersfield and Salmon River Cove are a good bet in the spring. This is where a watercraft can often be a huge help. Kayaks, canoes, and float tubes are best, because they are low impact/low noise. Approaching fish quietly is key. I fish from a kayak a lot, and it is not too difficult to drift within 15 feet of an actively feeding carp. I bring two hand towels that I lay where I typically put the paddle when I get ready to make a cast. This keeps them from making a sharp thud when set down, thereby preventing some potentially spooked fish.
If you have an anchor, use it! A gust of wind pushing you into feeding carp can be extremely frustrating. If you don’t have an anchor, do the best you can to chose days when there isn’t much wind or fish sheltered shorelines. Fighting and fish without an anchor is also difficult. I once hooked a carp on an open flat more than 200 feet from shore and it pulled me for an hour. I covered about half a mile on a looping, confused path before I brought the fish to hand and was able to paddle to shore. If you get a fish suitably tired, stick the rod between your legs and get to shore if you want to photograph it. If not, get it to the boat and pop the hook out as carefully as you can. Handling a large carp in a small watercraft can be a little risky.
The gear I use for big water carp is on the heavy side for the average trout fisherman. For the most part I use a 9ft 8wt with a large arbor reel with a dependable drag system. Sometimes I use a 10ft 5wt, particularly when I’m not expecting to run into many carp over 25lbs. The longer lighter rod is preferable when I need to fish light tippets. My line setup is very simple: High floating, high vis fly line (for strike detection) and a three piece leader consisting of a foot each of 0x and 2x, and 2 feet of fluorocarbon or maxima chameleon tippet which varies from 3x-5x depending on what the fish demand. Clear water often requires lighter tippet. In clear water, use flouro. In dirty water, use chameleon or ultragreen. My fly selection Includes innovative patterns designed by tyers who fish primarily for carp and catfish. Black Betty’s, Carp Carrot’s, J. Montana’s Hybrid, Black Ops, and Carp Damsels. I also fish a lot of simple flies l that take next to no time to tie and can be made in many colors. My favorite carp fly has a marabou tail, an estaz body, and a bead head. I tie these in white and pink, black and purple, orange and olive, olive and brown, and white and pearl. I weight carp flies differently and arrange them in the box based on that: I use lighter flies with bead chain eyes or brass beads in two feet of water or less, and heavier lead eye and tungsten beaded flies in three to 6 feet of water. I also cater to the behavior of the fish in regards to fly weight. If the fish seem to be spooking when the fly hits the surface, change to a lighter fly that doesn’t make much of a plop, or if you can change the way you present the fly to a more gentle cast.
Carp are easily the best fight a freshwater fly fisher in New England can have. They are challenging and extremely rewarding to fish for. But be warned! Fly carping is extremely addicting.
If you have any questions, or even want a guided carp fishing trip, feel free to contact me at [email protected]