Fly Carpin’ -The Tug is the Drug
- By Gil Lackey
Are you dreaming of fly casting to tailing bonefish in some faraway paradise? You slice the wind with the perfect loop and drop your fly just in front of the lead fish. Strip, strip, strip, WHAM! The reel smokes as the beast takes you into your backing and tows your boat across the flats. You reach down to release your prize, but you’re not touching this creature without a Boga Grip and a biohazard suit!
It’s not a dream…or even a nightmare. Pinch yourself, because the maligned but truly noble carp is abundant right in your back yard. Unfortunately, carp are smarter, spookier, and more difficult to catch than bones. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it, well, more than once – carp are one of the most challenging yet electrifying fish to chase with the fly.
If you want the dream to become reality, stop carpin’ about the snags and focus on the rewards. Carp are abundant, under-fished, and probably as close as the nearest water. They are a blast to catch, they reach “ginormous” proportions, and tangling with these oversized goldfish will enhance your fly fishing technical skills. If “the tug is the drug,” forget the fashionable fish and get addicted to the mightiest minnow in the pond. Read on, dreamers, to learn exactly how to catch the noble and illustrious carp.
Sharing similar dirty habits and habitats, the most prevalent carp species are the common, the grass, and the buffalo. Unlike most fish, carp have adapted to thrive in warm, muddy, stillwater conditions with low oxygen levels as well as cool, pristine trout environments.
Carp are the billy goats of our watersheds, eating just about anything they can fit in their puckered mouths. They forage on mud, algae, seeds, snails, crawfish, worms, eggs, insects, bird poop, and even Mama’s biscuits. An actively feeding carp usually roots around the bottom with his tail sticking up, often sifting through mouthfuls of mud and debris, but they will also feed suspended or even on the surface. They’re equally at home feeding in swift or in stagnant water.
Pick Your Spot
Since carp reside just about everywhere and eat almost anything, the secret to catching consistency is to narrow the playing field. Fly fishing for carp is fishing’s equivalent of a hunter’s “spot and stalk” or “still-hunting.” It’s all about sight fishing. You’ll catch just as many fish casting blindly as you will sitting at home on the couch. Without the dejection! In order to see fish, conditions must be close to perfect. A sunny, calm day in clear water is ideal. Wind is a major factor, not only because it negatively affects casting ability, but also because the wind’s ripple effect on the water stifles your ability to see fish. Polarized sunglasses are more critical than toilet paper for a carp outing. You can catch them year-round, but carp visit the shallows when the water warms, making them easier to see and catch.
Casting to the right fish is just as important as fishing during optimal conditions. Don’t waste your time chasing carp that aren’t actively feeding. You will only succeed in this numbers game by bypassing uncooperative fish in order to cast to as many feeders as possible. The ideal carpin’ scenario is casting to fish that are “tailing” in one to three feet of water. They may be picking choice morsels among the rocks or haphazardly “mudding” through dirt and debris. The mudders are easy to recognize because they leave a trail of cloudy water in their wakes.
Fish feeding in deeper water can be caught, but it is more difficult to accurately place the fly in their feeding zone. Fish that are loafing, cruising, or doing anything but feeding are almost impossible to catch. These fish have replaced the musky as the “fish of a thousand casts,” so flee the scene in search of feeders. (I’m aware that you dreamers will still cast to these unattainable fish, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! Okay, so I still take a stab at them, too.)
Tackle and Technique
It is feasible to “spot and stalk” while walking the bank or wading, but most carp fishing requires a boat. If pounding the banks from deep water, just about any boat will suffice. The most productive technique, however, involves finding shallow water mudflats, places carp love to inhabit and feed. Seek out these mudflats in oxbow lakes and at the backs of reservoir coves. Although sometimes no more than a foot deep, the mudflats are more like quicksand and are usually unsuitable for wading. A shallow-running skiff, Jon boat, or canoe is the best way to reach the shallows. Carp are already extremely wary fish, but in skinny, clear water in sunny conditions, they are more skittish than a call girl in church. Unless you want carp blowing out of there before you ever wet a line, don’t approach with a trolling motor. When one carp gets spooked, his buddies usually hightail it, too.
A partner who can spot fish from a platform or standing position can be a valuable asset. You cast as he silently paddles or poles the shallows. You can either “spot and stalk” by cruising around looking for feeding fish or “still-hunt” by waiting for them to come to you. Even if you spook fish, they or others will often return within a few minutes.
Although carp can grow much larger, the average catch is usually four to ten pounds. A 6-weight rod will handle these fish efficiently, but you’ll probably have occasion to tangle with carp in the 10 to 30 pound range, too. For these bruisers, I recommend a stout 8-weight rod coupled with a large arbor reel and anchored by 100 yards of backing. A weight forward floating fly line tipped with a 7 ½ foot leader is an effective set-up. Add about two feet of 10-12 pound fluorocarbon tippet to the end of your leader. Check your knots twice, and make sure your fly line isn’t wrapped around your leg. (I once went swimming when I hooked Shamu and neglected this detail.)
Cast a few feet in front of the feeding fish, let the fly sink, and give the line a gentle strip just as the carp is almost on top of the fly. Twitching the rod in order to manipulate the fly will put you out of position to set the hook. The most effective hook set is a “strip set.” Don’t “Bill Dance” your rod as if you were “crossing the eyes” of a bass. Just firmlytug on your fly line. When the fish is securely hooked, raise the rod to the sky and let the bend of the rod take most of the pressure off your line. Carp don’t take majestically to the air, but they’ll dig deep, and if you don’t quickly turn them, they’ll find cover to wrap around and break you off. Keep the pressure on, and don’t give them any slack line.
Carp will eat just about any “buggy” fly when they are in the mood. When they’re being fussy, which is quite often, your perfect fly and flawless presentation are useless. On rare occasions, they will race six feet or more to devour your offering, but most of the time, carp won’t hit your fly unless it’s twitching coaxinglyright in front of their noses. If they don’t hit it in the first few good casts, move on to the next fish.
Some of my favorite carp fly patterns are wooly buggers, super buggers, rubber-legged squirrel-tail nymphs, crawfish imitations, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs, and sculpins. Anything in drab colors with rubber legs, beady eyes, and bushy, undulating materials will simulate crawfish and large insect nymphs, delicacies to the carp palate. Some of these patterns ride in the water with the hook pointing upwards, creating an almost weedless fly.
Clockwise from top left - Japanese beetle, cicada, salmon egg, beaded San Juan Worm, CDC soft hackle, Monroe's scum fly
Beadhead rubber-legged squirrel-tail nymph, super bugger, Whitlock Near Nuff crawfish, sculpin, dragonfly nymph, hex nymph
Spawners and Sippers
Someone once said that carp “are so ugly they have to spawn in muddy water.” Beauty must be in the eyes of the beholder, because they’ll actually spawn in whatever conditions the environment allows. Reservoir spawners typically flop around on the surface and ignore flies, but river spawners, especially buffalo carp, can be easy pickings. Buffalo will often travel upstream by the truckloads on their spring spawning run, and perhaps solely because of their huge numbers, the flyfishers’ odds increase dramatically. The technique is basically the same, although some folks prefer to use a strike indicator so that their flies will float downstream without getting snagged on the bottom. Beaded San Juan Worms and egg patterns can be added to your fly arsenal. Multi-fish days are common during river spawning runs, so don’t miss out on this sterling opportunity.
“Sippers” is a term used to describe fish that are feeding topwater. When fishing for sippers, use monofilament tippet instead of fluorocarbon. Mono floats, and fluoro sinks. In rivers, you might run across sippers in an eddy or bubble “slick line.” The fish could be keying in on a specific type of insect, but more often, they are opportunistically feedingon whatever seeds, vegetation, and insects that drift into their foamline feeding zone. As always, the idea is to “match the hatch.” A CDC soft hackle emerger imitates dandelion seeds, spiders, and other small insects. Fished on a dead drift like a dry fly, carp will heartily take any color soft hackle. If you are privy to a stretch of shoreline with overhanging mulberry trees, many species such as carp, bluegill, and even catfish will crush this topwater treat when the mulberries start dropping. Anything purplish and floating splatted under the tree will do the trick.
The grass carp, which looks more like a huge minnow, was imported to North America years ago to control algae and weeds. Although it is generally easier to fly fish for them with crawfish or nymph imitations, an algae look-alike is required if the fish are nibbling on small clumps of topwater vegetation. Algae doesn’t look natural riding high atop the water, so keep the dry fly in the surface film by wetting and pinching it.
Hatches of mayflies or wind-blown terrestrials can spur sporadic surface feeding activity. Terrestrial patterns such as ants, beetles, and hoppers are effective in summer when carp are sipping near shore. The most phenomenal feeding frenzy occurs when the cicada broods invade many parts of the country. Countless cicadas burrow up from underground to fill the skies every thirteen and seventeen years. Almost all fish species key in on the easy meals, and the carp are particularly aggressive. Virtually any black dry fly pattern such as poppers, beetles, and cicada imitations will work. When this rare event comes to town, quit your job and stay on the water until the bitter end. It’s worth it.
Fly fishing for carp can be technical and even baffling, but if you bypass poor conditions and low percentage fish, you will catch carp fever every time your reel screams. If you’re dreaming of a bonefish getaway, your wakeup call may be that little slice of paradise in your own back yard. Quit carpin’, leave your biohazard suit behind, and give carp a cast!