How to Catch Carp On A Fly
By Mark Boname
You can ask anyone that knows me that if you want to get me excited, just start talking about fly fishing for Carp. Fishing for them is the cheapest and closest thing you can do in lieu of spending thousands of dollars on a saltwater flats destination trip. And if a saltwater trip is in your future, go chase some carp for practice.
This last year, I've noticed and increasing amount of fly fishing forums with questions about fly fishing for Carp. While some of the threads have been informative, many have misconceptions and lack techniques that will help you. In this article I will attempt to take some of the mystery out of catching Carp on a fly.
Just to give you a little background on myself. I have a BS in Fisheries Biology from the University of Wyoming and have been fly fishing for carp for almost 20 years. Of course like most, it all started by accident while trying to catch trout in one of my favorite ponds. I would ignore the huge shadows that would cruise by while trying to catch what I thought was a prized game fish - trout. Either from boredom or need of a new challenge I finally gave in and started casting to, what I thought at the time a "trash fish". I don't know who was more stunned....me or the carp when I hooked the first one....as I watched my fly line disappear into backing. Since that first fight, the terms "trash fish" have long left my fly fishing vocabulary.
The most important thing you need to know about fly fishing for Carp or any fish for that matter, is to know and understand what you are chasing. There are two types of Carp that folks are chasing with a fly rod. One is a grass carp (white amur) and the other is the common carp (or subspecies mirror carp). It is important to know which carp inhabits the water you plan on fishing, as the grass carp is a herbivore (eats plankton - vegetation matter only) and the common carp is a an omnivore (will eat both plants and animals). Knowing will help you move forward with the tactics you will use.
Grass Carp are introduced in lakes and ponds for the purpose of vegetation control. To keep grass carp from natural reproduction and spreading, the grass carp eggs are manipulated in a lab with heat, cold and pressure to create a triploid (a sterile fish). This makes them a very expensive fish to buy and stock; therefore most pond and lake owners are very leery about letting folks fish for them. Since the grass carp is a vegetarian, it is very hard to match the hatch, making it the most challenging carp to catch on a fly. Try tying woolly buggers that match the color of the vegetation in the waters you plan to fish.Cast your fly in front of the fish and let it float or sink slowly. If you have the luck and the patience to fish for these guys, your reward will come after you hook up. The grass carp grow very large, is the hardest fighting carp and will give you the best fight you've had in a long time, so make sure you have a smooth reel and a lot of backing. These guys will even jump during the fight unlike their cousins the common carp.
Common / Mirror Carp
Since this is the carp that most folks including myself fish for, this is where I will spend a lot time explaining the conditions and techniques I use. Please understand that I fish in clear water lakes and everything is done by sight fishing in shallow water of one to three feet.I do not fish for them while they are spawning (end of May in my area) as it is futile. You will know when they are spawning by all the splashing and hell raising going on along the shoreline or back in the weeds and grass.
As water temperature increases so does a carp's metabolism, so the heat of summer is when they are on the feed. This is great timing, since it’s time to leave trout alone due to warm water temps. Depending on conditions (usually wind), I generally use five to eight weight rods with floating lines and 0x to 5x leaders with fluorocarbon tippet; but, for grins and giggles I’ve been known to push the limit and use a 2 wt rod from time to time. On my home waters, the Carp average 10 to 12 pounds, but can catch them up to 25 pounds.
Unlike grass carp, the common carp is an omnivore and will eat just about anything from vegetation to crayfish. I think they are very opportunistic and I've been known to call them freshwater goats. So your first assignment is to explore the first twenty feet of biomass from shore to identify the main critters in their diet. In the waters that I fish, crawdads and minnows are their favorite food source; however, they will feed on anything in the biomass that exists along the shoreline including vegetation, midges, dragon fly nymphs, damsel fly nymphs, snails, leeches and license plates…..you get the idea. Do not believe everything you read and hear, you can use large flies to catch carp….my favorite fly is my #4 Vanilla Bugger which you find on our specialty fly page. No need to try and pump or kill a carp to see what they have been eating. They have crushers in the back of their mouth so everything in the digestive tract is mush and is usually unidentifiable. I will tell you, that the fly pattern is not as important as the presentation; although, you can find some great "carp fly patterns" on our Carp Fly Page.
There are several kinds of behaviors that I watch for while chasing carp:
Tailers or Mudders - Tailing carp are just like what you see in those great saltwater photos and videos of tailing redfish and bonefish. The carp, basically has his head down and tail up while feeding and looking for food (the tail may or may not be exposed above water). Since the fish is in a downward looking position and is feeding, this is your best opportunity to catch a carp on a fly. A tailing fish is so focused on the bottom, it enables you to throw the fly right at them without them spooking (this does not mean that your fly can make a noisy or splashy entry). Cast your fly in front of the fish and let your fly sink to the bottom; once there, give it a couple of slight strips to get the fishes attention. After pausing and watching your fly line, strip your fly. If your fly line starts to tighten give it a STRIP SET. It is very important to watch your fly line while fishing for carp, as more often than not you will never feel a carp take your fly. They like to take the fly between strips or when it is paused. Why the STRIP SET you ask? If you were to set the fly by lifting the rod…. ripping line off the water and the fish is not hooked, you just scared every fish within a country mile. So if you strip set and miss the fish, it gives you the opportunity to retrieve the fly and present again. In deeper water where you cannot see fish tailing, you might see a puff of mud rise from the bottom. This is a little more of a guessing game as to exactly where the fish is, but it does give you an idea of where to cast.
Hunters - Give you the next best opportunity to catch carp on the fly. These are carp that are moving slowly along the shoreline and from time to time stop to pick something off the bottom. A carp that is milling about in shallow water is very spooky, so this is NOT a time to throw your fly at the fish. You must anticipate where the fish will be and have the fly waiting. I try to lead them by about 5 feet but will vary this depending on conditions. Once the fish is within a foot of your fly, give it a couple of quick strips trying to imitate a crawdad or baitfish that has been spooked out of his hiding place and trying to flee. Then let the fly settle back to the bottom like it is trying to hide again. If the carp turns towards the fly do nothing until you see him tail on it, then STRIP SET. If the carp does not turn towards the fly give a couple more strips and if still no luck retrieve and re-present the fly the same way. I will usually give a carp a couple good presentations before I give up and move onto the next fish. The best way to sum up this technique is to try to get the carp to feed or turn on the fly with his eyes and not his nose or sense of smell.
Cruisers - These guys are tough to catch as they are moving quick and deliberate. They seem as if they are late for a meeting and have some place to be. I think they are either heading for a place to rest or heading to another feeding ground. I tell my clients if they can get one of these carp to stop and eat, then they’ve made the perfect presentation. Here again you need to lead the fish in order not to spook them. I will try both a couple of strips and pause technique and if that does seem to make them stop and take notice, then I will try a steady quick strip retrieve. If the fish stops and turns for the fly, I stop the retrieve and let the fly settle like it is trying to hide and watch for the carp to tail on it. STRIP SET!
Snoozers - Well, I can’t describe this behavior any better than that. These guys will just not eat……they’re suspended and motionless. I think they’re just resting, napping and or sunning themselves to recharge their batteries. I usually find this behavior in the heat of the day around lunch time for a couple of hours. So this is a good time to have a beer or take a nap yourself.
Gulpers - On windless late summer days in the afternoons, the carp will pod up into tight shoals gulping the surface. Why they do this I do not know, but I think they’re just feeding on plankton and any other debris that has blown onto the waters surface. I do know this is the time to get the dry fly rod out. You can use basically any dry fly, but I like to use a muddler minnow. It can be used as a dry fly or if need be It can be stripped just under the surface. If you are casting to a pod/shoal of carp, let the fly gently land in the middle of them and just let it sit. If the carp are not interested, give some gentle quivers or tiny strips in order to get there attention. This requires a lot of patience, but it can be done.
Knowing that a carp’s sight orientation is pointed downward will help you understand more about dry fly fishing for carp. A carp must be tipped upwards (vertical) in order to see the dry fly on the surface. You can throw dry flies until your arm falls off to carp that are swimming horizontally below the surface believing they will come up for the fly….it’s not going to happen. If you fish rivers, watch for carp that are coming up of the bottom from time to time to the surface. Drop the fly on the surface as they are coming up to ensure that they see it. I‘ve caught them on every dry fly I’ve thrown including royal wulffs, goddard caddis, parachute adams and hoppers.Because it is hard for them to see, carp take dry flies very slowly, so make sure the fly is all the way into the mouth before STRIP SETTING.
Carp can adapt to most environments thus their rapid increase in numbers around the country since the early 1900’s. I’m sure diets and behaviors also vary around the country and you will have to study them to come up with techniques like I have, but that is part of the challenge. Hopefully, I have dispelled some misconceptions and given you some ideas and techniques you can try on your own waters. If you ever have any questions or comments about fly fishing for Carp, you can email them to email@example.com or check out our site at www.wyomingflyfishing.com.
CAPT. MARK BONAME 3/1/09
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