Screwball Looks, Lonely Places
by Zach Matthews
First Published September 18, 2004
Ten years ago, maybe even fifteen, you’d have gotten a strange look if you
mentioned flyfishing for carp anywhere this side of the Atlantic. Since then,
carp seem to have become the species everyone feels obliged to mention at
least once. You see carp in magazines, in books, even on the occasional flyfishing
television show. Although some of these articles and books have been very
good, carp have still managed to slip under the radar of the American angling
public. In Europe, carp fishing is an established and expanding sport. Whole
magazines are dedicated to the species and anglers routinely make the local
newspapers gripping-and-grinning these fish like they know something we don’t.
After all, here in the United States the average angler would rather be photographed
knee-deep in his sinking driftboat than discovered to have hooked a carp,
much less caught it and looked proud about doing so. Sure, some enlightened
anglers have begun to target carp – usually out of curiosity or boredom with
still more trout. But if you asked a guy on the street to tell you about carp,
he’d give you a funny look and inform you, sonny, that carp are widely known
to be the nastiest, slimiest, plug-ugliest, bottom-dwelling-est fish on the
continent. So before I get into why I not only respect the species, but actively
seek to embarrass myself by catching them, maybe a brief review of the carp’s
less-than-noble history in the United States is in order.
How did an overgrown Asian goldfish get in my trout stream?
The common carp, cyprinus carpio, is nothing more and nothing less than the
largest minnow in the world. (Before your prejudices are confirmed, look into
the noble tarpon’s not-so-prestigious relationship with the common herring,
the silver king’s ‘other side of the sheets’ little brother).
carp is native to central Asia, it was intentionally introduced in the United
States in the 19th century, as (you guessed it) a fast growing, cheap and
potentially abundant source of food for the expanding nation. Unfortunately,
the carp’s greatest strength, its superhero tolerance for pollutants and poor
living conditions, turned out to be its Achilles’ heel. Compare, for example,
late 20th century tests of the 1600 most common pollutants in United States
waters (of which only 135 were found to be fatal to carp) with the many ways
one can kill an average rainbow trout. Trout roll over like kryptonite was
dumped in the stream if a heavy rain falls in the neighboring county.
Yet, it is this very tolerance that has given carp such a bad name. After all,
who wants to catch a fish that lives in the cesspool behind the office parking
lot, casting between Styrofoam cups? Ah, but correlation does not equal causation,
Just because a carp can live in the worst conditions does not mean all carp
do live in the worst conditions. The two best places to catch carp in my home
area are the local trout stream and the local lake (a source of drinking water
for the city). Moreover, few practical fly-fishing locales are likely to be
as polluted as that storm drain behind the office complex. Remember that a
carp’s tolerance range includes the beautiful as well as the ugly, and that
clean rivers make for clean fish.
Ok, assuming I might want to catch them, how do I do it?
The most common misconception about carp fishing is that it is easy. It isn’t.
People assume that carp are easy to catch for the same reason they assume
all carp are diseased: nothing that ugly could be difficult to trick. Fortunately,
this belief is just as flawed as the first one. Carp are, in all likelihood,
the spookiest, trickiest, smartest fish found in the waters of the United
States. They have phenomenally sensitive mouths equipped with chemically receptive
cells which allow the carp to distinguish food from foe in an instant. In
addition, carp actually have nostrils, small holes near the eye sockets which
flush in water and allow the carp to sample its surroundings like a lizard
testing the air with its tongue. Once spooked, a carp emits an alarm pheromone
which alerts other carp to the danger. Thus, one shot is often all you get,
even in waters where the carp experience no fishing pressure.
The best thing about carp fishing in the United States is the availability
of fish and water. Ever wonder what trout fishing in the early 17th century
would have been like? Visions of empty water chock full of uneducated fish
swim before the eyes; the angler versus the fish with only the fish’s native
wiliness to avail it. Those days are gone, friend. If there’s a trout inside
the United States that has yet to see a wooly bugger it either lives inside
a volcano or it will soon be riding in a hatchery truck. Carp, however, may
as well be new to this earth.
Europe, as mentioned, has organized carp angling which selects for educated
fish, mimicking the arms race that has already occurred between North American
anglers and salmonids. Carp, with such an impressive biological arsenal already
at their command, are certain to quickly reach new levels of uncatchability
once angling pressure begins in earnest.
And, just as saltwater fishing opened up in the previous decades, so too will
carp fishing in the coming years. The nature of our expanding population and
diminishing trout resources practically make a growing carp fishery inevitable,
and if you don’t yet believe it, look to Europe.
The tools for catching carp now were largely developed in the great saltwater
laboratories of the past decade or so. Although blind fishing is an option,
the thrill of catching carp is in the stalk, just as it is with redfish and
bonefish, so I focus on sight-fishing alone. Carp in common conditions can
easily cross twenty pounds, so be prepared with strong tackle appropriate
to the situation. Eight weights with high-end reels are appropriate for river
situations, but consider scaling up to a ten weight if you target carp in
waters where they can sound for the bottom. Horsing a carp out from under
a dock is particularly difficult. Pay close attention to the terminal tackle.
Most modern saltwater lines are merely adequate for carp fishing, which often
demands trout-like presentations with larger food sources. Avoid bass bugs
and other tapers which might turn a fly over too aggressively. Use tapered
leaders at least as long as the rod, but use the strongest pound test you
can get away with. Ten pound Climax fluorocarbon is my usual tippet.
Flies range from my personal favorite, the Crazy Charlie in whatever color
matches the stream bottom, to orange-headed wooly buggers in white and olive,
and egg-patterns colored to resemble mulberries, corn, or trout eggs. Choose
patterns based on the vegetable as well as animal sides of the menu, because
carp are omnivorous. Additionally, have a look around the web. Carp fishers
are scattered widely enough for some real regional varieties to develop in
fly selection, and most of the best patterns aren’t commercially available.
Carp are at their trickiest, and most rewarding, when the sun is high and
the water is slick. Although I am not above chumming up some lake carp for
a quick evening of bulldogging some fish, I find the early afternoon carp
stalk to be among the most entertaining forms of fly-fishing I have experienced.
Wear polarized sunglasses and locate a section of your local carp water, whether
river or lake, which allows for shallow wading. Even granddaddy carp will
tail in less than six inches of water.
Begin your stalk upriver (or upwind in still water), with the sun wherever
you can see ahead of you best. I find it helps to use the reflections of trees
or nearby hills to cut some of the glare off the water. Again, polaroids are
absolutely not optional: you need them avoid wasting your time. Carp will
skim across the flats seemingly at random, sometimes holding in predictable
patterns and sometimes meandering about. Usually they are looking for food,
which they attack by hoovering up the sediment and filtering out crustaceans,
plant matter, and bugs. Just as a bonefish puffs away at the bottom, so will
a carp root for his dinner.
In deeper water, carp will sip debris lines just like trout, picking mayflies,
caddisflies, or seedpods off the surface with an audible slurp. On the flat,
approach the carp from “over his shoulder,” and carefully wade as close as
necessary for a really clean cast. For the best results with a ten pound carp
(my target size with an eight weight) you will want to be able to hit a three
inch target thirty feet away. That three inch strike zone is usually immediately
“behind his ear,” or in the slot just between his pectoral fin and his eye,
approximately six inches away from the fish. Cast for distance first as the
fish are not line shy, then lay the fly in with an audible plop (but not a
splash). If you are lucky, the carp will turn to see a potential food source
drifting down and will grab before the adage about being too good to be true
finishes flashing before his eyes.
This cast usually gets me about 50-50 results when I nail it. Some carp will
blow out of the pool the minute the fly makes contact.
Because of those chemical signals, the best bet is to wade to the bank and start
over a couple hundred feet away. Another approach makes use of the carp’s feeding
proclivities. Like a bonefish, carp often spot prey by the puffs of sediment
the critters send up when scurrying away from danger. When you see a carp prowling
for food, lead your fishy receiver like a quarterback by just a few yards and
give your fly time to sink. I particularly enjoy this method with a Crazy Charlie
or similar hook-upwards pattern. Let the fly settle, then when the carp comes
in range, twitch it just enough to stir up some dust. Usually, the carp will
be on you like a duck on a June bug.
Eat the Wind Out of His Sails
Carp are dogged, never-say-die fighters. On light saltwater tackle, in a
river, you have a good chance of landing even a large specimen. In open water,
plan for some power-cleaning. The first time I fair hooked a carp, no chum
and all hands aboveboard, was on a cane 5 weight with an outdated Orvis Battenkill
5/6 disc drag reel. I broke him off just as he was getting up to plane – thirty
feet into my backing! Two other jumbo specimens played me the same song that
day, but I came back better armed with an eight weight and a saltwater-class
reel. Dial your drag up to ‘never say die’ and lean into the fish.
Carp fight like a cross between a redfish and a bonefish – hard, jagged runs,
one after another, and a net-run for certain. Nothing short of a full grown
striper will pull like that in most rivers where carp are found. In a river,
play the carp like you would a really big trout, turning his head at the end
of a run and working him against the current. If you don’t have a buddy with
a really big net handy, let him waterski himself across the current and right
out onto the bank, where you can subdue him. As Lefty says, ‘don’t burn your
golf balls’ – treat the fish right and release him with as much care as you
would a baby brookie. Besides taking natural selection and the inevitable
arms race out of the picture, it is just the decent thing to do. If you want
to try eating a carp, be my guest. I may be enlightened but some cooties die
This Ain’t No Beauty Contest
I may have referred to carp as ‘plug ugly’ a time or two in the past. I admit
it, I did this before I really came to know them. No carp I have landed to
date has been anything short of elegant. If redfish with their beauty spots
and bonefish with their sucker mouths can grace the covers of our finer fishing
magazines, carp deserve their shot too. This is a pleasure that is certain
not to last. The golden days of empty rivers and screwball looks can only
last so long, friends, and though I drive in a nail by saying so, you really
must try this.
For more information on carp fishing on the fly, visit the Bulletin