I’ve been chasing carp on the fly for two and a half summers now and I’ve still yet to catch one. For as long and frustrating as it was to learn how to catch steelhead, it’s ten fold more difficult to get a carp to take. At this point, if I find steelhead, I have a plan of attack on how to catch them. I will methodically work through a progression of presentations and flies depending on where the fish is holding. The key word here is “holding.” While steelhead will periodically move up and down through a run, once you’ve observed their movement for a bit you can almost get to the point where you know where they’ll move next if they spook out of their original spot. At most they’ll have three or four likely spots to hold based on the flow and topography of the run. You then just need to read the water and smack em in the nose with it.
Remember the movie Twister? Remember how they had two major problems with the test they were trying to do? First they had to place the barrel thingamabob in the path of a wildly unpredictable tornado and second they had to have the right design for it get sucked up into the funnel. That’s carp in a nutshell. Let me explain.
River carp tend to congregate on what you might describe as the plains of the river. Long stretches of slow moving water with very few elevation or depth changes and no discernible seams. Just a big ol straight channel of water. Sure you can find them in a still eddy or some other spots, but you’ll find them in numbers in those long slow and muddy stretches around two to three feet deep. And more importantly, they’ll be feeding there, or rather, grazing.
My friend Nate, who is essentially my version of Obi Wan in terms of carp fly fishing, refers to their behavior in these stretches as “putting on the feedbag.” They will move up and down these stretches in pods as though they were a fleet of lawnmowers at the ball park. Each one is looking downwards for whatever the heck they feel like eating.
Your job as the angler is to figure out what that is. Figure out the “design” that’s going to get sucked up into the funnel. It could be many things or it could be one specific thing. One of the toughest things about carp is that they will eat anything. You’d think that would make it easier but think of it in terms of steelhead. What do they eat? Most likely they’re eating eggs, minnows, or nymphs/leech. If they don’t take one, they’ll likely take another. You can change colors or patterns, but they’ll take some color/pattern of one of those general types of flies. Now carp can have the same pickiness in regards to color or pattern, but add to it that they would also be keying in on cottonwood seeds, bread crumbs, crawfish, or any other random barely edible stuff that catches their fancy. So now, when they’re as picky as a steelhead, you’ve got at least three times as many food sources that you need to duplicate and cycle through to figure out what they want.
Now the fun part. As if the fly selection didn’t make things difficult enough, add to it that this is one of the smartest and spookiest fish I’ve ever seen. They talk to each other. Yup, you read that right. They communicate by secreting pheromones that alert other carp to either your presence or a fly that just looked at it the wrong way. In a lake, that will spook a pod for a while because those chemicals remain in that location. At least on the river the chemicals will wash away with the current, but a spooked carp will still spook the rest meaning you’ll need to wait around until they’re fishable again.
Ok, remember how I said that last paragraph was the fun part? I lied. This is the fun part. They’re moving. And they’re moving in every direction. They’re the unpredictable tornado. Trout face up stream at almost all times and like I said earlier, they’re generally holding. Carp move all over and with the wide open featureless water they occupy, casting a fly to them is the equivalent to throwing a football to a receiver who doesn’t want to catch the ball and is moving erratically in all directions on a big field. So you essentially have to lead them with your cast. You have to drop the fly (lightly, mind you) a few feet in front of them, predicting which path they’re going to follow. Oh, you also have to move as little as possible. As I was shown but have yet to master, you need to stalk them and present your fly with roll casts, pulling in and paying out line before each cast depending on the carp’s distance and trajectory. If you start flinging overhead casts your line will spook everything. Trust me, there have been several times where I wasn’t able to load up for a roll cast and had to do it that way and I watched as the carp I was following changed direction and bolted off in a hurry.
Once you’ve got your fly in position, you still have the challenge of presenting it to them properly. You need to let it drop to the bottom and then just give it the subtlest of twitches to let them know that it is something alive. No no! Not so much! You spooked it… If you’re sensing the frustration from my tone, it’s because I’ve recently done battle with these frustrating beasts.
I started the day simply by going for bass in some of the deep pools fed by riffles. I did ok, landing three smallmouth on Gabe’s Easy Minnow but nothing of any significant size. While hopping from spot to spot, I stopped by a stretch of the Rocky that I knew held feeding carp on a regular basis. However, after five days of no rain, the water was still very cloudy from our recent flooding. The flow was down now, but you could only see bottom around the shallow shorelines. I moved on for a short time, hoping things would clear up so that I could come back later and find some carp.
I returned an hour or so later and just as I was about to give up after spotting zero carp in the cloudy water, I saw a large carp splash aggressively on the far bank. That particular bank was steep and consisted of wet and slippery clay along almost the entire stretch of this piece of water. I waded towards a tree root ladder a ways down from where I saw the splash and scrambled up it. I walked a narrow path along the top of the heavily wooded bank with a large steep hill behind me. I felt a little like the Predator, stalking my prey as I moved through the trees unseen. That idea made me feel a lot cooler than I probably looked. As I said, it was heavily wooded and moving through with a 9 ft rod and about ten feet of fly line paid out was exceedingly difficult and clumsy. Not only that, but I kept having to peer over the edge to try and find some carp in the shallows where it was less cloudy.
In total, I must have put out 50 cast attempts with maybe 20 of them actually hitting the water. It was extremely difficult to cast through the narrow spaces between trees, especially since being 8 feet above the water, I couldn’t use the water’s surface tension to load my rod. Casting became so strenuous that I ended up leaning against the tree trunks that angled over the water so that I could keep the line in the water and avoid the brush that I kept getting my fly and line wrapped around on previous casts. This actually worked, however awkward it must have looked and I was able to squeeze some solid casts into tight windows.
Finally, I hooked up. I had designed a carp fly the other day based loosely on the approach of Egan’s Headstand (I’ll post a step by step later). I call it the Carp Duster. I spotted a mid sized carp slowly emerging from the deeper cloudy water to cruise the clearer shallows below my bank. He had his tail up and a cloud of mud was bellowing out behind him, a tell tale sign he was eating. I put out a cast about 15 feet in front of him in a place I hoped he’d eventually be. I made some slight adjustments and pulled my fly back to the bank to set up my D loop for a roll cast when he got in range. After a slow approach, he was finally in front of me about six feet from the bank. I rolled out a perfect cast (a rare accomplishment for me) and the fly dropped with the smallest splash possible and slowly sank to the bottom, where I gave it a small twitch. I inhaled deeply as the carp seemed to notice the fly and started inching towards it to examine it. While I did not feel a tug, I saw my fly disappear beneath him. I raised my rod and strip set and he was on the line and took off like a bat out of hell, easily equaling the strength of any steelhead I’ve caught in the past.
Well crap. I didn’t think this through. Here I am 8 feet above the bank and my carp has taken off with my fly and is barreling into the middle of the river with zero obstacles in its way to slow it down. He has the entire river to build speed and lose the fly and I have to figure out a way down to the water without breaking the line, my rod, or my bones. Holding my rod in one hand, I quickly descended down a slick slope of clay while my left hand grabbed one tree root after another until I was finally in the water and just as I stabled myself and got my left hand back on the reel… The line went slack. It was gone. The fish I had worked so hard for was gone and I had pretty much spooked the whole section of water in all the commotion. Farts.
“What’s the point?”, you may be asking. Why is this guy wasting his time on a fish that is so difficult to catch and looks like a defensive lineman rather than the streamlined athleticism of a salmonid? Well, precisely because it is so difficult, I guess. Because I’ve been told that it’s a trash fish and it’s not worth my time. Because it’s an under appreciated species. Because they’re so smart. But above all, because I have to be nearly flawless in my presentation which in turn improves my skill for all other fishing. I noticed a drastic difference in my casting after just my first summer of chasing carp, even if I never caught anything. That fall I was putting out perfect casts to steelhead where the previous season I struggled greatly. Casting became an afterthought and reading the water took its rightful place of importance. I stopped worrying about whether or not I could cast it where I wanted it without hanging up in trees and instead focused on how to make the best drift.
So even if I didn’t have a high level of respect for carp fishing, I’d still see the value in challenging myself in regards to how it could improve my trout fishing. But it just so happens that I’m deeply fascinated by carp. They’re not picky just because. Their picky-ness is a reflection of their intelligence and their capacity to survive and thrive in nearly any situation. That commands my admiration. And I give it willingly.