I will be the first to tell you I have been struggling for a long time to catch a carp on the fly. Pretty much the first time I tried for it with my friend Nate, I became obsessed with learning how to do it. I’ve seen it go easier for other people, but for whatever reason, I had to work hard to learn how to do it.
The first time I went out in search of carp with Nate, we were on a straight, slow, and silty stretch of the Rocky River in midsummer. The flow was imperceptibly slow and the water was gin clear. The sunlight hitting the silt bottom gave everything a mustardy golden-yellow glow. From high up on the bank we watched as a pod of about 8-10 carp cruised up and down and from one bank to the other of a stretch of river maybe 20 yards across and 50 yards long. In this stretch were no discernible obstacles and the water depth averaged no more than 3 feet at its deepest.
What struck me first was that these fish were constantly on the move. Up to that point, I had really only been fly fishing for steelhead. Steelhead more or less will hold in one spot, facing upstream, unless disturbed or tempted into biting. Therefore my focus on casting was really more about casting far ahead of the fish and reading the drift to put it as close to its mouth as possible so it didn’t have to move too far to take. Not only that, but the steelhead had smaller areas of good holding water, thus limiting their movement. But fishing for carp in these wide open flats was like the difference between driving a car and driving a space ship. Now my target was moving in all directions, often unpredictably so, and I needed to both aim and time my cast so that it dropped a few feet in front of its path, all without splashing down too hard as they are highly sensitive to vibration. Not only that, but they have keen eye sight and aren’t aggressive eaters.
So much of my first attempts at fly fishing for carp were about me trying to improve my casting more than anything else. I wasn’t even in the ball park of putting my fly in the right place at the right time, so it was a long time until I even started getting bites.
Eventually, through dogged persistence, I started getting bites. I foolishly imagined that since I had plenty of experience fighting steelhead which were in many ways larger and more athletic than carp, that I’d have no problem reeling one in. What I learned was that while carp aren’t nearly as long and sporty as their steelhead brethren, they were every bit as strong with, in my experience, a much higher stamina. Not only that, but they fought so drastically different. Part of that was a credit to their environs in that they have plenty of space to maneuver in. But also, while a steelhead was prone to short bursts and aerial acrobatics, the carp was more likely to charge like a bull in any direction and for long periods of time with no signs of fatigue.
I could not seem to get it through my thick skull that this is a fish that you need to be very patient with. I think because it took me so long and required so much practice to even get the carp to bite, that my patience was worn thin and any time I hooked up I assumed that more time on the line was more time for the carp to slip the hook, and so I would try to horse them in every time. That’s a big no no. They’re too strong and their stamina is too high. You need to tire them out a lot more than I ever have for a steelhead. And if you don’t, they’ll break you off every time as they did for me. They are ridiculously tough.
I caught my first carp, oddly enough, in the middle of last December on a tiny little creek that feeds into the Rocky River. I wasn’t even remotely looking for carp, but after walking up the creek as far as I could go and not finding any steelhead, I walked back down and stumbled on a little carp feeding obliviously in a slow pool. Despite the tight quarters and high clarity, I was able to drop a bugger variation in his path and land him. This was by no means an impressive fish, but it was the first carp I brought to hand so it was very special.
I ended up spending the remainder of the winter and most of the spring targeting steelhead exclusively. It was one of the best seasons I’ve ever had and left me entering the warmer months feeling very satisfied and not experiencing the usual yearning for more time with those fishy travelers that I have felt at the end of previous seasons. Perhaps it was this settled mind that led to me finally catching my first sizeable carp.
It had been raining all day and quite a bit of it at that. Nate and I went out to a small park pond. To this point, I had only fished to carp when I could see them, and this pond was fed by a creek that was dumping chocolate milk into the main body of water. But Nate, being the carp ninja that he is, showed me areas where dark black mud was pluming up from the bottom, standing out against the lighter brown water and indicating to us where there were carp feeding on the bottom and stirring it up. We had a few spells of rain while we fished but eventually I found a black plume on a quieter section of the pond. I dropped a little white sucker spawn variation with a pink head and found myself hooked up to a nice sized carp. For the first time with a bigger carp on the line, I was patient. I had just lost a nice carp the week before because I tried to horse it and I was not going to let it happen again. After 15 minutes of fighting, I finally had the fish in hand. I was soaking wet but elated, as you can probably tell by my stupid grin.
I went out of town for a week and returned with an itch to find some more carp. My busy schedule prevented me from going out at first, but finally, I was able to sneak out for a solo trip to a great spot below a damn. I was there no more than 30 minutes before I noticed a big carp feeding near the surface where the water trickled over from above. I smacked a gray all-marabou egg sucking leech variation against the wall and got an instant and aggressive take. I knew right away this was a much stronger fish than my last one, and the fight lasted at least 20 minutes and ended up with me standing knee deep in some nasty muck in order to land it.
I’m sure that it wasn’t such an ordeal to learn how to catch carp on a fly rod for other people. In fact, I’ve talked to a couple people whom I practically smacked when they told me it only took them a month or so. But maybe that’s why it likely means so much more to me. I worked my butt off and there were times when this species drove me up the wall. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t figure them out. To this point, I’ve still only caught a few, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve turned a corner with them. I’ve finally learned how to fight them and what’s more, my fly tying for carp flies has improved as all of the carp I’ve caught have been on flies that were unique to me in most ways. All of that put together with the time it took to learn make this recent clicking that much more special.