The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp
Article by John Merwin
Photo by Field & Stream Online Editors
Casting a fly for carp is like dragging a piece of fried chicken through the local seniors’ center. If it looks good and moves slowly enough, something will eventually try to gum it to death.
Oddly enough, flyfishing for the toothless common carp is hot, a long-simmering trend that’s grown dramatically over the past three years. Carp are wary and smart and frequently hit 20 to 30 pounds. They sometimes feed in clear, shallow water, where they can be seduced with flies similar to those used for trout. There are now carp-on-the-fly fans from Washington state east to New York and Massachusetts, as well as in Europe. Books and videos on the subject are starting to appear. The staid International Game Fish Association now keeps fly-rod carp records. This is the next big deal.
Flyfishermen, who can romanticize just about anything, are even calling them “golden ghosts” or “golden bones,” comparing the shallow-water habits of freshwater carp with those of saltwater bonefish. This is a real stretch. Since their introduction to North America in the mid-19th century, carp have been widely seen as nothing but trash fish here.
Carp are not pretty like brook trout. They don’t leap like smallmouth bass. They don’t make blazing runs like steelhead (or bonefish). They are, instead, coarsely scaled, rubber-mouthed bottom feeders with large round eyes that seem to express perpetual surprise.
On the plus side, carp have become almost ubiquitous in waters across the United States. The best flyfishing involves stalking them in shallow water, which is fun, and a large, hooked carp will run well into your backing, albeit more like a Mack truck than a Ferrari.
Given that perspective, you need to take your fly rod out for these fish. I did that last spring with a pair of flyfishing experts in Michigan, where I got over—well, almost over—a lifetime of disdaining carp.
1 Cast ahead of tailing fish.
2 Let your fly sink; twitch it slightly.
3 Set the hook when you feel a gentle tug.
According to guide David McCool, the key to fishing for carp in 2 to 4 feet of water is to go slow and easy. “If you splash or stumble, they’ll spook,” he told me.
“Cast in front of one of the fish, then twitch the fly just a little as it sinks,” he advised when we spied some carp tailing in the Lake Michigan shallows. “That’ll get the carp’s attention. Let the fly sink to the bottom, and the carp will follow it down. When the fish sucks up the fly, the take will be hard to feel. Hold your rod tip right down on the water and keep a straight line to the fly. That way you’ll feel a little tug when the carp eats, and you can set the hook.”
I followed directions and saw the carp tilt downward. When I felt a little tug, I tugged back. There was a huge surface boil as the hooked fish bolted for deep water, eventually coming back under rod pressure to thrash around our knees.
That’s how it works. Go slow and easy, and it’ll work for you, too.
Carp are smarter than freshwater bass, which is probably a shocking revelation to avid sport fishermen. In lab tests measuring the rate at which fish can learn things, carp have figured out simple tasks almost twice as fast as bass. That will explain, in part, why carp can be so hard to fool with a fly.
They are also the largest fish many freshwater anglers are likely to encounter. The IGFA all-tackle record for common carp stands at 75 pounds 11 ounces, taken from a French lake in 1987. What’s really mind-blowing, though, are the IGFA fly-rod carp records.
A 42-pound common carp (left) was taken in Italy in 2002 on a 16-pound-test tippet. Then there was the fly-caught, 62- pound grass carp caught in Alabama on 12-pound-test in 2005. These are serious fish.
Carp are members of the Cyprinid family, which also includes minnows. There is a huge variety of species worldwide. The fabled mahseer of India’s mountain rivers, one of the world’s hardest-fighting gamefish, is a carp. In this country you’re most likely to encounter common carp or sometimes grass carp, an Asian import introduced in the 1960s for its role as a vegetarian in controlling aquatic weeds. Black, bighead, and silver carp are more recent introductions in the upper Mississippi.
BIGHEAD: 90-pound all-tackle record, Tennessee, 2005
COMMON: 42-pound fly-rod record, Italy, 2002
GRASS: 62-pound fly-rod record, Alabama, 2005
SILVER: 35-pound 4-ounce all-tackle record, Austria, 1983
How to Find Happy Fish
Carp in most regions move to the shallows with the warming waters of late spring, which makes May and June prime time. You’ll sometimes see small groups of them spawning with splashing flurries as they broadcast their eggs in the weedy areas of coves and bays. More often, though, they’ll be cruising the shallows, feeding on aquatic nymphs and crayfish along the bottom.
Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay near Traverse City in northwestern Michigan has broad, clear flats that are perfect for carp. When I waded there last June with Bruce Richards and flyfishing guide David McCool, it was easy to spot the occasional pod of three to 10 dark-bronze fish as we drove or walked the shoreline. At other times, we slowly poled a skiff through the shallows, which gave added height above the water and made seeing fish easier.
“We need to find some happy fish,” McCool explained, meaning actively feeding carp. Cruising schools or fish simply sitting still in the sunlight aren’t feeding and are usually difficult to entice with a fly. We finally located some carp in about 2 feet of water that were obviously working the bottom with noses down and tails gently breaking the surface. “That’s what we want!” he said, pointing. “Those fish can be caught.”
Carp eat in other ways, too, and it’s sometimes possible to find them actually surface feeding in a still pond or river backwater. An extensive hatch or spinner fall of mayflies can bring carp to the top, as can round, purple mulberries dropping into the water from overhanging bushes. Breadcrumbs tossed by children for ducks in urban parks can also do the trick, for that matter.
Clear water and feeding fish: Find these two prerequisites, and your chances of taking carp on the fly have improved dramatically.
I phoned Field & Stream’s editor-in-chief, Sid Evans, to report on the results of my latest carp fishing trip and could tell by the noise of shuffling papers in the background that I was only getting half an ear.
“Yeah,” I said, “and then we ate one.”
There was a long silence. The shuffling noise had stopped.
“You ate one?” He sounded incredulous. Carp are not everyday table fare in midtown Manhattan or anywhere else in North America, although they’ve been farmed as food for hundreds of years in parts of Asia.
After a day’s carping in Lake Michigan, I’d kept a 7-pounder for the table. Some of our group hit the supermarket for fixings and beer while I filleted and skinned the fish. Cutting away the dark red area along the lateral line left some long strips of firm, white meat.
I chunked those strips, coated the pieces with beer batter, then flash-fried them in hot cooking oil. Otherwise unseasoned, the cooked carp was bland and tasteless.
My companions smirked at the idea of eating carp, but they all tried it. No one asked for second helpings.
CARP HAVE BIG SHOULDERS, and their lumbering, powerful runs can seriously stress your tackle. At the same time, your fly gear still needs to be light enough to gently present a small fly and protect fairly light leaders.
Six-weight outfits will do for smaller fish in water with no obstructions. For carp in the 20-pound-class or larger, a 9-FOOT, 8-WEIGHT ROD gives the best combination of pulling power and casting delicacy. Match the rod with a LARGE-ARBOR REEL taking at least 100 yards of 20-pound-test Dacron backing.
A floating weight-forward line is best, paired with a 9- to 12-foot nylon leader tapered to a 10-pound-test tippet. If you find fussy carp that look at your fly without eating it, or if you’re spooking fish, go lighter or longer on the leader.
Carp flies must be small and wiggly for best results. CRAYFISH IMITATIONS, WOOLLY WORMS, WOOLLY BUGGERS, and TROUT-STYLE NYMPHS IN SIZES 6 THROUGH 10 are all effective. Fish them unweighted in extremely shallow water, but switch to lightly weighted or beadhead versions that will drop down in front of a carp’s nose when you’re in 2 to 4 feet of water. The colors should be drab, meaning shades of brown, olive, and tan in addition to black. Two major fly wholesalers—Umpqua and Rainey— now offer selections for carp that imitate everything from crayfish to canned corn.