Fly fishing For Carp, No You're Not Alone!

A lot of people who fly fish in warm waters have had the experience of accidentally catching a carp. But few try to accomplish this deliberately. For those few, this brief guide should be helpful. Hopefully you will also experiment and share with others your successes and failures.

1. General Techniques

Basically there are only two ways to fly fish for carp -- sight casting and blind casting. Sight casting involves seeing carp in the water and casting the fly to about 1 or 2 feet in front of them. While this is not always possible, it often is and provides some of the most exciting carp fishing. An analogy is often drawn to fishing for bonefish and the analogy is quite accurate. Like bonefish, carp can often be seen tailing in the shallows. Like bonefish, carp are eating whatever organisms they find on or scare up from the bottom. And like bonefish, when they take your fly expect a long hard run that may take you "into your backing".

Blind casting can take two forms. You can cast to places carp are likely to be and hope you are right. This is usually not a high percentage technique. More reliable is to cast to where you know carp are because you have tossed groundbait in that area. The groundbait not only attracts the carp and concentrates them in a relatively small area but it also gets them into a feeding mood, maybe even a competitive feeding mood. People who bait fish for carp know a great deal about groundbaiting and I suggest you consult some of their published information. In particular I recommend Modern Bank Fishing by Michael Keyes.

2.  A Puff of Silt
                                 Learning from the best...

Gary LaFontaine reports watching trout in the shallows of a mountain lake.  They would cruise along and suddenly change direction to begin rooting on the bottom and another leech would become trout fodder.  It took him a while to discover how the trout knew where to root.  It was a small puff of silt stirred up when the leech moved.  He used this information to design the Bristle Leech -- a leech imitation that sits on the bottom but creates a puff of silt when retrieved.  The Bristle Leech catches not only trout but also carp and the mechanism that triggers a strike in both fish would seem to be the same.

Bonefish anglers know that bonefish also look for puffs -- shrimp, crabs, and the like moving along the bottom of mud flats and creating a small cloud with each jerky move.  A common technique is to cast in front of a bonefish, allow the fly to sink to settle to the bottom, and then give about a short pull on the flyline.  The fly rises up off the bottom and creates the puff of silt.  A bonefish, even some distance away, can see the puff and rush over for a meal (your fly).

My experience with carp is that they respond just like the trout and bonefish.  As they cruise along the bottom vacuuming up what they find, they are also watching for fleeing prey.  Perhaps it's a crayfish scurrying out of the way or a leech or a mayfly nymph.  But carp will see their puff of silt and charge after them.  I saw this graphically demonstrated one day when I was fly fishing for bluegill off the end of my dock.  My fly was an olive nymph with bead chain eyes.  It resembles both a crayfish and a dragonfly nymph.  I looked on the bottom about 6 or 7 yards out from the dock and there was a carp, just sitting there facing me and gently finning.  I cast the nymph about 4 or 5 feet in front of him.  As it sank he paused, and, I assume, watched the fly drop to the bottom.  But he made no move until I gave the fly a twitch, creating that little puff.  The carp took the fly in a flash, and, realizing its mistake took off for parts unknown.  Unfortunately I was using a light rod and tippet and had no hope of controlling the fish.  It broke off in short order.  I have since caught lots of carp (and one catfish!) using just the following techniques:  choosing a fly that sinks to the bottom hook point up and stirs the mud or silt when twitched;   either sight casting to carp in the shallows or blind casting to an area where I have groundbaited; and using very slow, short retrieves with long pauses in between.

3. Carp Flies

Your best chance of catching a carp on a fly comes from choosing a fly that imitates a food that the carp recognizes. These fall into three broad categories. The first is aquatic creatures. These include larval and pupal stages of aquatic insects (mayflies, dragonflies, and damselflies), small aquatic organisms (leeches, worms, scuds, and immature crayfish) and small baitfish (e.g., sculpins). The second is plant material. This includes the fluffy seeds of the cottonwood tree and mulberries. The third is introduced food -- food that humans toss into the water that carp learn to eat. This includes corn, dogfood, and bread. There are flies that imitate all of these items and in the right circumstance you can expect most of them to be successful.

Flies can be impressionistic or realistic in their imitation of carp food. Carp will take impressionistic flies but they are often less likely to do so than other fish. For example, there is a large mayfly that is common in most lakes and streams in Michigan -- the hexagenia limbata or "hex". Its nymph is a major food source for many fish, including carp. One of the flies often used to imitate the hex nymph is a Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear (GRHE) in larger sizes. It impressionistically resembles a hex nymph, just as it resembles many other nymphs. Trout seem to find that good enough and you can catch a lot of trout using that nymph. It is almost always on lists of essential flies for trout fishing. But consider the experience of an aquaintance of mine fishing in Michigan's Grand River. He spotted a group of tailing carp and assumed that they were eating nymphs (among other things) that they were rooting up from the bottom. He tied on a GRHE and cast perfectly just in front of one of the group. The carp all ignored the fly and went on about their business. They also ignored successive casts. Then he tied on a different, more realistic imitation of the hex nymph with feathery gills, black eyes, darker back and lighter bottom and more distinct legs and tail. A carp took the fly before it reached the bottom on the first cast. If you have a choice, choose flies that accurately imitate carp food.

Carp are very sensitive to taste and smell. Before you use a fly for the first time rub it with mud or algae from the bank or bottom of the river or lake. The mud will come off after the first cast but your fly will have a "natural" taste and smell that will help mask your own odor and keep the fly in the carp's mouth a little longer before it tries to spit it out.  Or, add a bit of commercial scent to your fly.

4.1 Nymphs

Nymphing for carp is essentially similar to nymphing for trout. There are a number of good books that go into it in great detail. I personally like Nymph Fishing by Dave Hughes. The gist of most of these accounts is:

    • Be sure the nymph is on or near the bottom. Use weight, if necessary, in the form of small split shots about 6" above the fly. Use several small split shots rather than one large one.
    • The nymph should move "naturally." On a stream this means drifting along the bottom at the same speed as the current with no "drag." Drag is unwanted motion imparted to the fly by the fly line. On a lake this may mean moving the nymph hardly at all except in very small twitches.
    • Use a strike indicator.

I agree with all of these recommendations except the use of a strike indicator. They are useful for depth control and bite detection but they tend to spook carp, especially if you are sight casting.

If possible, find out what kind of nymphs are present in the water you are fishing. Turn over rocks. Collect some mud from the bottom and seine it. Inspect pieces of vegetation or run a net through the vegetation. Use whatever you find as a guide to fly selection.

Dragon Fly Nymph Flies that resemble the nymphs of dragon flies or damsel flies are good for lake settings. They should be weighted and are fished on or near the bottom.  Use short strips and long pauses. My own simple version of a dragon fly nymph can be seen by clicking on the name. The only disadvantage of this fly is that it will also catch bluegill and bass and other species as well. If you groundbait with sweetcorn (rather than particles or the like) and fish the nymph through the groundbait area you will definitely catch other kinds of fish. I even hooked a bullhead once. One major advantage of my version of the fly is that it rides upside down and will not snag on the bottom as easily.

All Round Hex Nymph. My version of the hexagenia limbata nymph. It is realistic enough but not overly detailed. It generally rides hook point up (a definite advantage) and it looks the same no matter which way it turns or tumbles (hence the name). In lake settings I cast it beyond a groundbait area, let it sink, and slowly retrieve it through the area in very small jerks. If there is current or wind let them move the line and add tiny jerks as the nymph moves along the bottom. If possible keep slack out of the line and point the rod tip at the nymph.  In river settings cast it above where carp are and let it dead drift down to them.

4.2 Scuds

Scuds are small freshwater shrimp-like creatures that cling to vegetation and swim around in small, jerky, erratic motions. When alive they are typically tan, olive, or brown in color. Most standard scud flies in those colors will work fine. Fish them like a nymph but with very small movements of no more than 1". When scuds die they often change color, becoming bright orange or yellow or pink. A scud imitation tied in those colors will sometimes work as well. This probably accounts for some of the success reported with flies like Agent Orange (a bright orange saltwater shrimp fly) or flies that are largely orange or yellow or pink chenille wrapped around a hook.

Generic Scud A general purpose scud pattern that can be modified to serve most needs.

Rollover Scud A scud pattern designed by Gary LaFontaine that rides hook point up and rolls over in an enticing way when retrieved.

4.3 Leeches

There are many leech patterns and most can be used with success.  But the best for carp, I believe, is Gary LaFontaine's Bristle Leech mentioned previously.  Not only does it sit on the bottom hook point up but it has two monofilament projections that dig into the bottom to produce the puff of silt when the fly is retrieved.  Click on the name for tying instructions.

4.4 Worms

Gold Bead Red WigglerVariation on the San Juan worm. Fish like a nymph.

Rollover Worm A variation of the San Juan worm that incorporates the properties of the rollover scud (see above).  As the rollover worm sinks the hook rides up, but as soon as the fly is retrieved it flips over.  This gives the impression of a worm struggling and wiggling in the water.

4.5 Baitfish

Carp Booby Booby flies are known for catching trout in lakes and ponds. They are floating flies which probably imitate baitfish and are made to hover near the bottom of the lake by a sinking fly line and split shots above the fly. This is one of the more successful patterns for blind casting over ground bait. I use an intermediate sinking line and a short leader (about three feet) of 2X fluorocarbon. I don't usually need any additional weight. Cast the booby out beyond the groundbait area and let the line sink to the bottom bringing the fly with it. Let everything just sit there for a while. The fly will float and move as small currents in the lake dictate. If nothing bites after three to five minutes begin retrieving the fly through the groundbait area. Do so VERY slowly. Use one inch strips and pause often. A carp is most likely to take the fly after a strip following a pause so do at least two strips in a row before pausing again. The second strip will set the hook. Click on the name for tying instructions.

4.6 Plant Material and Introduced Food

While carp typically find their food on or near the bottom they do surface feed at times. Usually that takes place because they have to learned to eat something that falls into the water and floats (like mullberries or cottonwood seeds) or something that floats that people toss into the water like pieces of bread or dog food kibbles. Fairly typical is my brother-in-law who has a house on Lake LBJ in Texas. He goes out on his lighted dock in the evening and tosses handfuls of kibbles into the water. The carp, who apparently spend most of their time under the dock, swim about and snatch the kibbles off the surface with a rolling motion. A dogfood fly can be tied by spinning normal deer hair and trimming to the shape of a kibble. If carp surface feed on poplar seeds, tie a fly using any sparse, fluffy white material such as yarn. Bread flies can be constructed of white and brown egg fly yarn or pom pom balls from the craft store.

Corn FlyMy own design of an artificial hair rig sponge fly that has been succesful in blind casting over groundbait. For fishing and tying instructions click on the name.

Purple Mulberry Fly Fly for carp in waters which have overhanging mullberry trees. Fish it in the surface film simulating a mulberry that has fallen off an overhanging branch. Pattern comes from Ben Benoit.


               MORE GREAT CARP TIPS

 You'll most likely find carp living only minutes from your home in park ponds, golf course ponds, farm ponds, and small and large streams and lakes. For the best quality of this fly fishing, here's what to look for in these waters:

  1. Clear water: Fly fishing for carp is a visual sport.
  2. Extensive areas of shallow, still, or slow-moving water: Feeding carp are easiest to present flies to in areas of from one to four feet of still or slow-moving waters.
  3. Plentiful invertebrates: Waters with food chains that support good populations of panfish, bass, catfish, and trout are also ideal for carp.
  4. Water temperatures of from 65 to 85 degrees F.: Carp feed most aggressively at these temperatures. In most of North America, this is usually between May and September.
  5. Sunny midmorning to late-afternoon hours: This period is the best time to locate and see feeding carp. Use polarized glasses and be very quiet.
  6. Fly-fishing guides: Many guides know of excellent carp areas, but you usually have to ask.

Recommended Reading
Carp Are Game Fish, by George Von Schrader. P. O. Box 156, Fish Creek, WI 52412.

Carp on the Fly, by B. Reynolds, B. Befus, J. Berryman; forward by Dave Whitlock. Johnson Books, 1880 South 57th Court, Boulder, CO 80301.

Carp in North America, The American Fisheries Society, 5410 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 110, Bethesda, MD 20814.

The World According to Carp, by Richard Guindson. Andrews and McMeel, Publishers, 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111.

Carp are introduced to North America from Europe in the early 1800s and were considered the answer to providing our population with a high-quality source of protein. For many years the plan was successful as immigrants, accustomed to eating carp in their European homelands, gladly included them in their diets.

Then carp became the victim of bad press as their populations spread across the continent. They over-populated many lakes and large rivers and began out-competing the native, over-harvested populations of popular gamefish.

Because carp thrived in our most polluted waters, we acquired the idea that they are filthy, bad-tasting, uninvited foreigners. We condemned them to death by gigging, bow-and-arrow hunting, netting, dewatering, and poisoning.

Carp can also thrive in waters where we have over-fished their natural enemies. Bass, trout, pike, walleye, sunfish salmon, and catfish (young and adult) relish young carp minnows. But, where their natural enemies are over-harvested, carp tend to over-populate and damage fisheries habitat.

Lakes and rivers that have excellent populations of these more popular predator gamefish, seldom experience carp over-population. In fact, clear waters where there are relatively few but very large carp (Lake Michigan, Flaming Gorge Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, and Yellow Tail Reservoir) are also noted for their good management of bass, trout, stripers, salmon, and pike.

In Europe and Asia, carp and their family members are enthusiastically and reverently sought by sportfishers and gourmets. Some individual large carp are so respected in Europe that they have names and reputations and are considered too valuable to catch just once.

Carp fishermen in England do not kill carp catches, and there are such famous carp that the noted coarse fishers of Asia and Europe compete to catch them. They receive honors and awards when they succeed in capturing a particular carp, which is then carefully and lovingly released. Individual carp are valued at many thousands of dollars.

In the U.S., carp have often been mistakenly maligned as dull muck-suckers. But studies have shown them to be a highly evolved organism topping the scale of fish intelligence. They are flexible eaters and capture live foods from the top to the bottom of the water in which they live.

Carp mouths are not located on the bottom of their heads, like the mouths of suckers. They are positioned and shaped much like bonefish, redfish, and permit mouths. The more I observe carp, the more impressed I am at how alert and intelligent they are. And when feeding in the same areas as trout, walleye, and bass, carp require more precise and cautious fly-fishing strategy to catch.




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