The Carp is one of the most common species of fish found in rivers and lakes across the US. However, for being one of the most common fish to find, they are also one of the hardest species to catch, especially on a fly rod. Carp are wary, smart and grow to 20 - 30 pounds. Due to their size and “wit”, it would be easy to argue that these fish are amongst the largest and hardest fighting fish in freshwater. In the Carp family are Common Carp and Grass Carp; although Commons and Grass are equally as skittish and large, there are variances in their behavior and food choices that facilitate the type of growth seen in these fish. This article will focus on Common Carp as they are significantly more consistent on how and when they are willing to eat.
When targeting Common Carp, it is best to grab a 9 foot 7 to 8 weight fly rod with a warm water floating fly line to appropriately handle these 20 - 30 pound monsters. Due to their size and lack of lactic acid buildup, Carp will easily take fly anglers to their backing and make multiple powerful runs before coming to the net. Fly selection for Common Carp is relatively simple and not nearly as important as selecting the right fish to cast it at. Flies that have been particularly successful for us have been general stonefly nymph patterns like the Girdle Bug in size 6-10 work well, along with flies like McTage’s Trouser Worm and the Montana’s Hybrid Carp Fly. One important thing to note for people tying their own flies is that carp have a very acute sense of smell and taste and we have found that flies containing too much glue or head cement will lead to more refusals than flies without.
We also take more time in fish selection than fly selection. Rarely do we change flies more than a couple times throughout the day, but when sight fishing, we will very frequently choose different fish to present casts to. This is because Carp are typically in one of three “moods”, which is displayed by different types of behaviors. The happy Carp that we are looking for is either, tailing in shallow water and looks much like a tailing Redfish or, a fish cruising just off the bank moving very slowly, like it is looking for something to eat. The fish that are not worth the cast are groups of fish sitting very close to the surface of the water, but out towards the middle of the body of water. These fish are lazy and relaxed, not focused on filling their stomachs. The other behavior that isn’t worth the cast is if fish are travelling, which often looks like multiple fish moving briskly through the water, like they are on a mission to go somewhere else.
Once you have found the willing fish, it is vital that the angler is close enough to the fish that they can see which direction the fish is facing in the water. The importance of this is due to the subtlety of the eats. There is no indicator that goes down or a distinct bump to feel when the fish eats. Anglers should aim to be close enough to the fish that they can see the white part of its lips that extends out when it picks something up off the bottom, this is how you will know the fish has eaten your fly. When casting to a carp you want to cast about 3 - 4 feet in front of, and about 2 feet past the fish. Once the fly hits the water lift the rod tip, raising the fly to the surface, and move the fly with your rod to be in line with, but still forward of, the fish. Once the fly has been moved in line with the fish, let it drop down in front of the Carp’s nose. One of two things will happen after this “drag and drop”; the fish will follow it down to the bottom and eat, or it will swim right over it. If the latter happens it’s time to change flies and try again.
Furthermore, to increase the odds of running into one of these hungry tailing fish, we have found that fishing before and during rain storms to be extremely productive in finding fish willing to eat. The cloud cover and rain hitting the water makes these fish much more bold than they are on sunny days and will often be so shallow that anglers will not only see their tail, but their whole backs out of the water.
If the stars align and one does find themselves hooked into one of these fish, strap in for the ride. When fishing out of a kayak, our preferred method for lakes, these fish will pull both the boat and your drag in an attempt to get to the nearest log or stump to wrap itself around. As mentioned, these 20 - 30 pound fish will have no problem taking anglers to their backing and due to them not building up lactic acid do not tire as quickly as most freshwater species. This means that even when the fish looks like it has had enough, it will most likely make another run or two before it officially submits to the net. The technical skills, patience, and luck involved in catching Carp make them one of the most exciting and, albeit frustrating, freshwater species to catch on a fly rod.