Fly Fishers' Republic

Carping: Fly Fishing’s Crack (Part 1)

August 15, 2006

by Ian Colin James

Common Carp

Judging by the amount of ink fly fishing for carp is now getting in magazines, many fly fishers are finally starting to see the merits of pursuing Cyprinus carpio. While many among the angling masses still look down on the noble carp as being a “garbage fish,” there are others who have seen the light. No, not “that” light, the one containing neither Elvis, nor the light from the mothership during alien abductions, but the path to angling nirvana.

Back in the mid 1980s during a presentation to a southern Ontario fly-fishing club, I made the bold prediction that by the year 2000 fly fishing for carp would be just as popular as going after alternative species – like brown trout, rainbow trout and brook trout – but I was wrong.

gar pike

As of 2006, it looks as if it’s going to take a few more years before “carping” finally goes mainstream, and I think I know why. It’s partly because carp are harder to catch than other freshwater species, with maybe the exception of redhorse or gar pike; and partly because they are called common carp. Common! There is nothing common about them. Carp are picky, finicky, spooky and far more selective (in fact,uber selective) than any trout you may encounter.

When hooked, even a small 4-pound carp can get you into your backing in a matter of seconds (and for the love of God don’t use an Albright knot to attach the fly line to your backing or you will be off to buy a new fly line). In fact, most carp will get you into the backing, which is something you can’t say for brown trout. A hooked carp will often bulldog it and engage in a bout of hand-to-fin combat, which can leave even the most experienced angler muttering, “Uh-oh,” as he tries to remember where he put the warranty card for his fly rod.

no spots

There are many fly fishermen who won’t go after carp because they don’t want to admit that they received an aquatic butt-kicking from a truly wild fish. To them, I say: “It’s okay to draw a blank or to get skunked. Honest.” There’s no need for therapy, or to cry yourself to sleep in the fetal position, and you don’t have to light up some scented candles to get in touch with your kinder and gentler self.

Here’s the thing: For years the perception was that carp would not take flies. Yet I can remember as a kid back in the 1960s accidentally hooking carp on small Black Gnat wets in the River Clyde, near the town of Uddingston, just outside of Glasgow. I would also hook carp, and the occasional goldfish, on other small sea-trout and grayling fly patterns many of whose names escape me now, though the Red Tag, Mallard and Claret and the Invicta come to mind. So, by luck or by gosh-and-by-golly it was obvious that carp would take flies.

Why would they not? After all, they eat the same stuff as other fish do, including mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, dragonflies, minnows, tadpoles, small frogs, crayfish, leeches, grasshoppers, ants and terrestrials. With the exception of the egg stage, which is fine by me as I don’t tie caddisfly egg patterns, carp will hit all parts of an aquatic insect’s life cycle. You can catch them on nymphs, emergers, crippled emergers, semi-crippled emergers, semi-crippled emergers with a twist of lemon, spinners, duns, and the rest. In other words, many of the patterns you use for trout will work for carp, but remember what I said earlier about carp being uberselective: you will have to fish the flies more carefully than you would when fishing for trout or grayling.

There is a school of thought, which suggests that you should chum the water with bread or dog biscuits to get carp on the feed before you start casting for them. The disciples of this school need to pull their heads out of their dark hiding places and come up for some fresh air. Or, they should find a nice spider hole, or a bunker, crawl into it, pull the lid shut and let fly anglers “get on with it” in their absence. I doubt that they would be missed.

Chumming a pool is ridiculous and it proves that the fly fisher has no knowledge of the feeding habits of carp. You do not need to chum the pool in order to get carp on the feed. The carp were probably feeding before you showed up, and unless you whack them once you catch them, they will probably go on feeding long after you are gone from the river. How many anglers would put any merit into the suggestion that, “when fishing the River Tay or the River Dee, the first thing the angler must do is chum the pool with shrimp or minnows to get the salmon and sea-trout on the feed”? The person suggesting that would be as popular as the guy who calls you at dinner time to offer you a great deal on a low-interest credit card. Come off it! When you are fly fishing, chumming for carp is just nonsense. If you need to chum the water before you start fly fishing for carp, you should probably take up underwater basket weaving or juggling live beavers.

Chumming for carp is essential if you’re ledgering while match fishing for carp, but it is not required when fly fishing for carp. Chumming tells the rest of the fly-fishing world that you just don’t get it; that you have never taken the time to study your quarry, and that you probably would be better off watching Oprah or Dr. Phil on TV. Why stop at bread and dog biscuits? Why the heck not chum the water with a bucket of hamsters to get the northern pike on the feed before you go after them?

It wasn’t until 1979, when I arrived in Canada, carping’s Shangri-La, that I started targeting carp, and I’ve never looked back. Carping is very, very addictive, and it may just be the crack cocaine of fly-fishing. You have super-selective fish, often sight fishing for specimens topping 20-pound-plus, and typically demanding a perfect presentation to get a take. And the take is just the start of it – over the years my clients have broken more fly rods dooking it out with carp, than with chinook salmon, northern pike or steelhead – the fight leaves you wanting more every time!

B.H. Pheasant Tail Nymph

bead head pheasant tail nymph

Hook: 10 – 16
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Pheasant Tail
Rib: Medium copper wire
Body: Pheasant Tail
Thorax: Hare
Head: Copper bead
(Thorax picked out or tied using a dubbing loop)

And you can be sure, accessibility, a key component to any addiction, is high. Be in no doubt carp are accessible – they’re everywhere. So you don’t have to spend a lot of down time traveling to get your fix. Less time on the highway means more time on the water.

B.H. Hare's Ear Nymph

Bead Head Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph

Hook: 10 – 16
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Hare’s mask (guard hair)
Rib: Medium copper wire
Body: Light hare
Thorax: Hare
Head: Copper bead
(Thorax picked out or tied using a dubbing loop)

So, take a good look at the Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph and the Beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph in the photographs. If you have a few of these in your boxes, you are all set to go carping. If you don’t, then tie up a few in sizes #10 to #16. And be sure to use copper beads, carp prefer them. No kidding, I get more carp on copper-coloured beadhead flies than black-, gold- or silver-coloured beadheads. All you need to do is dig out a 6 weight rod and a floating line with a 15-foot level leader of 4 or 6 pound fluorocarbon (unless the carp are being picky and you need to add a tippet of 6X or 7X).

How are you going to target, hook and land a carp on 6X tippet? Find out in the next issue »