Fly Fishers' Republic

Carping: Fly Fishing’s Crack (Part 2)

October 24, 2006

by Ian Colin James

Common carp

This is it. Carping with the Carpfather, Part Deux. This is when I tell you how to employ all your trout fly-fishing gear – all those nymph patterns, dry flies, streamers and wets that you usually use to chase after cute and colourful little trout – to catch the uber selective carp.

The Number 1 reason most fly fishermen fail to catch carp is that they completely underestimate what they are up against. Carp are without question one of the most, if not the most, wary and spooky of all freshwater fish.

How spooky are they? Well, by picking up the vibrations from the engine of the brand new car you have just parked on the road above the riverbank, most carp can figure out what vehicle brand you are driving. It would be foolish to suggest for a moment that they know what colour of car you are driving, but according to some research from the USA, the common carp, with an IQ of 6, is twice as smart as a trout.

The lesson here is that a clumsy, loud, soccer-hooligan-like approach, or maybe an errant cast, or even the use of a short, thick leader, will result in a poor showing when you try to tackle carp with a fly.

Fine and far off is the key. Stealth is a must, and just in case it all goes wrong, it’s always comforting to know that many of those name-brand fly rods you trout fishermen will use on your first carp hunt are covered by manufacturers’ replacement warranties.

Point Number 2: Far too many fly fishermen believe that, just because there are a lot of carp around, they are easy to catch.

Not true.

While carp are prolific and there are large populations of them in many watersheds, and their ability to adapt to living fin-in-hand with man goes without saying, do not underestimate them. They are much harder to get on a hook than Mr. Big Smarty, the big ol’ brown trout who lives under the logjam piled up against the bridge.

For most carping situations, a 6-weight fly rod with a floating line will do the job. Here in Canada along the edges of the Great Lakes, an 8-weight rod is often required as the carp can hit the 40 lb. mark. For the record, I spend most of my time chasing carp with a 5-weight rod, but you might want to get a few carp under your belt before you drop down a weight.

Stick with a floating line so that you can present the flies delicately and accurately. Plus, if the carp start rooting around in 2 feet of water, a floating line will do the job and you won’t have to faff about switching reels and lines.

Casting accuracy and presenting the fly in “just the right place” are essential when carping. Chucking out a long line, casting blind and hoping to hook a carp is the same as trying to find a needle in a haystack. You will catch more carp by placing the fly in front of the fish, rather than belting it out over unknown waters.

Before I go any further, here’s some more advice on gearing up with the right reel. Make sure that your reel is well oiled, that it holds at least 150 yards of backing and that the drag system is up to snuff. Check that there is a nail knot and not an Albright knot securing your backing to the fly line. I have witnessed many a trout fisherman go into shock when their Albright knot popped it’s clogs and the carp they had ( note the use of the word “had”) on their line, swims away with their fly line.

Unlike trout, carp put up a heck of a scrap and they can make many long powerful runs. Carp on the run are not the same as trout running out fly line and – hopefully – some backing. Its not a case of: “Oh well, you got me. I may as well make an effort to get you into your backing.”

With carp it’s more a case of: “What the #@#@! Oh I don’t think so.” Most of the time even a wee baby 4 lb. carp will drag 50 yards of backing out on the first run, followed by a swim straight at you, making your choice of a large arbor reel a good one. Once the carp gets a good look at you, and sees you’re wearing a fishing vest, it will show you no mercy and make a few more long runs, just to see if it can get you to whack your knuckles as your reel whizzes and spins at an alarming rate.

Landing a carp is nothing short of controlled chaos. So, get the carp onto the reel as fast as you can, pay attention to what is going on and try to keep your knuckles well away from the handle on your reel. When it comes to leaders when casting for carp, too many fly fishermen select a leader that is too short and/or too thick. If the leader is too short — anything less than 12 feet — the carp will be spooked by the fly line, so try to use a leader that is at least 15 feet long. If the leader is too thick, the carp will know that something is most definitely up when they take a look at the fly.

When they refuse the fly and they are swimming away, if you use the ACME Bubble Master 2000 to translate the carp’s bubble trail, you will likely hear: “Is that all ya got? What do you think I am … a trout? Please.”

Try to stay with a fluorocarbon leader of 4 lb. to 6 lb. test, provided you can still turn over the flies. It takes a bit of practice, but you can land rather large carp in the 20 lb. range on 4lb. or even 2lb. fluorocarbon.

Picking flies for carp is not that tough. If you want to doddle down the “match-the-hatch” path, you should know that carp are 10 times more selective than the most selective trout you have ever cast a fly to. As you would when trouting, look along the banks to find the hatching insects then match the hatch from your box.

Yes, carp can be picky. Psyche yourself up enough to realize that you are chasing an uber-selective quarry, worry about your size #20 Trico spinner having the right tail length and off you, jolly well, go. Carp will feed selectively on spinners, emergers and dries so you can indulge your dubbed body colour selection hangups when choosing just the right colour of size #18 skating sedge. If you are apt to worry about whether or not to use the light tan sedge with the claret-coloured thread head, rather than the semi-tan sedge with the pale claret-coloured thread, go for carp as they, too , will appreciate your obsessive nature.

If you are going to fish dry flies and emergers for carp, make sure you degrease the leader. Naturally, you may want to drop down to a 5x tippet to fish smaller flies, so just use your favourite leader to keep the fly a minimum of 15 feet away from your fly line.

Now, if you don’t harbor any inner feelings about matching the hatch, take a beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph or a beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph, tie it onto the end of your 15-foot level leader and off you go.

If you don’t like fishing beadheads, try a soft-clawed crayfish pattern, a black or an olive leech or a mayfly nymph. The fly size should be matched to the fishing conditions. If the water is clear; go with smaller sizes like #14 and #16 beadheads, size #10 crayfish and size #10 or size #12 leeches. If the water is off-colour, go with size #8 or size #10 beadheads, size #6 or size #4 crayfish and size #8 leeches or mayfly nymphs.

Nymphs, crayfish and leeches are most productive when they are fished using a very slow, figure-of-eight retrieve, while dries are best fished static, and streamers, like the Jack Frost, Muddler Minnow and Zonker, are best fished with long slow pulls.

One of the best dry flies for catching carp is the F-Fly, Marjan Fratnik’s dressed-down version of Jules Rindlisbachers Entenpurzel fly, which has produced some stellar catches of carp. Right behind the F-Fly is Dave Shipman’s Buzzer, tied with a body made from well-marked hare’s ear fur. Dry-fly fishing for carp is still in its infancy, but one of the pioneers of dry-fly carping, Stephan Eszes from the Casual Dress Fly Fishing Club in Guelph, Ontario, swears by the F-Fly. He has taken more carp on dries than anyone on the planet, so he knows what he is talking about.

While it’s tempting to use a cast of two flies when carping, it’s best to stay well way from trying it. Landing one carp on a fly rod is tough, landing two or more carp is a nightmare. The first time I hooked two carp on a team of flies was way back in the 1980s, and it was a harrowing experience. In 2000, Karla Sheaves was the first person (not a fishing guide) I know of to land two carp on a team of two flies. She landed a 6 lb. and a 9 lb. carp on a 6-weight rod. Not to be outdone, in 2003, Stephan Eszes landed two carp and a female mallard duck on a team of two soft-clawed crayfish flies fished on a 15-foot level leader of 4 lb. Vanish fluorocarbon. I was on hand to help him land both of the fish and the duck without a net. It sure was exciting stuff and we are still in therapy from that particular event.

Last, but not least, here is the big “How To” on catching carp. First, locate a few carp. If you can’t find any, you may need to hire a Norwegian Carp hound which will soon sniff one out for you.

Carp in the shallows are hard to get as they will know you are coming, so you need to use a very delicate presentation with a dry fly or a small nymph. If you are using a dry, fish it static; if you are using a nymph, let it sink to the bottom and then retrieve it with a slow figure-of-eight retrieve. Watch the leader or the tip of the line for a very soft take.

If you are using a dry, let the carp suck it down, then gently lift into the fish. Do not strike! Repeat: Do not strike! Gently lift into the fish.

If you are lucky enough to find a “mudding carp,” one which has its nose down and its tail up rooting around for bugs, drop a nymph or a crayfish about 10 feet upstream of the carp and let the fly drift down to the carp drag free. You may not feel the take, but if the fish moves to the direction of your drifting fly, or even turns its head in the direction of the fly gently lift the rod tip.

Most of the takes are so soft that you won’t feel them.

If all else fails, cast a long line across the current with a Jack Frost, Muddler or a Missionary fly on the leader. Mend to get the fly down and then strip the fly back with long, slow strips. This is blind fishing and it might produce a few hits as carp are awfully fond of scarfing back minnows and small baitfish. Small pockets below riffles are the perfect spot to try a minnow pattern or a crayfish fly.

Over the past 7 years or so, I have been experimenting using the Czech nymphing technique for catching carp. The system will work, but the trick is to use a clear fly line and to fish the nymphs through the very edge of some fast water, where a back eddy may be holding carp. The carp will swim in to the fast water and take the nymphs just as they are being lifted off the bottom at the end of the drift. You can get the hits, but setting the hook is difficult.

That’s all for now. I’ve shared with you some tips backed up by 36 years of carping with a fly. If you need any more information drop me an e-mail and I will try to answer your questions. If you are successful, send your name into the Canadian Carp Registry on my website. If you manage to hook a goldfish when carping, please let me know. The easy way to distinguish carp from goldfish is to look at their mouth. Carp have barbels, goldfish do not.

© 2006, Ian Colin James, used with permission

Carping: Fly Fishing's Crack (Part 1)