Carp on the Fly
Published Mar 6th 2010
Golden opportunities on the freshwater flats
You may be recalling a Bahamas bonefish experience or a Savannah tailing red fish scenario, but you are wrong on both counts. Instead, this one-on-one fly fishing experience plays out frequently in and around Charlotte, North Carolina. The area, with the Catawba River lake chain, provides unlimited amounts of flats and back bays in which common carp thrive. Like most locations, your home waters also will have an abundant Cyprinius carpio population. Read on to discover why this game fish's reputation of becoming a combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Mike Tyson is very accurate. The result is an exciting fly fishing outing close to home.
Let's start with a little background information. My home waters primarily contain two types of carp: grass and common carp. Grass carp are stocked, no reproductive, and vegetarian. They tend to grow bigger but can be more difficult to catch on the fly. Common carp, or the "Carolina bonefish," is my main focus. These fish readily tail and mud being opportunistic feeders resulting in a variety of fly options. Pound for pound their fighting ability surpasses all other freshwater fish. Not to he forgotten is their superior senses and tolerance to a variety of waters. Put it all together and you end up with what might he the ideal fly fishing escape within an hour of your desk.
The only two absolutes in carp fishing are clear water and finding feeding fish. Since the best style of fishing is stalking and sight fishing, visibility is a must. Start your search in shallow water, particularly less than 3 feet. Broad expansive flats are ideal and very productive. Don't overlook small flats parallel to deeper water and drop-offs. Some of these smaller flats may only be a few feet wide but run hundreds of yards along the curves of the shoreline. Pay even closer attention to rocky gravel points, blown down timber, undercut banks, and areas of vegetation. More often than not, once you find fish in a specific area they tend to stay close by, often orienting to the same piece of shoreline structure. Most fish use this location as a feeding circle pattern unless disturbed on a regular basis. Keep this in mind on consecutive trips because your approach can be pinpointed down and aid in increasing hookups. Regardless, the approach must be silent whether wading, poling, or even staking out. Be aware of stealth and noise reduction techniques before even entering the water. Carp are bottom feeders, readily detected by mud clouds drifting with currents and rising to the surface. The succession of these clouds enables the keen angler ability to track and find feeding carp.
Remember carp are very aware of their surroundings and easily flee the shallows. When you're out exploring, especially new areas, expect to see and spook plenty of fish the first few times. What's important here is to observe these fish. Use and record this knowledge, then on the next trip, scan and spot these areas from a distance, moving very cautiously and slowly. You now know what you are looking for, where to look, and what you're looking at. Your success in catching these fish will dramatically improve. When you do score, leave the immediate area. Carp release stress hormones alerting all nearby carp of danger. Never forget the wide-brimmed hat with a dark underside and polarized glasses. You can't catch these fish if you are not sure where they are.
Once you are in the right area, slow down and observe possible travel lanes. Feeding patterns, and even look for tails and backs breaking the surface. The observation time enables you to plan a route to intercept feeding fish, the second absolute to success. Attempt to, visualize the moment of a bronze tail, the flaring orange lips, or bottom flashing carp rather than the entire fish. These signs indicate feeding fish. Feeding fish are active and aggressive, taking flies readily. Avoid pods of carp, spawning carp, cruising carp, or those just sleeping under a bank. The best strategy is to pick one feeding fish and work him alone. Presentations have to be accurate to avoid lining and spooking carp. Once located, place your fly out in front of his travel path.
Even though carp can meander and feed erratically, the first cast still counts. Once in the carp's cone-shaped vision and feeding triangle, let the fly sink to the bottom. I once read "move the fly without really moving it." In other words, use strips and ticks just enough to make the fly breathe as the fish approaches. It is imperative to have a straight line from the tip of the rod to the fly. Slack or drag will prevent you from detecting subtle strikes. The initial take is not dramatic but a soft heaviness or line tightening.
Always observe the body language of your carp. Sudden thrusts forward, lip movements, or whirlpool-like movements all help detect strikes. As you feel or see the pickup, be prepared for a strip-strike. This takes a little practice if you are not used to this form of hook setting. At this stage you have either hooked the fish or pulled the fly from his zone. If continuing to feed, place casts in front of the fish until you hook up or spook him. I have had fish take it after three or four presentations. Again though, the first cast is the best. Successive casting works best by placing flies beyond the fish and bringing retrieves into the feeding zone.
If you hook it, be prepared for powerful successive runs. Initially, focus on clearing the line to avoid break-offs. Attempt to fight the fish from the reel using a smooth stutter-free drag system. As with bigger fish fights, use the rod butt by applying pressure opposite the fish's direction. Use firm, consistent pressure and anticipate surges at the boat.
Trips can easily yield 30 plus shots, making angling techniques like spotting fish, line management, big fish fighting skills, better casting strokes, accuracy, and handling adrenaline rushes easier. Your next $500/day trip to the salt really can be less frustrating, more enjoyable, and more productive with a little time on the freshwater flats.
You probably have most of the equipment used for carp on the fly. For starters, look in your trout and smallmouth boxes. Try nymphs, size 6 to 10, in olive, black, and brown. Wooly Worms in purple, yellow, black, and chartreuse cover the seeds and berry diets. Yellow is particularly good for finicky grass carp. Crayfish imitations, size 6 to 8, are favorites, especially those with rubber legs. Standard shortshanked Buggers can cover crayfish patterns effectively. Have a variety of natural colors with varied sink rates. Some of my personal favorites include Foxee Red Clousers, Mike O'Brien's Carp Clousers, and Rainey's Rubber Legged Dragonfly. San Juan Worms, foam black beetles, and Crazy Charlie derivatives all work well. I use both a 6 wt. 9 ft. and an 8 wt. 9 ft. fast action rod. Use a weight forward line and 150 yards of backing on your reel. Again, drags must be smooth. Use 9- to 12-ft. leaders with fluorocarbon tippets. Be prepared for both long and quick short casts. Knowing your rod and how it feels to load helps. A third rod rigged for bonus fish should be available.
Schooled bass frequently follow hooked carp similar to redfish behind rays. Big panfish, gar, and catfish are also frequently seen and caught. Experiment with flies and leaders as you go. Changing patterns and leader lengths can be rewarding to adjust for selective and/or skittish carp behavior.
No matter where you live, carp are in your backyard. Whether you use them as a saltwater trip primer or just to "knock off the rust," you will not be disappointed, only pleasantly surprised.
Captain Paul Rose, Carolinabonefishing.com, Charlotte, N.C. USA.