Seize the … carp? A fraternity of flycasters is just not kidding about its carp fishing

Flyfishing for carp requires dexterity and use of an appropriate fly pattern. The fisherman has to choose a fly that simulates the food organisms the carp eats. The weighted fly has cast ahead of the fish, submerged to the bottom of the pond, and then retrieved in front of the fish.

I flyfish for carp and I’m not here to apologize for it, which is how a lot of these stories begin. (That there have been other stories should tell you something, but never mind about that.)

I will admit that the first carp I caught on a fly rod was an accident, and that, after realizing it wasn’t an enormous large-mount bass, I was pretty disappointed and even a little hesitant to touch the thing. And when I first stumbled upon a couple of local flyfishermen who were actually catching carp on purpose, I thought it was either a joke or maybe another weird little campaign in the sport’s ongoing class wars.

But either way, I figured I’d better try it, and when I did, the most natural thing in the world happened: May aesthetics adjusted to fit the situation. I mean, the fish were big. (A five-pound carp is nodding special.) They were spooky and sometimes discriminating. The fishing itself was visual and stealthy. And I couldn’t catch them at first, even though a carp-fishing dentist I know had given me the dressing for his secret, killer carp fly. Beyond that fly pattern, advice was hard to come by. There was no hot young carp guide down at the local fly shop, no standard carp fly selection in any tackle catalog and no book entitled “Selective Carp.”

I guess that was the most exciting part: So few people flyfish for carp that very little is known about the sport. If you want to learn how to do it, you have to pick the brain of one of the rare people who are into it, or just go out and try it for yourself. In “Carp In North America,” published by the American Fisheries Society, Ronald J. Spitler says, “When it comes to flyfishing [for carp] we are drifting a bit into the unknown…”

I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the sound of that.

Where I’ve fished for carp the most–in the warm-water ponds and reservoirs of northeastern Colorado–you can usually find carp tailing like bonefish on the shallow flats on hot summer days. They’re beautifully camouflaged against the silty bottom, but you can pick them out by the faint, lazy puffs of mud they blow through their gills as they suck in food, or by their tails waving slowly under the surface like big brown flowers. In deeper water, you can sometimes locate them by the trails of tiny bubbles they leave while feeding.

Then it’s a matter of casting a weighted fly ahead of a fish, letting it sink to the bottom and retrieving it in front of the fish, slowly or briskly, depending on its mood. I’m told it’s just like fishing crab flies for bonefish, right down to sound a lot easier than it really is.

Sometimes you’ll spot pods of four or five carp cruising off the bottom in clear water. They’re as easy to spook as brown trout in the same situation, but if you cast quietly and far enough ahead of them, one may peel off and take a slowly sinking or gently retrieved nymph. And, naturally, rising carp will take dry flies. By the way, a carp rising to insects or whatever floating on the surface is said to be “clooping.”

When it comes to choosing fly patterns, the boilerplate logic of flyfishing works as well as anything. That is: Unless you have a better idea, copy the food organism they’re eating.

Carp feed mostly on aquatic insects, crustaceans, crawdads and such–pretty much what trout would eat in the same water. For tailing carp, I’ve had my best luck with size No. 8 or 10 drab-colored, weighted flies tied upside down so that their hooks ride up. This keeps you from fouling on the bottom, and because the fish usually comes at the fly from above with its suctioning mouth, you want the hook on top anyway–a nice coincidence.

One of my favorites is the Tarcher Nymph, invented as a trout fly by Ken Iwamasa of Boulder, Colorado. Tom Austin, lately of Austin, Texas, does well with bonefish flies like Crazy Charlies and Epoxy flies; and Steve Peterson, also of Boulder, has come up with a neat little Clouser Minnow variation he calls a Bloodshot Charlie–one of only three or four patterns I know of that are tied especially for carp.

The carp I’ve caught and seen caught on dry flies ate trout patterns that more or less copied what was on the water: grasshoppers, mayfly spinners and so on. Then again, the first carp I ever hooked on a dry fly took a No. 14 Royal Wulff, even though the fish seemed to be eating cottonwood seeds.

I didn’t know about it then, but one of the carp patterns I’ve run across is actually meant to resemble a cottonwood seed. Another is a deer-hair mulberry. That’s right, the same small fruit that is often made into jelly. Like the man said, “We are drifting a bit into the unknown. …”

I guess I didn’t flyfish for carp entirely for its own sake at first. In the beginning, it was just a hoot. Then, when I couldn’t catch one right away, hooking a carp fairly on a fly became a mildly interesting problem. Then I caught a little one, weighing maybe three or four pounds, and it nearly took me into the backing on a six-weight rod.

It turns out that as a flyrod gamefish, the average carp is far bigger than the average bass or trout and more widely distributed than both put together. They can be difficult to hook, and they’ll usually fight with great strength. In the best carp water you stand a better-than-even chance of hooking and landing a 10-pound or bigger fish, and because most American fishermen (especially flyfishermen) don’t much like carp, you’ll probably have the best water all to yourself.

You know other fishermen sometimes casually drift over in your direction when they see you catching fish? They do that when you’re catching carp, too, but when they see what you’re into, they just drift away again. I wish I could make them do that with trout.

Oddly enough, America is one of the few places where carp are disliked. In Europe they’re highly regarded as a food and game fish and were once reserved only for royalty. In China and Japan they are traditional symbols of strength and nobility. Poets wrote about them and samurai warriors once rode into battle carrying carp banners.

Carp were introduced to America in the late 1800s to replace some of the native fish populations that we had all but destroyed through pollution, commercial fishing and general habitat destruction. Carp did well because they were hardy enough to live in the now warm, muddy water that other gamefish couldn’t handle. They were well received at first.

But by the early 1900s, carp began to fall out of favor as a food fish, probably because Americans didn’t understand how to raise them commercially. In Europe, carp raised for eating were kept in clean, cool water, but here in the United States they were farmed in or caught from any old hot, murky pond–and they tasted like it.

We eventually came to miss the fish the carp had replaced, and though it was our fault that the water wasn’t clear and clean enough for them anymore, we somehow managed to ignore that. According to Rob Buffler and Tom Dickson in “Fishing for Buffalo,” the American prejudice against carp developed as follows: First we trashed our waters to the point where nothing but carp would survive in them, and then we blamed the carp for trashing the water.

That’s unfair, but I guess it’s not all bad. The thing I like most about flyfishing for carp is that it’s not popular, and with any luck, it never will be. In a way, it reminds me of flyfishing itself before it became fashionable. If you were heavily into it, you were considered sort of a nut, and those of us with antisocial tendencies felt pretty comfortable with that.

Going up against a widely held prejudice has another advantage. I’ve come to think of these critters as big, handsome, graceful, wary fish with great dignity about them. But on the other hand, they’re still just carp, and people can’t understand why you’d want to catch them, so it’s hard to take all this seriously–which is exactly how fishing should be.

In fact, the only fishing contest I’ve seen that makes any sense to me is the Big Lip Invitational, a flyfishing-only carp tournament held every summer in Fort Smith, Montana. Steve Peterson and I have fished it as a team for two years now. At first we just saw it as a joke, but after engaging in the experience, we began to see it as a more refined, intelligent joke–a genuine tournament that is, nonetheless, a spoof on tournaments.

Its saving grace is that there’s no prize money. Members of the winning team (the one that boats the most carp) have their names engraved on the traveling carp trophy and get to bask in 10 or 15 minutes of local glory, before the picnic breaks up and everyone goes home … and that’s it.

There are also awards for the biggest carp, the carp with the biggest lips, and a few booby prizes for things like the carp with the smallest lips. The rules themselves are simple: two-man teams, flyfishing only, no motors, no chumming, carp must have both lips to qualify. The field is small–there were 16 boats in 1993, a few less in ’94–and the entry fee is just enough to cover a picnic supper and official T-shirts.

Of course, Steve and I–not to mention the other Colorado team, Larry and Donna Pogreba–created our own T-shirts. The motto reads “Carpe Carpio,” which we thought was Latin for “Seize the Carp.” We learned later that it should have been “Carpe Carplum,” thought about changing it, then decided that a grammatical error in a dead language was somehow appropriate for an event like this.

The carp fishing contest began six years ago as the logical extension of a typical guide’s day off. Some of the people who guided trout fishers on the famous Big Horn River below Yellowtail Dam took to going up above the dam to Big Horn Lake to flyfish for carp on their days off–to relax, to get away from the crowds and to have some yuks. It was fun, it wasn’t easy and, guides being guides, some discussions arose as to who was the best carp fisher. Hence the tournament, organized by the Big Horn Trout Shop in Fort Smith.

A few teams from out-of-state have entered in recent years, but this is still essentially a small, local event held in a sleepy little fishing town in southern Montana. It draws no spectators, teams aren’t sponsored by tackle manufacturers, and what you’re reading is probably the only coverage it’ll ever get. And though more than one fisherman in Fort Smith or at the nearby Cottonwood Campground will tell you, “We take our carp fishing seriously around here,” something in his manner will suggest this isn’t completely true.

Considering that the winners of this thing probably quality as the flyfishing-for-carp champions of North America, it’s all surprisingly casual–though this year we did receive a warning. A guy took us aside and said, “Keep an eye on your boat.” It seems that last year we were newcomers and had been treated as guests, but now we’ve become regulars.

“Someone could, you know, steal your drain plug or hide your oars,” the guy said.

Apparently tricks are played now and then, but it’s not always clear what’s a practical joke and what’s not. On the morning of the last tournament, John Keiser showed up with a primitive-looking carp painted down each side of his drift boat. “Is that a case of vandalism?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said proudly, “I did that myself.”

Steve and I have never won the tournament, but the first year we entered we finished in a three-way tie for second place. Last time we finished further back, but I caught the biggest carp: a 6 1/2-pounder on a dry fly, for which I was awarded a set of carp note cards. Still, we plan to keep at it until we can bring the traveling trophy–and the glory–back to Colorado for the winter.

But the best thing about the tournament is the fishing itself. The water in Big Horn Lake is gin clear and cool. The banks are either rubble rock or sheer cliff. And there’s no bottom feeding because at the lower end of the reservoir where the tournament takes place, the bottom is 400 feet down. This is by far the best dry-fly carp water I’ve ever seen.

The best way to find carp that will take dry flies is to cruise around the shoreline looking for their snouts quietly poking up through windblown rafts of organic and semi-organic matter where insects, among other things, collect. This stuff is not exactly classic trout stream foam, and I didn’t know what to call it until Steve suggested “schmoots.” I like the sound of that, and after all, we do need the terminology. This is a fairly new sport, but it’s still flyfishing, so we have to be able to say things like, “It was a hot, windless afternoon and carp were clooping in the schmoots.”

The fishing is delicate, demanding and visual, and the carp fight unusually hard in that cool water. Fish more than 10 pounds are sometimes landed, but most run maybe five or six pounds. That’s not terribly large for carp, but it’s bigger than the average trout caught in the Big Horn River.

Steve and I arrived a couple of days before the tournament and planned to spend a day scouting the lake, then maybe a day floating the river for trout. But after a great day of carping with caddis and hopper patterns, and after considering reports that the river was only fishing well with nymphs, we asked ourselves, “Why nymph fish in a crowd, when you can catch bigger fish on dry flies in solitude?”

We headed back to the lake.

Come to think of it, I never have gotten around to fishing for trout in the Big Horn River. I should do that one of these days. I hear it’s actually pretty good.

About Connie F. Kirkland

View all posts by Connie F. Kirkland →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *