Reflections on the common carp – Cyprinus carpio

So I spent a few days traveling to far off places in search of feeding fish that might take a fly and I was intent on avoiding any of the fall glamor species and the crowds that go along with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ardent a fan of these species as any. I’m not about to lay off. Though I find myself put off by the crowds they seem to draw at the right place at the right time. Often, it seems as if there should be a ™ symbol by Madison River Brown Trout or Skagit River Steelhead™. But I can’t argue, when it’s on for these species, things are as good as they get – powerful fish, beautiful surroundings, and often some sort of technical challenge to give it all a cerebral element. Fish the pmd hatch on the Henry’s Fork and be off by a fraction of a size, color or emergence stage and you’re most likely going to be out of the game. Get it all right, and earn the honor of being able to walk away satisfied, if not a bit smug, over your fly fishing prowess. Ha!

Meanwhile, all those lowland waters that get driven over on the way to that Notable River™ are often teeming with the oft overlooked, but supremely challenging common carp, Cyprinus carpio. They are at once victim, persecuter and abhorrence. But think it through from a fly fishing perspective:

1) Carp are widespread and where they occur are often abundant.

2) They can reach large sizes.

3) They are not native, thus no worries about hurting the last vestiges of some wild strain.

4) They frequent shallow water where they feed often and visibly. No need for trying to hit the two hour hatch window.

5) They can be ultra-spooky. Think size 12 hook hitting the water and sending them scurrying.

6) Their dietary habits can range from the specific (fallen seeds) to the general (general bottom feeding), providing a range of fishing situations that must be addressed.

7) They are powerful.

With that in mind, I loaded up the truck with my pram, a couple of fly rods and a handful of what seemed like possible carp flies. I had two specific river locations in mind and a handful of lakes to check along the way. At every filling station along the way, the pram in the back would draw a comment and when I told them what I was after … the response was predictable “CARP!??” But it turns out everyone, and I mean everyone has a carp story. And this is good, because unlike a secret trout stream, or salmon hole, people will offer up any number of spots teeming with carp. This was a good thing for this out-of-towner. Talking carp also automatically puts you in “local” status. Your even with everybody else. You’re not some rich out-of-towner who got lost on the way to Such-and-Such Creek®. You’re after carp…

So the lakes I checked out were way out in the middle of the sagebrush and some old fisheries reports had listed carp as present but I found the water quality to be too poor for ideal fishing, or the fish just weren’t showing when I pulled up. I did find a spectacular new rock hounding spot, though, and that will be preserved for a future trip.

The first river I knew contained carp and lo-and-behold they were there: mudding, finning, grazing. However, the water was a bit too turbid for what I considered proper sight fishing and it was too weedy as well. Many fish were simply grubbing deep in the weeds. Sometimes, they were right on shore, their heads buried in a tangle of weeds, backs out of water. These fish weren’t really fishable. I did manage to land one and hook one more by eyeballing fish in deeper water that were mudding. The mud trails in the current gave away their location and a dozen casts later – casts that had to land on a dime – would result in a slight turn of the fish that suggested it might have inhaled the fly. Often wrong, sometimes right, it was tough fishing and not the situation I had scripted in my head. Off to clearer waters….

I made it to the big river. Nearly a mile wide, water visibility approaching ten feet and it’s shoreline bordered by a shallow fringe – sometimes cobble, sometimes sand and carp were visible at great distances. Another gas station tip landed me at some roadside path through a field of sticker bushes to the broadest expanse of sand flats I’ve ever seen in a river. The forecast that day called for light winds. The water at 9:00 am was glassy smooth and with the bright sun rising, this felt more like the bonefish flats of Christmas Island than some large river more known for its salmon runs and fish killing dams. And there was the first ripple on the water followed by the waving tail of a carp grubbing bottom. The tail disappears and the slight ripple on the water vanishes and all this could easily go unseen. The flats are a mixture of open, barren sand punctuated by a few cruising carp, with patches of aquatic vegetation that the carp seem drawn to.

They are ultra spooky in the calm, clear water and the “plink” of a weighted fly can send them off. More often, they seem to slowly amble away rather than flat out bolt. Some fish seem to feed leisurely while others are more intent about it. These are the ones that I will eventually find success on. They won’t move far for a fly, but I did have one jerk its head over about 6″ to grab my tiny rubber legged concoction as i slowly crept it along the bottom. What a sight!! Most of the time, the cast has to literally fall on a dime. Sometimes you can get away with overcasting then slowly stripping in the ‘the zone’ but that risks lining the fish, and if it sees the fly coming at them, it will most likely scurry away. Most memorable fish was one spotted tailing around a small pocket of weeds. I spent several minutes creeping up to accurate casting range. A half dozen casts later the fly sank perfectly, I saw a flick of its head, a puff of mud and I knew it was on. Into the backing it went and a long, slow lumbering run. I was under-prepared with my 7 wt rod. These fish are just too heavy to effectively manage. Next time will be an 8wt – at least.

The breeze stayed at bay until about 1:00 when the first ripples made sight fishing more difficult, and I had already had my fill. I suspect I’ll be craving this again, come next summer.