Fly Fishing for Carp

by Debbie Kay for Anglers Club , July 04, 2017

“Casting a fly for carp is like dragging a piece of fried chicken through the local seniors’ center. If it looks good and moves slowly enough, something will eventually try to gum it to death.”

Thus Field & Stream magazine introduced America to the idea of fly-fishing for carp 10 years ago.

The Golden Bonefish

Carp – long considered an invasive trash fish and the subject of mockery – still occupies the lower rung of U.S. fly-fishing. No one is planning a carp version of “A River Runs Through It”. Still, there’s no question that going after carp with flies has grown in acceptability, popularity and sophistication.

Indeed, you increasingly hear the nickname “Poor Man’s Bonefish” or “The Golden Bonefish” applied, a reference to similarities between sight-stalking feeding carp and flat fishing for saltwater bonefish.

“It’s always exciting to target a fish you can see, and the size and strength of carp magnify this. Combined with the lessons of patience, observation and big reward, this is a great fly-rod species!” says Dan Rhodes, a Northern California fly-fishermen who also specializes in selling waterfront fly-fishing real estate.

Carp Fly-Fishing is Not That Hard

Fishing for carp isn’t all that hard – if you find them under the right conditions. That means in the shallows, feeding, where you can spot their backs and dorsal fins. You have to go slow and quietly in three feet of water or less. Disturbances spook the fish.
Don’t underestimate carp. They are wary. One study found that in lab tests carp were twice as “smart” as bass, when it came to learning new things. The trick, according to Rhodes, is simply putting your fly out ahead of feeding fish, let it sink, then twitching it gently. Set the hook when you feel the slightest tug. Because this is sight fishing, bring polarized glasses and a good hat – preferably broad-brimmed.

Are You Up To The Challenge?

Carp are probably the largest freshwater fish fly anglers are likely to run into. The all tackle record is 75 pounds, and 20-30 pounders are ordinary. That’s a lot to handle on a fly rod, although it can be done – a 62-pound grass carp was caught in Alabama on a fly with a 12-lb tippet. You can’t go too heavy on tackle though, because catching them requires a small fly presented on a fairly light leader. If there was any question about carp fly-fishing going mainstream, it was answered by the proliferation of magazines and websites focused on carp.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of different reasons to try the sophisticated art of fly fishing on the humble (and sometimes reviled) carp. These invasive fish are often considered “trash fish,” and ignored by serious fishermen. However, there are some very good reasons not to ignore the carp and why they are a natural fit to fly fishing:

Fly Fishing for Carp is Free and Year-Round

Carp is an invasive species, and because of that, many states allow you to fish for them without a license. This means that you can fly-fish for carp while visiting other states and not have to worry about a license or a fishing season.

Practice for Saltwater Flats Fishing

If you live inland and are going on your first destination fishing trip to saltwater flats, this is a fantastic way to practice.

Fly Fishing for Carp is Serious Fun

Common carp, in particular, are omnivores and can eat anything. However, catching them is all about understanding behaviors and providing the right presentation. This means that your skill in understanding fish behavior and good technique will almost always be rewarded when you do it right. As a bonus, carp can get quite large, so you get the added satisfaction of catching some seriously large fish.

Understanding Carp Behavior

There are three main things to understand when catching carp. First, their eyes are downcast, so unless they are swimming upward, they will completely miss your presentation with a dry fly. Second, carp are slow to take a fly, so give them time before setting. Finally, different behavior requires different techniques, so watch for behaviors like this, and head for the fish who are displaying more active feeding responses:

• Gulpers: On hot, windless summer days, there is less oxygen in the water than on cooler or windier days. Carp have developed an adaptation that allows them to gulp air at the surface of the water. This is the most difficult time to catch carp, as they are busy breathing, but it still can be done with a dry fly at the surface, and some gentle strips or quivers. This takes patience, but it is possible.

• Snoozers: Fish and other underwater creatures tend to turn off portions of their brain to sleep. This allows them enough movement to stay alive, but makes them reasonably unresponsive. A sleeping carp will be hanging out but not really moving much. An awake carp is typically actively swimming and foraging. Snoozers are your hardest fish to catch.

• Cruisers: These fish are active, but they are darting about quickly like they are afraid of something. Cruisers are easy to spook, and you need perfect presentation and strips or a pause technique to catch them.

• Hunters: Hunters are cruising an area, eating occasionally. They spook really easily, but will take a fly if you have it waiting for them and they don’t see the entry. Some quick strips like a minnow or crawfish trying to escape will help them notice and take hold.

• Mudders: These are the easiest fish to catch, as they are actively feeding off the bottom, and you can pretty much plunk a fly right on their heads without spooking them. If you’re in murky water, watch for the fresh clouds of mud and aim in that direction.

Carp Fly-fishing by Robert Deen and Debbie Kay for


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