Carp Fly Fishing Article by Keith Meyers There are few things that can make my heart pound and my hands shake like the sight of a big carp cruising in shallow water. No other game fish here in the northwest offers such a unique fly-fishing experience, one requiring stealth, patience and pinpoint accuracy. Add in their size and abundance, and carp become almost the perfect fly rod game fish. Equipment Fly fishing for carp is a sight fishing game, one where you will be trying to spot the carp before he spots you, get your fly as close as you can, and then hopefully watch the fish take. All of these require that you be able to clearly see the fish. Polarized sunglasses are a must, as is a hat. A baseball cap is the bare minimum, and some sort of wide brimmed hat is even better. Just about any rod you have in your quiver will work for carp, as long as you are not afraid to put a serious bend in it. While a 7or 8weight will allow you to lean on them a bit harder, a lighter rod and line will allow you to make a gentler presentation, which is a critical part of this sport. Shorter rods are a bit more accurate, and this too is critical. Long casts are almost never necessary, most casts will be less than 40’, some a lot less. Fighting butts come in really handy, and although almost no rods under 6 weight have these from the factory, they can be easily added. Reels need to have a decent drag and plenty of backing in good shape. Multiplying reels will let you get all that backing back onto your reel a bit faster. Speaking of backing, when was the last time you saw yours? While not every carp will take your whole fly line, many will, and a few will seem like they are never going to stop. If you have not checked the condition of your backing, and the strength of the knot attaching your fly line to your backing, it would be a good idea to do this before the carp get a chance to do it for you! Leaders should be stout; 1x and 2x work well. Carp are generally not leader shy, and using anything lighter than 3x can turn into a waste of good flies. Depending on the fishing conditions, leaders can be from 6 to 12 feet in length. Shorter leaders will provide a bit more accuracy and will help you keep track of your fly’s location, while longer leaders can be of benefit if the carp are being exceptionally spooky. Many store bought leaders look like coiled springs when removed from the package and these should be thoroughly stretched and straightened, as all those curls will make it all that much harder to keep in touch with what is happening at the end of your line. While you might think that strike indicators would be effective in fly-fishing for carp, they actually create a couple of problems. Focusing on the indicator, waiting for it to move, will take your eyes off what you should be focusing on - the fish - and they also create that much more surface disturbance, which is the last thing you want. A floating fly line is all you will need for most of your carping, although there is room for experimenting here. Intermediate lines help to get through the wind and under the waves that so often plague the Columbia Basin, and also create less surface disturbance, so they can work well on those really skittery fish. As with leaders, making sure the line is free of kinks and curls before you start will be worth the effort. Carp eat almost everything, and most of the ones we will be fishing for will be near the bottom looking for something to eat, so nymph type flies work well. Sizes 10 thru 6 will cover most situations. Often carp are spooked by the splash of the fly, so if this is the case you will need to switch to a smaller or lighter fly. The instant, visual feedback carp will give you is a valuable tool and will allow you to quickly make corrections if you will pay attention to what the carp are telling you. Hooks should be heavy wire; carp are big powerful fish and will quickly straighten light wire hooks. Light colored flies seem to appeal to carp, as well as being easier for the fisherman to spot underwater than drab or dark flies. Flies should have enough weight to get down to the fishes’ level, but not so much that they end up dragging on the bottom. Just a casual look at a carp’s eyes will reveal that carp see very well above and to the side, and not so well directly below them. While they will certainly take flies directly off the bottom, a fly at about the carp’s eye level will be hard to resist. So for most carping, a #8 short shank, heavy-wire fly with perhaps a little bit of lead will be about right. Casting to the Right Carp If you have spent any time around water inhabited by carp, you have probably seen them hanging just under the surface by the dozens, or jumping wildly and chasing each other around the shallows. While these carp can be caught, they are not actively feeding and are going to be real tough. The carp we are looking for will not be quite so obvious; they will be cruising slowly near the bottom, perhaps stopping to check out a tidbit here and there, or they will be tailing or rooting with their heads down in the mud or gravel and their tails waving above them, sometimes clearly visible above the surface. Such carp are hungry and looking, and will be good targets. Sometimes finding such fish takes some walking and some serious looking, but it will be worth your time to find the right fish to cast to. Casting to the Right Spot Years ago a carp on a mud flat charged from ten feet away to take my slowly sinking fly. This is NOT usual carp behavior. Most of the time carp will not move more than a foot to take a fly, and many times will not move that far. Trying to get your fly and the carp within a few inches of each other, taking into account water depth, current, wind, and the carp’s movements and speed is the biggest challenge facing the carp fly fisherperson. Casting past the fish, then quickly pulling the fly back to where you want it to start sinking is a good plan. Ideally you want the fly to sink slowly right past the carp’s nose. If the cast was not right or the carp has changed direction, there’s no use wasting time - pick up your line and try again. Often it takes several casts to get the fly close to the business end of the carp, and often they spook before you can accomplish this task. Let them go once they are spooked. Most the time they will just slowly swim off. Trying to make one more cast to a fish that has already figured out that something “fishy” is going on can often result in a fish bolting wildly, spooking other nearby carp. Carp are lazy, and almost never chase a fly, so once you suspect your fly is near the carp, move it very little if at all. Moving it too much at this point will either spook the carp or take it out of the carp’s range. To Strike or Not to Strike? That is the question facing you once the fly and the carp are in the same spot. One magazine article a few years ago called this the “Zen” of carp fishing, and that is what it is. In a perfect world you would see the carp move to your fly and suck it in, but given variables such as water clarity, depth, wind, glare and distance, this is the exception and not the rule. Once the carp has moved to the general area of your fly, watch him closely for clues. Many times a carp will stop and dip its head down as it takes a fly near the bottom. Sometimes you will see him turn suddenly, and often you will see him flare his gills and fins as he sucks something in. While trout show the white of their mouths when they take something, many times carp will show orange as they extend their mouth. Tailing carp will often stop digging at the bottom for a few seconds as they chomp a few times on your fly. If you have access to some goldfish, take them some treats and watch their reaction as they find them. Carp exhibit the same reactions. You can also watch the end of your line, and occasionally you will see it twitch as the carp takes the fly. Carp almost never “strike” a fly hard, so if you are expecting a strong jerk on your line you are going to be in for a long wait! Instead, when you suspect or sense that the carp has your fly, slowly tighten your line and feel for resistance. If it feels like fish, lift your rod and hang on. Fishing in water where you cannot clearly see the fish will complicate matters even more, and this is where good Zen comes in handy. Watch your leader carefully for any little twitch, and don’t be afraid to tighten the line any time the carp’s actions change at all. You will likely get several casts at carp in this situation, for they also cannot see you clearly. All this will come easier with a bit of practice, and even experienced carp fly fishermen will admit to not always knowing when the carp has the fly. Where oh Where to Go?? Washington State is blessed (?) with some incredible carp water, and since listing it all would take forever, I’ll just mention a few spots where I have some personal experience. The Columbia River and its tributaries in the Basin have good carp water almost everywhere, including the area downstream of Kennewick, the sloughs around Plymouth, and even the Ringold area. On the north end of Richland the river has some shallow flats that are full of feeding carp in the summer. The Yakima River has good carping for spooky, picky fish in many areas, including the river right under the I-82 bridge by Richland and below Horn Rapids Dam. Further north Sprague Lake and the other lakes further down Cow Creek all offer good carping, with a lot of mirror carp showing up here. I have never fly fished for carp in Moses Lake itself, but have had great carping in Crab Creek just north of the lake, and am looking forward to exploring the lake itself. The Potholes area is ripe for exploration, and some of my favorite spots there include Soda, Long and Cresent lakes - these all have huge carp in them. Banks Lake has spacious carp flats and even a few guides taking clients out fly-fishing for carp! This is just a tiny list of spots that have carp - get out and explore in your area and you probably won’t be disappointed. Bear in mind when looking for good spots that you want to find shallow, warm water, preferably clear enough that you can see the fish. Try to avoid areas that are extremely muddy and soft. Although these spots often have fish in them, the fish will be hard to see well, and this is not pleasant or productive carping. Carp can be found as early as March, and they will be in the warmest sections of whatever body of water you happen to be exploring. Come late summer and fall, carp can be found almost anywhere, and this is a good time to start walking the river banks looking for good targets to cast to. Remember to look for fish that are feeding, and try to ignore those that are not. Odds and Ends Those carp we talked about earlier, hanging just under the surface sunning themselves? If you must try, they can be caught. For these fish you want a fly that just barely sinks, an Elk Hair Caddissoaked so it sinks will works well for this. Once again, try casting past the fish and pulling the fly back to them. Since they are usually stationary and near the top, getting a fly close to a carp in this setting is easier than casting to a fish under two feet of water. Since they are not actively feeding, you need to get the fly REALLY close to the fish’s eyes or mouth. This can be really slow, unproductive carping, but if you must… Carp feeding on the surface or “clooping” are fun and challenging. Often these will be the spookiest carp around, so longer leaders and smaller flies come into play here. Try to get a small dry fly as close to the fish as you can, as moving the fly much will usually result in a spooked carp. Once you see a carp start to take your fly, wait to strike as long as you can. The sucking in of your fly happens slowly, and it is easy to get excited and take the fly away from the fish. Carp will sometimes cruise along just under the surface and rise to whatever they can spot, just like a trout would. These can be a real “sucker” for a well-placed fly. Also, there have been several times when, while fishing the sloughs along the Columbia, I have found schools of carp facing into the oncoming waves clooping away. Again, a fly floated to the feeding fish worked well. Remember, though, that the vast majority of carp that you should be casting to will be on or near the bottom. Putting it All Together The big day has finally come and you’ve found a spot that should have some carp. You have on good sunglasses and a hat, and have your rod rigged with a 9’ 2x leader and a #6 wooly bugger. As you approach the water you hear a carp jump out in the distance and your pace quickens just a bit. Once on the shore you look around to see if you can see anything moving, then start walking the bank. Within a few yards there appears a big streak of mud in the water in front of you as a carp flees to deeper water. Dang! Slower now, up ahead you see a muddy area and even a bit of a wake. A few more feet and you can make out the outline of the fish, working in the gravel just a few feet from shore. Nervously you strip out some line and make that first cast. The fly lands just past the fish--perfect-- and you watch in horror as the fish stops feeding and slowly fades into the depths. This happens with the next three carp you actually manage to cast to, and you start to wonder if this is all a big fish story. Hang in there! You switch to an unweighted #8 Hare’s ear, and soon see a dark spot in the water ahead. Staying further back this time, you cast at what you suspect is the business end of the fish and let the fly settle, then slowly strip it back to you. The fish doesn’t move, so you cast again, this time taking a step closer, and again the fish ignores your fly. Another step and you realize that you have been casting to a hunk of sunken driftwood. As you stand there feeling rather stupid, you see another carp cruising towards you near the bottom. Casting way out in front of him you stand riveted in place as you watch your fly slowly disappear and the carp draw nearer. When the carp seems to be a few feet from where you hope your fly is, you strip in a foot of line to move your fly just a bit. Did the carp just change direction a little? Did he just STOP? Lifting the rod slowly you are stunned to see the line draw tight - fish on!!! Water flies everywhere as the carp bolts for deeper water, your rod flexes further than you thought possible, and you realize too late that you have the reel’s spool trapped in your hand. The 2x tippet pops, your whole body shakes, you stare into the water, and realize that although the carp is off, YOU are hooked so securely that you will never be the same again!