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Carp, The Perfect Fish?

By Joe Cornwall

Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
July 2004


The White Amur, aka grass carp, is a cousin to the common carp.


The perfect fish, if there were such an animal, would grow quickly and be adaptable to any kind of water quality from cold to warm, alkaline to acidic. It would call every state of our country home and be available to anglers in their neighborhood waters.  This fish would be able to survive on whatever fodder nature and the contrivances of man made available.  It would grow to enormous size; measurable in pounds, not inches.  The perfect fish should fight like its mother was Tanya Harding and its father Mike Tyson.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the perfect fish would have to be smart and capable of demanding the sportsman’s most refined prowess; it must not come easily.  If such a fish were available, would you fish for it?  Perhaps you'd even come to obsess over it?  Would you pay attention if the dean of warm water fly fishing, Dave Whitlock himself, were the one to award the "perfect fish" title?

 The common carp (Cyprinus carpio) was introduced to the waters of North America during the second half of the nineteenth century.  Its success in exploiting any available ecological niche is legendary, its ability to survive and flourish is a topic of reverence in many cultures.  The carp is at its most abundant in fertile, low gradient, warm streams and rivers, lakes and ponds – the kind of water that can be found at every turn of the road in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest.  Despite water quality varying from the pristine to the polluted and in the face of bow fishing, poisoning by rotenone, natural disease and the general contempt of the less enlightened angling community where it is often referred to as a “sewer bass”,  the common carp has not simply endured and survived.  It has flourished.  The carp is big, strong, tough and a hard fighter.  Further, this giant goldfish may be one of the most difficult and challenging of all freshwater targets for the long-rod enthusiast.  The common carp is, indeed, a near perfect fish! 

My first carp on a fly came as a something of a surprise, an experience I have heard echoed from many a fly fisher.  I remember the day quite clearly.  I was fishing a smallish bead-head nymph on a long, 4X leader through the deep and narrow runs of the East Fork of the Little Miami River.  It was a dry, hot August day and I had been catching 8 to 10 inch smallmouth pretty consistently.  They were tightly packed in the well oxygenated waters of the quick runs due to the extreme heat and a severe low-water condition. The gentle tap-tap-tap belied the size and power of the fish that would take that little nymph, run my fly line out into the backing, flex my four weight to the breaking point, and leave me shaking and wondering what had just happened.  I was hooked far more deeply than any carp ever would be! 

 If so many folks hook their first carp as a surprise (some would say “mistake”), why does it become so difficult to do it again on purpose?  There-in lies the conundrum that is carping on a fly.  The carp is happy to feed in shallow, clear water.  It does this during the brightest and warmest part of the day, when watching these golden ghosts is an easy pass-time.  Let’s remember, though, that no fish gets to be an adult in the unforgiving aquatic environment without showing a sublime level of caution.  While you may be able to see the carp leisurely swimming or even tailing and feeding, rest assured the carp sees you too.  And it knows you shouldn’t be there - in that water.  You can only get so close before you realize that even three feet and twenty pounds of supreme predator can be spooked by the flash of your fly line in the air, twenty feet away.  Too many times the only thing the aspiring carp fly fisher sees is the powerful bow wave of a departing target and the a large swirl of mud where its tail used to be!  Rule One of successful carp fishing - Blend In!

Carp are opportunistic feeders.  For several weeks of 2004 I was obsessive about fishing carp with dry flies as they vacuum dead and dying cicadas from the top of local ponds and lakes.  You will often see carp sucking cottonwood seeds and thistle seeds from the surface, or even “smutting” small midges and black flies from the surface of still water areas.  With a sub-terminal mouth, carp are certainly not designed for surface feeding, however.  They are built for rooting around in the bottom and if you want to be successful you should show a carp something that lives at its own level.  Nymphs and crayfish are carp staples, the later being a creature for which carp demonstrate a particular sweet-tooth.  Rule two of successful carp fishing - show them something they expect to see!

I was fishing smallmouth along the crystal clear and very productive Ottertail River of north-central Minnesota one day a few years ago.  Smallmouth bass to three pounds were responding very, very well to a size 6 bead-head, olive wooly bugger drifted along the bottom of the cobble-studded stream on a 3x tippet.  I spotted a good sized carp, perhaps 10 or 12 lbs, tailing along the bank and decided to show her my fly.  My cast landed lightly two feet upstream and one foot to the right of the feeding fish.  The fly entered the water gently and slowly sank to the bottom of the gin-clear flow.  The carp moved forward and hovered over my fly, tilting gently down to take the fly from the bottom.  With a sudden swirl and a huge splash the fish bolted across the creek to deeper water, leaving my fly - and me - covered with mud and ridicule.  What happened?

 Carp have an amazing sense of smell and a very, very sensitive sense of hearing.  Additionally, a carp has no need for reading glasses. They can see as well as any trout, and locate food underwater using a sensitive lateral line and inner ear as effectively as any bucketmouth bass.  Carp, if you’ll pardon the pun, are not suckers.  They are selective to both pattern and presentation.  If brown trout were as consistently picky as carp, virtually no one would catch them!  If a carp is keyed in on a specific food organism, you must imitate that organism to the finest level possible.  The carp I met on the Ottertail River that day clearly knew the difference between an impressionistic wooly bugger and the dragon fly nymphs it wanted to eat.  While the smallmouth were quite happy to smack anything that looked remotely alive, the carp were far more selective.  Rule three - know what you are imitating and present it with the utmost care!

 Cowen Lake is among my favorite destinations in southwest Ohio.  It’s a pretty little lake, with limited horsepower regulations and a fine population of bluegill, bass, saugeye, white bass and carp.  My canoe floated silently along the bank as I fired cast after cast to the shallow water, retrieving a size 10 Assam Dragon nymph imitation along the bottom until it reached the deep break, just twenty or thirty feet off the wooded bank.  Bass to 14” or so had responded well, and I was having a blast with my 5-weight fly rod and full-sinking Type III line tipped with a 3 foot leader of 3X fluorocarbon. 

I felt a gentle tap on the fly and strip set the hook in reaction only to feel…. nothing.  The line didn’t move, the rod bending to a full curve.  “It must be a log” was my first thought.  It was the only thought for which I had time before the ‘log’ decided to get out of Dodge!  In the wink of an eye the full 90 feet of my fly line had melted off my reel and backing was disappearing at an alarming rate.  150 feet of line screamed off the reel in a staccato run when the little fly reel decided it had had enough.  It froze as its bearing locked tight.  The line came super-tight in a heartbeat, and I heard a sickening “CRACK” as the graphite of my rod parted from the strain.  I less than a minute my reel was trash, my rod broken, my fish lost, my pride bruised.  Carp are big, strong and very hard to control.  Rule 4 of successful carp fishing - use gear suited to the task if you intend to be successful.  A six weight fly rod and a reel with a well maintained disc drag should be considered the minimum acceptable gear when one is targeting carp.  100 yards of backing is barely enough if you fish lakes.  Thanks to Mark Blauvelt for the image below - this is a typical Midwestern carp and it's easily strong enough to test your best tackle!

“In my opinion, carp are a supreme fly-rod challenge, equal to or excelling selective trout, bonefish, or permit in difficulty to take on a fly.  To be successful hooking carp on flies, one must be very skilled at fly selection, casting, presentation, and fighting fish…  They tested us, they fascinated us, they amazed us and they thrilled us.”  These are the thoughts of master fly angler Dave Whitlock in his preface to Carp on the Fly, A Flyfishing Guide (Spring Creek Press, ISBN 1-55566-207-2).  Do you think you are up to the ultimate challenge in fresh water fly fishing?  If so, don’t bother with a plane ticket or travel agent.  Just head to the local fishing hole and prepare to be humbled.

 Tight lines and good fishing.


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