The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtil
fish; that was not at first bred, nor hath been long in England, but is
now naturalised. – Sir Isaac Walton
I’ve been obsessed with
copper, lately. Copper is the color of one of the largest and most
powerful freshwater game fish found in our local waters. Copper is the
color of the buttery flash you’ll see as a spooky fish turns and bolts
from a presentation you thought was perfect. You may even experience a
coppery taste in the back of your throat as your adrenalin peaks in the
seconds it takes for you to realize the first run is unstoppable. Copper
is the last thing you’ll see as your tippet parts under the explosive
strain. I’ve temporarily traded my love for smallmouth bass for an
infatuation with carp and, perhaps when you’ve been hammered by copper,
you will too!
A few years ago the Brood
X cicada emergence overwhelmed southwest Ohio, and with it came one of the
most astounding opportunities to hook big carp on a dry fly. Most of the
lakes and rivers east and south of Cincinnati gave up world-class fishing
during the month-long abundance of the red-eyed singers. If you were
here, or if you have periodic cicada emergences in your area, you've
probably found a way to get a taste of that stupendous opportunity. But
if you didn’t, don’t fret. The carp are still there, and they’re still
feeding. We’ll just have to adjust our tactics to enjoy the most
challenging game in fresh water; sight fishing for carp.
Fly fishermen are
notorious for their fascination with moving water. I’ll admit I often
prefer a scenic creek with its intimate ambience over the intimidating
open spaces of our local impoundments. The big lakes can seem
impenetrable to the shore-bound angler and overwhelming to the fellow in a
canoe, kayak or float tube. If you decide to target walleye, sauger or
summer largemouth you’d be right in your hesitation, but carp make the big
waters play a bit differently. Carp feed along the banks in shallow
water, even in the middle of the day. The rocky rip-rap along the faces
dams are a prime places to look, and these spots are almost always in a
“no wake” zone. And beaches, especially in the early morning and late
afternoon, are magnets for carp searching the stirred lake bed for
insects, aquatic worms and small minnows. Get a good pair of polarized
glasses and you can get in on the game.
There are three
dependable patterns that you can capitalize on for great carp fun.
Opportunistic carp can be found along beaches, picnic areas and on large
flats nearly every morning and again in the late afternoon as the lake
quiets down. Steadily feeding fish can be found along rip-rap banks with
access to deep water all during the day. Finally, actively hunting fish
can be found around bait balls in open, deep water in one of the most
surprising of carp behavioral patterns. Let’s look at each opportunity in
In the earliest hours of
the morning, even the biggest of lakes can lay down. When the breezes are
still, that’s the time to visit the beach. Carp will come onto these vast
sand-bottomed clearings to look for midge larva and pupa, small aquatic
worms and crayfish. A five to seven-weight rod and a trout-tapered
weight-forward line will make the quiet, accurate presentations necessary
to fool wary carp. Leaders need to be long, but tippets can be stout with
a 10lb test fluorocarbon being a great choice. I like to use 9-foot
“bonefish” leaders and add two feet of tippet for a total length of
11-feet or so. Flies need to be sleek and quiet on entry, but they must
break the surface and sink immediately. A carp will take a dropping fly,
but it will almost always be spooked if you have to twitch the fly to get
it to break the water’s surface.
My favorite patterns for
this presentation are a Muskrat nymph, Red Fox Squirrel nymph or San Juan
worm in size 10 or 12, tied on a heavy-wire hook like a Mustad 3906B
without any additional weight. It’s important to soak the fly before
making a presentation. You should also keep false casts to a minimum so
you don’t dry it out. The fly needs to enter the water quietly and sink
naturally. Products like Gehrke’s Xink or anise and crayfish-based
fishing scents increase success rates by covering the “human” scents left
on flies (carp have one of the keenest abilities to detect chemicals in
water - ie smell- of any freshwater animal) and keeping them wet so they
Stalking the carp is the
name of the game in this pattern. You must walk softly and slowly along
the bank, keeping out of the water as much as possible. Choosing the east
bank of the lake for morning fishing, or the west bank for evening, will
keep the sun over your shoulder and improve visibility. But be very
careful of your shadow and the shadow of your line and rod! Carp are
easily spooked by airborne movements! Look for bulging water or tails
breaking the surface, low-power field glasses with a wide field of view
are a good tool for scanning large areas of water. Determine the
direction in which the fish is traveling and be aware that carp are seldom
alone. A spooked carp will leave a pheromone trail that will spook other
fish from the area for as much as half an hour!
carp demands many of the same skills as bow-hunting. You must move
smoothly and quietly. You need to blend in with your background – avoid
bright hats or flashy accessories hanging from your vest! Getting close
enough to make a quality presentation might require crawling the last few
yards on your knees or duck-walking through the shallows. At 70-feet the
chances of success are poor. At 50-feet you’re getting into the game.
For a real chance at hooking a fish you need to present from 30 to 40 feet
out, though. That way you’ll see the fly and the fish’s response. Often
a feeding carp kicks up a plume of silt, so the hook-set needs to be done
from the most subtle of indications. A slight twitch of the leader or the
flash of a fishes gill cover as it turns on the fly might be your only
signal to set the hook. There is a premium on casting accuracy.
Fish feeding amid the
rocks of a riprap bank can be taken all day, so long as there is good
visibility. For this carp pattern a boat, float tube or kayak is
necessary. A bass boat will give you the best view into the water, but
beware of the sound of the electric trolling motor and the depth finder.
Big carp can easily sense the sonic signature of these high-tech tools and
will often move off until you’ve passed. Ideally you’ll be able to see at
least four feet into the water. The water near the dam of a big
impoundment is often the most clear, and visibility to 12-feet isn’t
uncommon on the big local lakes like Brookville, Caesar’s Creek or Harsha.
Lakes in your area are quite likely similar.
The need for visibility
of the fly is increased under these conditions. You need to be able to
spot your fly as it sinks so you can gauge the reaction of the fish. Keep
in mind that a fly doesn’t sink perfectly vertically and that refraction
always makes the fish look farther away than it is. You need to cast
about 3-feet beyond a sighted fish for the fly to drop in front of it.
While the same rod and line will work, I like a slightly longer tippet
with a shorter taper on my leader. For fishing the face of a dam I’ll use
a six-foot 1X tapered leader and add four-feet of 10lb test fluorocarbon
tippet for a total leader length of 10-feet. Favorite flies include
traditional bonefish patterns such as a Gottcha or Crazy Charlie in a
color that’s slightly lighter than the color of the bottom in sizes from
10 to 6. Bead-chain eyes are often necessary to get the fly to drop the 3
to 6-feet where the carp are feeding (carp rarely come up to a fly, but
they’ll quickly nose-down). Add a spot of white at the head of the fly
so you can more easily track its journey to the bottom.
The best part about
fishing a rocky bank for carp is that fish will move up out of deeper
water on a regular and rotating basis all day. Select a nice piece of
water a few hundreds yard long, and you can work from one end to the other
over-and-over and see fish all day. They come looking for dragonfly
nymphs and crayfish and are rarely disturbed by boat traffic. Instead of
leaving in a flat-out panic like the opportunistic beach-combing fish,
fish in deeper water will often just slide down to a deeper level until
things quiet down again.
Bobby Gray, of Fly and
Shot Outfitters in Cincinnati, introduced me to the most unique of all
carp behaviors during an outing several years ago. According to Gray, he’s
reliably guided and fished this behavioral pattern for years.
Accolades must be awarded for his keen observational abilities; I’ve
neither heard nor seen this technique discussed anywhere else in all my
years of fly fishing. Bobby discovered that carp will haunt the bait
balls of newly hatched shad over deep, clear water from mid July until the
water starts to cool in the fall.
Shad spawn in early
summer. By mid summer the fry, which feed on zooplankton, have reached a
length of ½” to ¾”. They will school tightly in the open water of lakes,
often forming big balls of baitfish that will look like a shadow on the
water. These bait balls will often cruise just under the surface over the
river channel of lake bays and the main lake. Carp up to 10-pounds will
cruise just under the surface a few feet out from the bait ball and make
“strafing” runs into the school of shad, turning to pick off stranglers
and injured fry. This is sight fishing at its most extreme and requires a
canoe or boat that is quiet and provides a stable, elevated platform where
you can both see the bait and the cruising carp.
Carp on the surface of
open water are among the most spooky and cautious of all fish. They will
turn away from an errant cast and sink into the depths in retribution for
even the most minor of errors. Small streamers like a Gray Ghost,
Whitlock Sheep Shad, or Joe’s Simple Shad are the right flies to use.
Sizes must match the prevalent size of the juvenile shad, typically a size
8 or 10 in July, moving up to a size 6 in late August and September.
Casts must be long and accurate and your boat-handling skills will be
tested. You must see the fish and keep from spooking it while you set up
for the cast. All the while the fish is moving and so is the bait.
Efficiency is at a premium as you have only a few seconds to make the
presentation before the conditions change. Look for this pattern to
develop to its fullest as other fishing opportunities begin to decline.
Like fishing for gar, fishing for carp hunting shad is a game that’s best
played on the bright, calm, dog-days of summer. Bring your SPF 50, a good
supply of cold water and a sense of humor!
Carp are dogged
fighters. Over deep water they’ll seldom run far. 30 yards is a long run
for a carp in more than 10-feet of water. Instead they’ll move to the
bottom and fight with a constant head-shaking and repeated short runs
back-and-forth along the bottom. A big fish can be a real handful. One
fish, estimated between 20 and 25 pounds, recently played this bulldogging
game with me for more than an hour on Lake Cowen before the frayed and
stretched tippet finally parted boat-side. Bring a big net or Boga grip
and make sure to check your knots often. Fish caught from the beach will
quickly demonstrate the quality of your reel’s drag. If the flat is large
and the water is shallow you can expect runs of up to 100 yards from a
Maybe you’ve cast to the
occasional carp while fishing for smallmouth or trout on our regional
flows. You might even have made a deliberate trip or two to target
the Queen of the Rivers. If you haven’t tried for copper on the bigger
water, you’re missing a great Midwestern opportunity, though. Don’t
let the lakes intimidate you. There’s great fishing available all
summer if you have a boat, canoe, kayak, float tube or wading shoes.
Who knows… maybe you’ll even temporarily trade in your love for smallmouth
or trout for an infatuation with copper!