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Casting for Copper

By Joe Cornwall

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 turn.

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 sink effectively.

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!

Stalking shallow-water 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 heavy fish!

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!

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