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Playing in the Minors…

By Joe Cornwall


Baseball players almost always have a period where they play in the minor leagues in order to prepare themselves for “The Big Show.”  While not quite as much money and resources are at stake, the game is no less competitive.  Effort is always spelled with a capital “E” and everyone brings their best game.  The audiences are a bit smaller, but the pride of winning is just as big and the players involved take it just as seriously.  Fly fishermen can take an important lesson from this.


I have been fortunate to fish for many saltwater species with a fly rod. One fish that is fast becoming incredibly popular on a world-wide basis is the redfish.  From the Outer Banks to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond this big, copper battler has become an important source of revenue, sport, pride and identity for the locations and sportsmen involved.  Redfish are “The Big Show.” But unlike baseball, it seems anglers have no well-defined minor leagues with their associated local access, lesser investments and smaller pool of stakeholders.  At least it seems that way.  In truth we’ve always had a wonderful qualifier for redfish, bonefish, and even permit in the form of a ubiquitous carp population.


Now some of you may have just rolled your eyes at the audacity of yet another writer comparing common carp – the ‘bugle bass’ of the Midwest – with the glorious redfish.  You’ll be tempted to say things like “saltwater fish pull harder” and “redfish are far more cautious” than carp.  Certainly few will argue that they can be caught in more glamorous (and expensive) venues.  And yet I’ve found the first to call out are the last to actually give it a try.  I won’t say a carp is stronger than a redfish, but redfish are seldom caught in a river that has a 4mph constant current to tilt the battle away from the angler.  I won’t say that a carp is less cautious, but I’ve seen them spook when a size 8 fly lands next to them, even when there are playful energetic children are splashing just scant yards up the beach.  And I won’t say that carp are more selective than redfish, but I’ve seen fish turn and bolt, leaving a cloud of silt and sand, at what appeared to be a perfect imitation. 


The best places to try your hand at sight fishing to carp are close to home and the season starts at the same time as spring practice.  I like swimming beaches at local impoundments.  In my home waters of Southwest Ohio this means Lake Cowen, Stonelick, East Fork and Caesar’s Creek.  As the water warms and the leaves bud I’ll switch my carping from lakeshore to riverbank.  By May I’m walking the levees of the Great Miami, Little Miami and even the Ohio River itself, looking for tailers.  As with redfish, don’t be afraid to move around!  I was fishing for redfish on the flats of the Indian River Lagoon in Titusville, Florida just recently (where the picture above was snapped) and the guide poled the boat a solid two miles or more over the course of the day.  “We don’t wait for fish, we work for opportunities” is how he explained it to me.  While certain areas will concentrate fish, the best chance at a hook-up still comes from a concentrated effort to find feeding, active fish.  Walk the beach and don’t take the shot until you have identified a specific target.


You should use exactly the same gear you use for redfish or bonefish on the flats.  A carp is just as capable of taxing your gear as any vetted professional in “The Big Show.”  One hundred yard sustained runs?  Absolutely.  Blistering acceleration that would make Ryan Freel blush?  You betcha! It may be triple A, but you’d better be prepared.  That means a reel with a properly maintained drag that turns smoothly and has no start-up roughness.  And it means lot’s of backing, too.  My own set-up consists of an Orvis Zero Gravity rod and matching Mach IV large-arbor reel complete with an 8-weight Rio line.


Here’s a surprise.  You should use exactly the same flies, too.  Carp feed on nymphs and aquatic insects, decapods (crayfish), small fish, and bivalves.  Redfish, bonefish and permit feed on shrimp, crabs and lobsters (decapods), clams, mussels and shellfish (bivalves), and small fish.  My favorite carp fly is a Mixed Media in size 4, 6 or 8, or a black-over-olive Clouser Deep Minnow in the same sizes.  My favorite redfish flies are a Mixed Media in size 4, 6 or 8, or a black-over-olive Clouser Deep Minnow in the same sizes.


On the flats or on a river bank, the game is the same.  Find a fish working nose-down in the sand.  Plan your approach.  Don’t rush up and try to drop a cast on his head.  No carp will reward such a lack of respect with a take.  You need to consider the wind, the angle of the cast and where you need to stand to keep from lining the fish or spooking it by the line in the air.  Get the measure of distance by false-casting well to the side of the intended target. You’ll only get one chance to make it work.  When you commit to the cast, understand you need to land your fly on a target the size of a dinner plate.  Do this consistently and you’ll regularly beach fish.  Struggle to get it once-in-a-while and you’ll become friendly with frustration.


When the fish takes you’ve got to remember to strip-strike.  Pulling up on the flexible tip of a fly rod won’t set a size 6 hook in a redfish’s mouth. Or in a carp’s mouth for that matter. Hooks need to be sharp and of heavy wire.  I’m serious when I say I use the same patterns- I carry the same fly book.  All my dedicated carp patterns are tied on stainless or tinned salt-water-safe hooks because my carp selection IS my redfish selection!


After the fish takes you’ve got to clear the line quickly and efficiently to get the animal on the reel.  While a carp doesn’t sprint like a bone (what does?) it is capable of sustained runs that can and will test the metal of your rig.  If you’re fishing in the GMR or the LMR, and the fish can catch the current, it’s quite probable that a 10-pound fish will put 200 feet between it and you in less time than it takes to read this sentence.  If you’re fishing the beaches of the local impoundments you might find larger fish that don’t run as fast.  The trade-off is that they don’t seem to stop, either.  I’ve had a 15-pound carp in Lake Cowen run 300 yards while I followed from my canoe.  On that occasion I was truly in the presence of an “irresistible force” and nothing my six-weight rod could do was going to turn that brute’s head.  Shortly thereafter I resolved to use 8-weight rods when targeting these semi-professional players. 


Fly fishing in salt water is gaining in popularity and, eventually, you’ll find yourself giving it a shot during a vacation afternoon while the family bakes poolside or shops in some quaint little village.  Redfish on the flats are an amazing experience.  Bones and permit, too.  But after you spend $400 to $600 for a guide, bake in the hot sun for 10 hours and finally get the hero shot you want you might find, as I have, that you get all the sport, all the fight, and all the challenge you can handle from the minor leagues.  These are all world class players – the only real difference is the park they play in.  One is far away, expensive and gloried - and the other is close to home, affordable and overlooked.  That’s just fine by me.


The Fly Fish Ohio team would like to thank Keith Meyers for the wonderful image of a large carp taken on a classic glass fly rod.

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