Carp flies “are like a box of chocolates”…. well, maybe more like chocolates. Mr. Gump’s mama probably didn’t do a lot of carp fly fishing, but she sure said something that applies to them. Carp flies are like bonefish or steelhead flies; there is virtually no limit to what you’ll see come out of the vise and into the aquatic pantry of the buglemouth bass. Size and a certain orientation in the water are more or less the only requirements with bonefish and steelhead flies, and carp flies share this to a certain extent. But the wide range of habitats that carp inhabit often present the need for “unorthodox” carp flies. It’s a bit overwhelming when you see the inexhaustible platoons of fly patterns for bonefish, steelhead, and now even carp. Why all the patterns? Do we really need this many, if we can even ask this question? I am one who believes more in presentation than in flies, but I also love to tie, and this causes my fly boxes to get bloated a bit and to sometimes fall into endless fly pattern syndrome. As I’ve grown as a fly angler, I’ve really started to tie flies for presentation variations rather than for different patterns that do virtually the same thing. Why all the patterns? Is it because we like different chocolate? Let’s take a look.
Before undertaking this, we should note that in a utilitarian world, all fly patterns should be designed with a specific presentation in mind. You don’t shell out the big bucks on a Whiting Ultra-Platinum hackle to tie a Hare’s Ear. That hackle is meant for flies that float. In this respect, you can’t select carp flies without knowing the basic conditions and presentation in which you’ll fish the fly. What’s the point of the fly? Is it meant to imitate a particular forage item? What do you want it to do, and what are the important aspects of designing and selecting these particular carp flies? These are some of the basic questions of designing and selecting carp flies.
CARP FLIES: TROUT FLIES AND FEEDING CARP
Most “trout” anglers have flies that will double as carp flies particularly when you find feeding carp. Feeding carp are almost always much easier to catch, and you’ve always got to let the conditions dictate your carp fly selection. Carp, in general, feed on most things that trout will feed on. When this happens, you use basically the same flies. The flies themselves are more or less the exact flies that you would use with trout fishing to match some sort of insect, either aquatic or otherwise. Carp will eat damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, midge etc. Also, terrestrials like cicadas, grasshoppers, and ants will take both common and grass carp in the right situation. These flies are, then, not carp flies per se but are “standard” flies that double as carp flies. That being said, you may need to tie your “trout flies” with heavier hooks if there’s a chance you’ll come into contact with carp over twelve pounds and particularly if 20 – 40 pound carp are available. The same can be said for scuds, worms, and eggs that you use on trout or steelhead (muted colors) but also general patterns like soft hackles. I’ve personally caught carp on many of these standard patterns. These fly patterns, whether “carp flies” or not, are connected with presentation, so let your presentation and the conditions on the water determine if you use these types of flies or if you need to go to more specific carp flies. So, what considerations are there for crafting and fishing these specific carp flies?
CARP FLIES: SINK RATE
Sink rate is obviously the speed at which carp flies sink and is directly related to presentation. There are a lot of carp presentations that require you to have different sink rates. Dead drift nymphing in rivers requires enough weight to get the fly down but not so much that the fly doesn’t move along the bottom. On the other hand, get your fly to the bottom as quickly as possible when the fish are feeding there. Let your presentation dictate the sink rate. There are a bunch of factors that play into the sink rate of carp flies: added weight, hook, materials, knot/tippet diameter, and current. Sink rate is more complicated than just adding heavier lead eyes. The primary reason for this is splash/vibration. Like with bonefish flies, if it were simply a matter of adding more weight, then we would be throwing baitcasters with four ounces of lead. This is where fly fishing is great; in situations where you need a soft landing. The problem is you often need a fast sink rate with little splash. We all have to sacrifice a little to create fantastic carp flies with the ideal sink rate.
Added weight obviously changes how fast your fly will sink but also adds a lot to the splash factor of your carp flies. Adding a bit heavier hook will distribute the weight throughout the fly and will reduce the splash of heavier added weight. The problem sometimes is that you need enough weight to make that heavier hook ride hook-up. Materials affect your sink rate a ton as well. If you tie in rabbit skin and fur, this floats more than synthetics or even marabou. Natural hairs in general are usually some of the most buoyant materials you can use for carp flies. These natural fibers are, however, among the best materials for carp flies. The way you tie these materials also affects sink rate. If you have a tight, sparsely tied body on a carp fly, this fly will sink much faster. If you have a long flapping wing, then there will be more water resistance. Current is an easy one for carp flies. The faster the current, the slower your fly will get to the bottom. Finally, your tippet diameter and specific knot will affect the sink rate greatly. A large diameter tippet will add more water resistance and make the sink rate slower, particularly with mono, but a loop knot will allow your fly to sink much faster, even with a larger diameter tippet.
Selecting carp flies requires taking all of this into consideration. You can remember this with two basic carp fly setups. 1) Carp flies that have heavy hooks, have a lot of added weight, are sparsely tied with synthetic materials, are in no current, and use small diameter tippet and a loop knot will have the fastest sink rate. 2) Carp flies that have light hooks, have very little added weight, are thickly tied with natural hairs, are in fast current, and use large diameter tippet and a “non-loop” knot like an improved clinch will have the slowest sink rate. Now you need to let conditions dictate how you tie, select, and present your carp flies. For example, let’s say you are casting to large carp in the shallows. You might need a fly that has little splash. The fly and setup would be something like this: has a strong but light hook, has little weight added, and is sparsely tied with maybe a little bunny hair or hackle. This fly gives you a soft landing but will sink sufficiently fast. Also, the materials will not pick up water as much and give you loud splashes in subsequent casts. There is probably no current in this situation, but if there is, then use a fly that has more weight. I would use stronger tippet with as small a diameter as possible (Seaguar Grand Max fluorocarbon 01X for example), and I would use a loop knot. When you tie your flies, think about the situations rather than just going crazy at the vice like Dr. Moreau.
CARP FLIES: “SUCK FACTOR”
No, your carp flies don’t suck, or do they? “Suck factor” encompasses the eatability of your carp flies once the carp sees them. The carp just sucks them up. The main factors involved in suck factor are feeding activity, profile/appearance, size, color, materials, and action/movement. In my eyes, feeding activity is the most important of these. If you have carp that are feeding consistently on a food source when you present your fly, carp become much easier to catch. In fact, they can become “dumb” and easy to catch in certain scenarios. The extreme is when they are feeding on chummed offerings like dog food or bread. Anything that even resembles these food sources is gobbled with reckless abandon. As long as your fly is close, you’re in.
Profile and general appearance are huge for carp flies. We are trying to get these fish with amazing smell/taste capabilities to eat our feathers and fur. That means that sight plays the primary role in triggering these fish to feed when we use carp flies. Unless these fish are feeding on a specific food source and you know this food source for certain, then impressionistic and just plain buggy profiles are the most successful. This also applies if carp in a specific body of water and time of year are feeding on a particular food source. In this case, impressionistic flies with a profile that is similar to these food sources works best. An example is McTage’s Trouser Worm, which I would classify as impressionistic but with an overall appearance of a worm. Flies like the Hybrid, Strymph, and Backstabber are great impressionistic/buggy carp flies. However, in the case of the hybrid, there is a conscious effort to imitate parts of clams which are all over the Columbia river. Along with profile is size. This is as important, if not more important, than profile. A small #12 hares ear will do the job in certain conditions, while a large two to three inch bunny pattern will do the job in others. There are quite a few different factors that will determine what size of fly you should use: unique water environment, available food sources, fish mood, water clarity, fishing pressure etc. This in itself could be the subject of an article or five, but in general, the more the pressure and less aggressive the fish, the smaller the pattern. Color is important especially in murky water, where darker colors allow the fish to see carp flies easier, but color is also important when you need to see the fly against the bottom of the body of water you’re fishing. As far as color as an attractor, I have no idea. I cannot point to a single instance of catching carp where color was obviously a major factor outside of murky water. I am starting to experiment with colors as a way to set the fly off from the bottom of the body of water, however.
The last main two are movement and materials. For me, fly materials are at times quite important on carp flies. I prefer flies that have natural materials, particularly rabbit fur including the skin. Your fly is squishy and takes on the scent of the watery environment. I can’t prove it but believe that these flies may taste better or more natural. As for fly movement, I, for one, have no idea if the movement of the materials of carp flies trigger carp. Movement in general can be critical in certain cases, like with the drop, on the Great Lakes, predatory carp, or with mulberries. The movement is generated by you rather than the materials of the fly. Even though I tie flies with materials that have lots of action, I am still uncertain how much this contributes to the carp taking your carp flies. For me, the primary movement of the fly to get the carp’s attention is normally the most important aspect of carp movement, and this has little to do with the material’s inherent movement. Drop rate and action may be even more important, but I can’t pattern fish using this. See some great carp flies here.
Carp flies are a bit like chocolates. Just don’t fill your box with the wrong kind. Even if you don’t tie, buy your patterns with presentation in mind. Don’t buy the fly because it looks good in the display case unless you’re filling your box to impress your friends. Think about this fly in the mouth of a golden beauty. How did it get there? This will help you fill your box with flies that don’t just look good. Hopefully at that point, you will know what you’re going to get…the chance to be like peas and carrots with a big, fat carp!