Fly fishing for carp has become a popular, dare I say trendy, area of the sport. As a kid, I remember watching guys walk along in the late spring, “pitch forking” carp, i.e., stabbing carp in the shallows and leaving them there dead or in the throngs of death. This was not exceptional as I can remember people “pursuing” carp in every heinous way imaginable. I considered carp trash fish and at the least was indifferent to them and at the worst hated carp for dashing hopes of catching “real fish” when I would catch one by accident. The huge numbers of these fish were no doubt a contributing factor to my feelings toward them. I’m thankful that I’ve not only learned to appreciate the challenge and fun of these fish, but also to appreciate them as a fish. I now cringe when I see trophy carp dead or slaughtered, since they are such an amazing fish, particularly trophy fish.
I’ve now fished for carp for about twenty years on the fly and am still learning about them and always trying to refine my techniques to be able to catch these fish in any environment, not just in the easiest or closest waters to me. Fishing for carp has the potential to introduce you to other roughfish like buffalo, freshwater drum, and suckers and encourages the development of new fishing approaches. This article is meant to outline the main types of approaches toward carp and all roughfish with a fly, which have helped me to catch three and a half species of carp: common, mirror, grass, and quillback carpsucker in addition to tons of other roughfish species. This article will also cover the general moods and behaviors of the carp as how they relate to presentation. Hopefully, other carp fly angler can add to and improve these techniques for carp fly fishing. Also, below you’ll find some links to other aspects of carp fly fishing, if you’re interested in these.
GREAT LAKES CARP
FLY FISHING FOR CARP: TACTICS
“THE CLAW”: MODIFIED DAPPING
“The claw” is simply a modified dap of the fly by lowering the fly right in front of the fish, just like “the Claw” in Toy Story or any metal claw you’ve seen whose goal it is to grab cheap stuffed animals for your kids. Little to no cast is required, just the fly dropping right in front of the fish. This is used on tailing fish, in murky water, and on fish that have not been pressured at all. The obvious limitation is the close proximity you have to be to make this presentation. If the carp in your area don’t care that you are standing up 8-12 feet away, then you are probably using this technique a lot. Tailing fish are obviously the primary candidates. You can also use smaller flies with this technique, particularly in shallow clear water, since you can see them at this close distance.
I have very little experience with this presentation, which is to suspend the fly a few inches off of the bottom in the fish’s feeding window. The fish then sucks in the fly. According to Trevor Tanner or “McTage” at flycarpin.com, who employs the technique on a regular basis, the carp will smash the fly straight down into the water, more or less hooking itself.
DRAG, DROP, AND LAY
The drag-drop-lay is probably the most common presentation to tailing carp, but it’s very common with cruising or “shopping” carp as well. This is certain if the fish is out of dap range. The goal of the presentation is to “cast” beyond the carp, not over it, and strip/drag your line until your fly is over the spot where you want to present the fly relative to the carp. The dropped fly then is left alone when it is certain the fish has seen the fly. Two flies can be used in a variety of ways to increase your presentation control with this tactic.
Carp fly anglers are often very specific in how they are delivering the fly. They will begin with a simple dap or lowering of the fly and then vary their casting stroke as they get farther away. Some of the names they use are pitching, plopping, and lobbing. The main goal is to get the fly to land with as little of the line as possible on the water. In this respect, the surface is disturbed as little as possible. The casting stroke is open with the lob style or you are just flicking the rod with your wrist with pitching and plopping techniques. Once you start to get some fly line out, you are not as accurate with the lobbing techniques, so you have to use “regular” casting. Like in saltwater flats fishing you have to cast beyond the fish and strip the line in rather than dragging it strictly. It’s not as accurate, but your options are limited when fish are beyond thirty feet as they most often are in the Great Lakes.
THE DROP: AS A TRIGGER
“The drop” is simply a triggering technique that can be used as far out as you can see your fly. It is simply dropping the fly in front of the fish in order to trigger a strike, rather than dragging and dropping the fly on the bottom, which eventually happens if the fish doesn’t take the fly on the fall. There is a subtle difference, however, since you want fish to see this drop, while at other times you may still use a drag and drop but use it far enough ahead of the fish that it doesn’t see the drop, since a dropping fly may spook fish. Fish that are tailing may see the fly drop for a split second and pounce on the fly. However, fish that are up in the water column, moving slowly, or fish that are “circulating” can be coaxed quite well with this tactic.
Carp can be pursued in rivers with the same tactics you would use to fish for trout, i.e., dead drift nymphing. You will take all manner of roughfish when you fish in waters that have suckers, baitfish, whitefish, and carp of various species. I’ve caught at least 15 different roughfish species in rivers with the bulk of these being sucker species of every sort but also grass carp, common carp, and quillback carpsuckers. These have all come from dead drift nymphing with the occasional dry fly fish, and dry flies can really take carp in these rivers, particularly with terrestrials like cicadas. This of course changes when the water becomes more or less a still water. In these cases, all of the “standard” fly fishing carp tactics work.
HEAVE AND LEAVE
This brings us to the “heave-and-leave” or HAL. This tactic is just like fishing for trout on the surface of a stillwater in which you cast and leave the fly almost always a dry fly. This is done usually with sight-fishing where you can target fish. The distance you cast near the fish is always dependent on the prey item and the fishery, so experiment to see where your carp like the fly. Sometimes the plop can be a trigger as with cicadas. I’ve had many frustrating experiences with grass carp with the heave-and-leave as they will often rise up and examine your imitation like a Silver Creek brown.
SUSPENDED WITHIN TWO FEET
Carp will take carp flies that are suspended, or sometimes moving as in the Great Lakes, at their head level particularly when slowly cruising. This comes in the form of flies that are slowly sinking, flies that have neutral buoyancy, or dropper flies off of dries. When you’re in an area where carp are circulating in and out of the area at varying depths and speeds, this can be a great technique. Grass carp in particular are prone to eating flies offered with this type of presentation, but sometimes a small nymph suspended such as a midge/buzzer pattern will take fish when nothing else will.
The mulberry plop is just that, plopping a fly, usually a mulberry fly, into the water as a triggering device. When certain plants begin losing their fruit, carp begin to key on the sound of the fruit hitting the water just like they do with terrestrials. Use your rod to drive the fly down with a plop near a prospective fish, most often not tailing.
One of the most effective, if not the most effective, ways to catch a lot of carp is with chumming. Chumming is not legal in every state in the U.S., so check your local fishing regulations if you feel the desire to chum up carp. Chumming is common in Europe where little bits of dog food are thrown into the water to get fish feeding like a hoard of hungry sharks in a slick. The fishing isn’t challenging in the least, and the fish take your fly with gusto. I think this takes a lot of the fun out of carp fly fishing, but it’s up to each person to make their own decision. Chumming is common with sharks and other bluewater species, so where you draw the line is up to each angler.
RETRIEVED OR MOVED
In theory, you could use any retrieve or moving presentation to carp, such as with damselflies, scuds, dragonflies, crayfish etc. I do know some who will target big carp with skinny clousers retrieved, but I have only had limited success with any rapidly moved presentation in order to imitate a food species. I have had some success jumping my fly on the Great Lakes as if the fly is a frightened crayfish or goby, and I am sure that others on different bodies of water do this regularly. I have also caught plenty of fish, just creeping the fly along so that I could feel the take better. I’ve done this primarily in the Great Lakes. Another variation is to use the drag and drop well ahead of the fish, and if the fish has changed its path or not seemed to have seen the fly, then I have twitched or moved the fly slightly. This will sometimes get the fish’s attention, in which case I usually leave the fly still. Another way I have moved the fly is to drag the fly after it has hit the bottom, but this is more or less the drag and drop on the bottom and has no triggering characteristics.
In one body of water I fish with gin clear water, in a public place, and with heavy fishing pressure, you can never drop the fly in front of the fish, they will bolt like someone has dumped poison into the water. In this case, you must slide the fly into the fish’s field of vision. This body of water is the most difficult body of water that I have ever fished for carp (both because of casting and educated fish), and I feel lucky to hook one or two fish on a normal outing. I go there only for the challenge, since it is the Silver Creek/Harriman Ranch of my carp fishing world and keeps me on my game for both salt and freshwater fishing.
FLY FISHING FOR CARP: BEHAVIOR AND MOODS
When thinking about carp behaviors, it comes down to focused activity. Carp are probably the least multitasking fish I have ever encountered. They focus their energy on one activity. Bonefish and other flats species will cruise in between locations, but can normally be tempted into eating on the move. Bonefish will occasionally even eat after being startled a bit. Most fish are very opportunistic, but in my experience, carp are the most difficult fish to tempt to eat when they are not engaged in a positive feeding activity.
Carp that are in a positive feeding mood are great targets. The easiest way to gauge whether a carp is a great target or not is swimming speed. Ideally, a carp with a moderate to slow swimming speed is a great target. You also want fish that are not swimming linearly if possible. Finally, a fish that is swimming with its head closer to the bottom is normally more apt to eat then one that is cruising at mock ten near the surface, unless there are mulberries, cicadas, hex adults, etc., on the surface. The fish that are in this group are above all tailers and any fish that are moving slowly with some side-to-side movement. These are normally cruisers and what carp aficionados call “shoppers.” Shoppers are fish that are actively looking for food. Carp may switch from cruiser to shopper to tailer very quickly, depending on the abundance of the food source. These fish are normally slow to moderate swimmers, and will normally be near the bottom or near the surface, depending on the food sources.
There is one instance when a slow to moderate swimming carp is not ideal. That is a fleeing fish. Carp are a little strange in that they will not always bolt out of an area. They may simply loaf out of an area when something has put them in a negative feeding mood. The carp is not actively fleeing, but it will almost never eat a fly because its senses are heightened negatively. These fish are moving very slowly at times, but their movement is almost 100% linear. They’re getting out of the area. Don’t cast to these fish because carp are inherently social and may alert other fish if you try to cast to them again. They may eventually return if you don’t spook them too much.
Fish that are moving moderately or slowly are normally the prime targets. They aren’t stationary, and they aren’t rockets. Questionable targets are those fish that are not moving at all. Carp will sun themselves, but they will also rest. Sometimes these are synonymous, but I’m convinced they’re not always the same thing. I’ve seen large carp sitting on the bottoms of weedy bays, while other fish in the same area sunning/resting in the extreme shallows. These fish might be receptive to some sort of a reaction bite, where they see the fly and turn slightly on it or suck it in gently. Flies on the drop or jumped up a bit are your best bet normally, since the carp aren’t moving by definition. You may tempt them enough to get a strike, but they might just lie there like a log with no interest at all in your fly, or anything else for that matter.
Another form of fish that is questionable is a carp that is holding in current. They are technically not moving, but this is a little misleading. For anyone who has fished for trout in rivers, not all fish are alike. There are many subtleties on how to read a trout in the current. Some might be sulking on the bottom. There is current all around, but these fish are more or less completely out of the current and not interested in anything you have to offer them. Use your knowledge of current and trout to read carp in the current as well. There is not enough space in this article to cover trout/carp in current, but apply your knowledge of trout to carp. The bottom line is that you want some movement within the space in which the carp or trout is holding. Are they feeding? Are they moving back and forth? Activity will more often than not tell you what the fish’s mood is. Obviously dead drift nymphing tactics are the prime techniques in this situation. Either way, both sunning/resting carp and carp in current can be very good or very poor targets.
Funny enough, negative targets are commonly active. They are often moving the fastest or are expending the most energy. A bad carp target is an actively spawning fish. This is the same for almost every species of fish there is. When a carp or any other fish is in the act of spawning, there is almost zero chance of catching that fish legitimately. Look for fish that are in between spawning cycles. These fish will act like any other carp you might find, but are probably either resting or actively looking for food. You can recognize spawning carp by the loud thrashing you hear in vegetation and in the shallows. These fish have one thing on their mind.
Two other negative carp targets are fish that are moving completely linearly at a very fast speed. First, you have the actively fleeing carp. These fish are not the moping negative fish we spoke of previously. They are frightened and leaving you and your fly behind. These are just as negative and difficult to catch as spawning fish. I have never caught a spawning or rapidly fleeing carp, ever! Next, you have the fast cruisers. These fish have somewhere to be. They are normally not interested in stopping, but have a purpose—to get somewhere else. You can try to cast ahead of them and get the fly to their level, but in my experience these are very tough fish to catch unless again they are moving slowly or moderately. The Great Lakes have some very fast cruisers that will actually take a fly if you can get it to their level and maybe drop the fly and then jump it off the bottom. If the cruisers are in shallow water, then you have a reasonable chance of catching them in this body of water. In this respect, they act similarly to bonefish. The faster the cruiser and normally the higher it is in the water column, the more difficult it is to catch it.
It’s important to talk about the mid-depths as well. Everything mentioned so far is applicable to carp in the mid-depths. The prey items of your fishery will determine if fish are feeding at the mid-depths. Grass carp in particular will feed at the mid-depths very often, and so will common/mirror carp if the food sources are at the mid-depths. Vegetation, damselflies, dragonflies, midge, snails, etc., are all in the mid-depths. If the water is from one to two feet, some carp will actually feed at all levels of the water column in a five minute period. Some may be on the bottom. Some may be at the mid-depths, and some may be feeding very closely to the surface. When long vegetation is present and decent depth, this is when fish will feed at the mid-depths. They will use the vegetation like the bottom of the pond or lake. Fish will also suspend at the mid-depths to sun/rest. These fish behave like normal sunning/resting fish, but I’ve found them a little tougher to catch than fish in the shallows. They will eat though, and dropper rigs with chironomids or nearly neutrally buoyant flies work well here. The mid-depths commonly addressed in carp fly fishing literature, but they can be extremely important, particularly when grass carp are present.
Hopefully these techniques and the carp moods related to these tactics will help you catch a lot more carp. Carp are flexible and adapt to many watery environments, so make sure to be adaptable yourself. Make sure to let us know about any other fly fishing carp tactics you regularly use, or let us know if we missed an important mood/behavior to go along with these tactics. Happy carping!