By Peter Morse:
The best things about carp are also the worst things about them. In many parts of the world, carp are plentiful, resilient and even invasive. A day of carp fishing often comes with countless opportunities and shots at redemption, but what else can carp teach us about fly fishing?
How to Sight Fish
I believe blind casting for carp completely misses the good side of these fish (yes there is one). There should be no need to bait them with bread, or even to use flies that look like dough. I suppose in an ultra-urban environment it’s okay, but in the wild it’s simply unnecessary. Colour, shape, and movement are the key elements to spotting fish. We need to be attuned to these three things at all times. For example, let’s say you spot some colour, look closely to see its shape or if it moves. In slightly murky water, colour can be a stick, a rock on the bottom, or a contour in the substrate. Carp can also lie stationary, making them a great opportunity to fine-tune your spotting skills. For example, the subtle colour change of a tail is often a give-away for those with well-adjusted eyes.
Movement can be as subtle as the flick of a tail underwater, the yellow flash of lips, or an anomalous ripple. Even a puff of mud from a feeding fish presents both colour and movement. These principles apply to all sight fishing, on any water. Additional elements are shadow and flash, but they aren’t as significant on carp water.
Fisheries with little pressure are often home to unsuspicious carp. There’s a river west of where I live with big sandy bends and gravel bars. Early in the season, when they’re just beginning to get active, the fish are relatively easy to catch. After a few weeks of pressure, however, you’ll notice a big difference. From afar, you may find a pool with fish feeding happily on the edges in sand and gravel, but the moment you step onto that gravel or sand, even if you’re 20 meters from the water, you’ll see the fish start to slide off into the depths. They don’t panic and flee, they just slide away. Fish in deeper water head down and root among the larger stones. These fish aren’t quite so alert, but getting a fly in their face is a challenge in itself.
Fish in running water can be easily approached, but are often very tough to catch. The challenges they present are some of my favourite. Here, the carp get into skinny running water, seeking safety in the pockets of fine gravel between large rocks. This can make for tricky fly presentation. You need to drift your fly right past the carp’s face and then react instantaneously to the bite.
The pressured shorelines of lakes see fish constantly moving in from the depths, meaning the fish tend to be less wary. But on rivers, the fish definitely react negatively to noisy shoreside conversation or sounds on the bank. When they’re spooky they’re MUCH tougher than trout, but this is solved by simply wading twenty meters where you’ll undoubtedly find an easier target.
Speaking of easy targets, carp dozing on the water’s surface during the middle of the day are usually very approachable, but they often don’t eat. A very slow sinking fly right in their face will sometimes warrant a bite.
Accuracy and Presentations
In spite of the folklore, carp can have great eyesight. I like to think they have a window of vision–a feeding window that they focus on. There are always going to be exceptions, but if you aim to get your fly into that window and you present it properly, most of the time, you’re in the game.
I prefer to use a 4 weight rod with 6 lb tippet for carp. A simple tapered leader around 11 feet will make landing a fish by yourself much easier. The reason I like a tapered leader is because they tend to be more accurate, and short-range accuracy is very important. I use a simple 7.5 ft tapered leader and add 3 feet of 6 lb tippet to the front (or I make my own leader out of sections of nylon).
They’ll Eat Most Trout Flies
Carp will certainly spook from a fly landing noisily or too close to them, but this can vary from fish to fish. Feeding fish are usually so focused that they’re not overly spooky. Fish that are looking for food, however, are on maximum alert. You’ll learn a lot about fish body language by watching them feed and react.
The combination of water turbidity, relatively poor sight, and constant roaming, carp are one of the few fish we can comfortably use the strip and drop presentation method on. This is when the fly is cast past the fish and then, before it sinks, is stripped back into the fish’s path where it is left to sink again. Watch for the yellow lips! This is a great technique for new fly anglers, especially those who want to learn how to sight fish.
*Note: don’t use this method on finicky fish, as it will scare them. Why? Fish simply don’t like being “attacked” by a fly.
My three favorite flies for carp are woolly worms in a variety of sizes, colours and weights. A small tan fuzzle bugger with a small bead head is a great fly (for me). As a dry fly, smaller grasshopper patterns have worked exceptionally well in the summer months when there are plenty of hoppers about. On clear water dams like Wyangala, carp will charge a twitched hopper from a couple of meters away to engulf it. Carp don’t require an extensive range of sophisticated patterns and most trout flies will work on them.
Learning to Feed the Fish
There’s a term that often pops up among experienced fly fishers. “Feed the fish”. What does this mean? It means presenting the fly in front of the fish so that it almost has to eat it… basically an offer that can’t be refused. Carp love to be fed the fly. It can be suspended or sunk slowly, but most of the time the best thing to do–especially if it looks like they haven’t seen it or are ignoring it–is to take it away from them a couple of times with short strips, and then let them eat it. Once you’ve provoked a chase, a carp will usually eat.
Carp are very efficient, lazy feeders that rarely need to hunt down their food. They prefer to eat food directly in their window. Exceptions are fish on gravel beds honed in on small yabbies and larger prey. These fish are typically more active, and such gravel beds invariably have cleaner water flowing over them. So, get the fly in the fish’s face and bring it to life with small twitches right as the fish approaches it.
To do this successfully we have to learn another lesson: reading the fish’s body language. The two principle reactions of a carp to a fly are to either ignore it or eat it. In my experience, if a fish seems to ignore (or avoid) the fly after several presentations, it’s mostly likely seen it and will continue to reject it on subsequent presentations. They aren’t stupid, and are actually considered to be one of the smarter sportfish.
It’s also important to remember that carp feed differently in certain waterways. Wyangala dam, for example, comes to mind. The dam is in the granite foothills of the western slopes, where impoundments don’t muddy up the water easily. There are far fewer silty corners where carp can root around in the mud, but there are so many fish that they inevitably group together.
The Wyangala carp are far more pelagic, often feeding on shrimp and baitfish. I’ve tracked them as they feed along the shoreline, showering up schools of bait in front of them. When comparing these carp to those from other dams, they have fine thin lips. Fish that do a lot of rooting around in mud, however, have large inflamed lips.
How to Fight Fish
The way a carp fights is dependent on a number of conditions. The health of the fish is obviously a factor, and post spawn fish can be pretty sluggish. Water temperature plays a great role, with high temps also means sluggish fights (mostly due to low oxygen). But considering that most of the carp we sight fish for are far larger than the average trout, we can learn a lot by fighting them. You’ll need sufficient backing on your reel (especially in the impoundments) and good knots. Good technique to turn, stop, and tire a fish is necessary, as these techniques will stand you in good stead wherever you fish.
It’s impossible to generalize how a carp will fight, but be prepared for them to take off or thrash around. Rolling a fish is just about the deadliest thing you can do during the fight, regardless of the species. Rolling a fish involves getting the rod tip under the water and pulling them from underneath to flip them over. Simply put, it destroys a fish’s moral. This technique can only be done once the fish is relatively close to shore. Once you’ve been able to practice this numerous times throughout the day, it’ll come in handy when fishing for a multitude of species found in the flats–especially if you are fishing light.
Carp are also a great fish to practise “pulling”. Learn to pull them from the angle that hurts them the most. This will help you to understand rod angles, the pressure we can put on fish, and the importance of good knots.
So go to it, hone your entire range of fly fishing skills on these fish, and just enjoy what they offer.
Find Peter at https://wildfish.com.au