The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp
From trash fish to your new favorite species to catch on the fly.
Casting a fly for carp is like dragging a piece of fried chicken through the local seniors’ center. If it looks good and moves slowly enough, something will eventually try to gum it to death. Oddly enough, fly fishing for the toothless common carp is hot, a long-simmering trend that’s grown dramatically over the past three years.
Carp are wary and smart and frequently hit 20 to 30 pounds. They sometimes feed in clear, shallow water, where they can be seduced with flies similar to those used for trout. There are now carp-on-the-fly fans from Washington state east to New York and Massachusetts, as well as in Europe. Books and videos on the subject are starting to appear. The staid International Game Fish Association now keeps fly-rod carp records. This is the next big deal.
Common Carp as a Cultural Icon
Flyfishermen, who can romanticize just about anything, are even calling them “golden ghosts” or “golden bones,” comparing the shallow-water habits of freshwater carp with those of saltwater bonefish. This is a real stretch. Since their introduction to North America in the mid-19th century, carp have been widely seen as nothing but trash fish here.
Carp are not pretty like brook trout. They don’t leap like smallmouth bass. They don’t make blazing runs like steelhead (or bonefish). They are, instead, coarsely scaled, rubber-mouthed bottom feeders with large round eyes that seem to express perpetual surprise.
On the plus side, carp have become almost ubiquitous in waters across the United States. The best fly fishing involves stalking them in shallow water, which is fun, and a large, hooked carp will run well into your backing, albeit more like a Mack truck than a Ferrari.
Given that perspective, you need to take your fly rod out for these fish. I did that last spring with a pair of fly fishing experts in Michigan, where I got over—well, almost over—a lifetime of disdaining carp.
Shallow-Water Carp Tactics
On a basic level, all you need to know is three things to hook a carp on the fly:
Cast ahead of tailing fish.
Let your fly sink; twitch it slightly.
Set the hook when you feel a gentle tug.
According to guide David McCool, the key to fishing for carp in two to four feet of water is to go slow and easy. “If you splash or stumble, they’ll spook,” he told me.
“Cast in front of one of the fish, then twitch the fly just a little as it sinks,” he advised when we spied some carp tailing in the Lake Michigan shallows. “That’ll get the carp’s attention. Let the fly sink to the bottom, and the carp will follow it down. When the fish sucks up the fly, the take will be hard to feel. Hold your rod tip right down on the water and keep a straight line to the fly. That way you’ll feel a little tug when the carp eats, and you can set the hook.”
I followed the directions and saw the carp tilt downward. When I felt a little tug, I tugged back. There was a huge surface boil as the hooked fish bolted for deep water, eventually coming back under rod pressure to thrash around our knees.
That’s how it works. Go slow and easy, and it’ll work for you, too.
Just the Facts About Carp
Carp are smarter than freshwater bass, which is probably a shocking revelation to avid sport fishermen. In lab tests measuring the rate at which fish can learn things, carp have figured out simple tasks almost twice as fast as bass. That will explain, in part, why carp can be so hard to fool with a fly.
They are also the largest fish many freshwater anglers are likely to encounter. The IGFA all-tackle record for common carp stands at 75 pounds 11 ounces, taken from a French lake in 1987. What’s really mind-blowing, though, are the IGFA fly-rod carp records.
A 42-pound common carp (left) was taken in Italy in 2002 on a 16-pound-test tippet. Then there was the fly-caught, 62- pound grass carp caught in Alabama on 12-pound-test in 2005. These are serious fish.
Carp are members of the Cyprinid family, which also includes minnows. There is a huge variety of species worldwide. The fabled mahseer of India’s mountain rivers, one of the world’s hardest-fighting game fish, is a carp. In this country you’re most likely to encounter common carp or sometimes grass carp, an Asian import introduced in the 1960s for its role as a vegetarian in controlling aquatic weeds. Black, bighead, and silver carp are more recent introductions in the upper Mississippi.
How to Find Happy Fish
Carp in most regions move to the shallows with the warming waters of late spring, which makes May and June prime time. You’ll sometimes see small groups of them spawning with splashing flurries as they broadcast their eggs in the weedy areas of coves and bays. More often, though, they’ll be cruising the shallows, feeding on aquatic nymphs and crayfish along the bottom.
Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay near Traverse City in northwestern Michigan has broad, clear flats that are perfect for carp. When I waded there last June with Bruce Richards and flyfishing guide David McCool, it was easy to spot the occasional pod of three to 10 dark-bronze fish as we drove or walked the shoreline. At other times, we slowly poled a skiff through the shallows, which gave added height above the water and made seeing fish easier.
“We need to find some happy fish,” McCool explained, meaning actively feeding carp. Cruising schools or fish simply sitting still in the sunlight aren’t feeding and are usually difficult to entice with a fly. We finally located some carp in about 2 feet of water that were obviously working the bottom with noses down and tails gently breaking the surface. “That’s what we want!” he said, pointing. “Those fish can be caught.”
Carp eat in other ways, too, and it’s sometimes possible to find them actually surface feeding in a still pond or river backwater. An extensive hatch or spinner fall of mayflies can bring carp to the top, as can round, purple mulberries dropping into the water from overhanging bushes. Breadcrumbs tossed by children for ducks in urban parks can also do the trick, for that matter. Clear water and feeding fish: Find these two prerequisites, and your chances of taking carp on the fly have improved dramatically. —J.M.
How to Catch Carp on Dry Flies
I have one simple question: Have you ever caught a carp on a dry fly?
Because once you do, it might put you over the edge once and for all. For goodness sakes, if spotting, sneaking up on, and making a cast at an extremely spooky 10-pound-plus fish––then watching said fish methodically inhale that fly of yours––doesn’t squeak your duck, well, then I don’t know what will.
When to Target Carp on Dries
Now is a great time to chase carp with dries, because the waters are typically low and clear, and as temperatures cool, carp are getting back up in the shallows where they can find warmer water, and where you can see them.
Carp are omnivores, meaning they eat almost anything, including things that float like seeds and berries from trees and bushes, Cheetos, Doritos, phlegm blobs, and so forth. (No, I am not suggesting any “chumming” techniques…but I won’t condemn anyone who innovates with a little lung butter now and then.)
Carp also eat surface-riding insects, most especially, ants, beetles and grasshoppers. But you should remember these five tips to optimize your chances when you chase carp with patterns that imitate those bugs.
5 Tips to Get a Carp to Take a Dry Fly
1. Don’t cast until you see them eat from the surface
Sure, you might tease one up now and then, but your chances of spooking the fish (even suspended fish) are far greater than hooking up unless that fish is already committed to eating on top. And we all know a spooked carp is not only a lame target, it will put down an entire school around it. The rises are often mere dimples and depressions on the surface and hard to spot. But they happen more often than you think.
2. Follow the bubble lines
Just as with trout, carp like to feed where the food collects. Those bubble lines and hard seams are food magnets. Watch EVERY seam you see carp under for five minutes, or until you see them eat (staying low, in the shadows, and out of the carp’s view). If all the ingredients are there––a seam, food, and at least one fish in the zone––I’ll sometimes wait 20 minutes or more to see if something happens before moving on. But I won’t cast until something does happen.
3. Cast from the shoreline
Carp are extremely sensitive to noise and vibrations, and you cannot help but cause those things when you get in the water, so cast from the bank if you can. I also like the angle from the shore better. Even if you make a great cast straight upstream, the leader and such floating down on a fish are often problematic.
The ideal cast is one that lands only a few feet upstream from the target (softly) and only the fly drifts into the feeding zone. The best way to pull that off is with a 45-degree angle shot, either from downstream or upstream (but it rarely works from upstream if you are standing in the water).
4. Mend your line in the air
In other words, use the reach cast, where you sweep the rod tip upstream (or up-current/upwind if you are fishing a lake or pond) right as the fly line extends at the end of your cast, and before your bug hits the water surface. Sloppy, splashy mends on the water, even if you do them in the perfect trout style, are often deal killers.
5. Add three feet to your leader/tippet
I know that’s harder to turn over and cast straight, but it’s worth working on, no matter what species you chase. In fact, if you get so you can do all these things, your trout dry-fly skills will increase exponentially. Even more reason, in my mind, why that old carp cruising around in the pond or river near you right now is worth paying attention to. —K.D.
Fish a Carp Secret Weapon: The Mulberry Fly
Trout nuts live for the Hex hatch, which draws normally wary monster browns to the surface. Tarpon freaks wait patiently for hatching palolo worms that get 100-pound silver kings sipping like drunken chubs. For fly casters like myself who drank the carp Kool-Aid years ago, there is no bug or wiggler event that turns “golden bonefish” into carefree eating machines as much as a mulberry hatch.
Found throughout much of North America, these wild berries ripen in early summer, and when the fruit drops into carp-filled water, fish that are notoriously finicky become easier to catch than at any other time of year. If you happen to be on the fence about what many say is just a fishing fad, don’t pass judgment until you’ve fished a berry fall. You’ll spend less time trying to feed fish and more time watching your backing melt away if you choose your flies and days wisely.
Berry Imitations Real-Enough to Look Delicious
Early mulberry imitations were mostly made of spun deer hair, but with the rise in carp fly fishing popularity, creative tiers have concocted fresh berries out of modern materials like foam and epoxy. Some of these flies—like Pennsylvania carp guide Nick Raftas’s Berry-U-Sucka—are so realistic, you might mistakenly drop a handful on your Wheaties.
That level of realism serves a purpose. When mulberries are falling hard and working carp into a frenzy, any pattern that loosely matches them in size and shape—even a pink salmon egg—usually gets eaten. When only a berry or two is dropping here or there, carp may take more time to study the fly, in which case, closely matching each juicy dimple matters. But according to Raftas, the first criterion to consider when choosing a mulberry is audible appeal, not looks.
“A falling mulberry makes a plop when it hits the water. That noise is what triggers carp to come take a look before they even see the fly,” Raftas says. “Flies that don’t imitate that sound aren’t as productive, which is why I lean so heavily on foam.”
Raftas points out that a mulberry feed is not always a surface occurrence. Depending on how waterlogged berries get, or their density based on ripeness, these morsels will sink and collect in back eddies and areas of soft current. Carp are just as happy to root sunken berries off the bottom. Keep an eye out for mud clouds below berry trees, and when you find one, switch to a weighted berry imitation that will settle slowly into the zone.
Flies that drop in too quickly can actually spook the fish. Once your pattern touches down, keep your line as taut as possible without moving the berry. If the mud is so thick that you won’t be able to see a carp suck up the fly, watch the point where your line enters the water. If it twitches or starts moving upcurrent, set the hook.
Wait for a Breeze Before You Cast
As far as mulberry hatches go, the first one I ever fished on a country stream in southeastern Pennsylvania was weak. The trees lining the banks were loaded with fruit, but few berries were hitting the water on the breezeless June day. Despite the lack of plopping, I watched in amazement as five big carp converged on my fly like a wolf pack. Fish I didn’t even know were there moved out of the shadows, racing for the berry until the leader slurped it up and I swung tight.
While wind is considered the fly caster’s nemesis, during the berry hatch it’s an asset. “One of the best days I’ve ever had was right before a thunderstorm,” Raftas says. “As the wind began to pick up, thousands of mulberries shook loose. The carp lined up, facing upcurrent, and sipped them the way trout sip mayflies. The wind created just enough surface ripple that the fish didn’t know I was there.”
To take the element of stealth a step further, I’ve learned, fluorocarbon leader is a must for mulberries. Even though you’re mimicking an inanimate food source, natural drifts count, and fluoro’s invisibility aids in this department. As it also sinks, fluoro causes a floating berry to ride lower in the surface film like the real thing. And when a 20-pound carp eats the fly and runs for the junk, that fluoro can mean the difference between sweet victory and a bitter taste in your mouth.
Spin Sugar at the Vise (or Cheat)
It’s not always easy to find mulberry patterns at the fly shop, but luckily you can tie effective imitators regardless of your skill level at the vise. Want quick and dirty? Thread a medium-size purple craft pom-pom on a hook, dab superglue on the shank, and slide the puffball up to the eye. —J.C.
How to Actually Land a Common Carp on the Fly
Carp may plod along very slowly, but these big-shouldered fish have serious speed and power once you swing that fly rod and set that hook. And they fight dirty. These four tricks will improve your chances of getting a bruiser suckermouth into the landing net.
1. Go Easy to Score Big
Since carp eat small flies and can be very line shy, light tippets are generally required for scoring a take. When you first set the hook, the fish will often not move, which is like pulling against a cinder block, or it will take off like a jet fighter the second it feels the sting. In either case, if you swing with all your might, you’re going to break the tippet. A gentle lift is all it takes to plant the hook in that gummy mouth.
2. Raise the Rod
If there is any structure in close proximity, count on the carp to run right for the nastiest option. They’ll do their best to wrap and snap the leader. The trick is to keep their heads up. A high rod angle will make it harder for a carp to dive or slide under structure.
3. Run for the Money
A carp’s first run is typically the most powerful. If you survive it, you’ve greatly increased your odds of landing the fish. However, that doesn’t mean you should take it easy if the fish acts like a dead weight. Keep the pressure on, because it doesn’t take much slack to allow a tiny hook barely in the skin of a carp’s mouth to fall out.
4. Pre-Wet the Net
Many carp are lost right at the net. That’s because the angler assumes the fish’s energy is sapped, but when the net splashes, the fish suddenly wakes up and thrashes or runs. When the battle is coming to an end, I’ll lay the net hoop in the water at my feet, gently steer the fish over the top of the bag, and raise the net in one quick swoop. —J.C.
Is Carp a Good Fish to Eat?
The quick answer: not really, but maybe fried.
I phoned Field & Stream‘s former editor-in-chief, Sid Evans, to report on the results of my latest carp fishing trip and could tell by the noise of shuffling papers in the background that I was only getting half an ear.
“Yeah,” I said, “and then we ate one.”
There was a long silence. The shuffling noise had stopped.
“You ate one?” He sounded incredulous. Carp are not everyday table fare in midtown Manhattan or anywhere else in North America, although they’ve been farmed as food for hundreds of years in parts of Asia.
After a day’s carping in Lake Michigan, I’d kept a 7-pounder for the table. Some of our group hit the supermarket for fixings and beer while I filleted and skinned the fish. Cutting away the dark red area along the lateral line left some long strips of firm, white meat.
I chunked those strips, coated the pieces with beer batter, then flash-fried them in hot cooking oil. Otherwise unseasoned, the cooked carp was bland and tasteless.
My companions smirked at the idea of eating carp, but they all tried it. No one asked for second helpings. —J.M.
Essential Carp Fly Fishing Gear
Carp have big shoulders, and their lumbering, powerful runs can seriously stress your tackle. At the same time, your fly gear still needs to be light enough to gently present a small fly and protect fairly light leaders.
The Right Rod & Reel Setup
Six-weight outfits will do for smaller fish in water with no obstructions. For carp in the 20-pound-class or larger, a nine-foot, eight-weight rod gives the best combination of pulling power and casting delicacy. Match the rod with a large-arbor reel taking at least 100 yards of 20-pound-test Dacron backing.
A floating weight-forward line is best, paired with a 9- to 12-foot nylon leader tapered to a 10-pound-test tippet. If you find fussy carp that look at your fly without eating it, or if you’re spooking fish, go lighter or longer on the leader.
The Right Fly
Carp flies must be small and wiggly for best results. Crayfish imitations, woolly worms, woolly buggers, and trout-style nymphs in sizes six through ten are all effective. Fish them unweighted in extremely shallow water, but switch to lightly weighted or beadhead versions that will drop down in front of a carp’s nose when you’re in two to four feet of water.
The colors should be drab, meaning shades of brown, olive, and tan in addition to black. Two major fly wholesalers—Umpqua and Rainey— now offer selections for carp that imitate everything from crayfish to canned corn.
The Right Accessories
Polarized sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat will enhance your vision substantially when you’re sight-fishing for carp. Beyond that, sneakers and blue jeans will suffice. Leave your tweed at home. This isn’t Atlantic salmon fishing. ––JM