By: Nick Johnson
Arguably the hardest fight I have ever experienced on a fly rod did not come from a 4lb smallmouth bass, or a 20″ cutthroat trout, or even a pike, all of which I have landed on fly gear.
No, the hardest fight came from an average sized common carp a few miles from where I grew up in Iowa. Yes that is right, I said carp! Carp are about the closest thing we have to a bonefish-like experience and I truly believe they will test your fly gear more so than any other fish that swims in our state, pound for pound.
Carp can drive you mad with their cunning nature but boy do they put a smile on your face when that fly reel is screaming. I wouldn’t say they are a tough fish to catch on a fly but the visual nature of fishing for them and their spookiness makes carp a challenge no doubt.
Let’s not get too technical here. Any fly rod in the 7-9-weight category will be more than sufficient and most people I know that flyfish have a rod that can do the job. If you want to be ambitious and experience a wrist breaking fight then I suppose even a 6 weight would work. My personal rod is a 9-foot 8-weight spooled with a weight forward intermediate line and I actually use a 6-foot section of 6lb mono for my tippet. I am an Iowa boy and we are talking carp after all.
The two primary considerations in the whole outfit is having a tippet that the carp cannot detect and a rod/line combo that can handle the task of fighting a larger fish. Everything after that comes down to the ability to see the fish and get the fly where they can see it, which we will dive into later.
Picking a Fly
Matching the hatch with carp is about as simple as picking a fly that will fit in their mouth. They are not picky! Anything that resembles an aquatic insect or small minnow usually tempts old bugle lips into a closer inspection. I have caught them on many different large nymph patterns and even small streamers but typically a sinking nymph is the way to go. My absolute favorite carp fly is a small brown leech pattern with a brass head. Most fly shops in Iowa carry some variation of this fly and the reason I like it so much is that it is highly visible in clear water and the way it drifts looks extremely natural. Not to mention you can strip it like a streamer if need be. Yes, carp will actively pursue a stripped fly if they are hungry and willing to give chase for food. Other favorites of mine would be a stonefly imitation or a large pheasant tail.
A Game of Sight
Whenever I have a conversation with someone that wants to give flyfishing for carp a try I always stress how important it is to fish where you have a full visual of the carp and your fly in the water. It’s not only important for reading the attitude of the carp but also to see the carp take the fly. Carp have very sensitive mouths and if they feel something a little off they will spit it out in a split second. This is also why you always want to set the hook as soon as the carp sucks the fly in. Seeing all of this unfold is extremely important not to mention exciting. The stream I most often flyfish for carp luckily runs quite clear through most of the summer and offers a wonderful opportunity to sight fish. There are many small rivers and larger streams throughout the state that host this same type of clear water fishing.
A Spooky Fish
Carp are rather intelligent fish and extremely weary at times which can sometimes make them a tough fish to catch on fly gear. Even slapping the fly line down too hard on the water can send a carp racing in the opposite direction. I try to give myself plenty of time to work a fish when I spot one. Slow footwork and patient casting goes a long ways. Just like with trout or other stream fish, it really helps to work upstream when going for carp and don’t lay the fly directly on top of their head when casting.
Put It All Together
When I work a stream I really take my time. Carp can be found anywhere from pools to runs and even shallow sand flats so I make sure I look the stream over with polarized glasses real well as I walk. I look for the signature reddish tail that carp are famous for but many times they are pretty easy to spot being a large fish in clear water. Some of the key areas that I will focus on are large sandy runs, pool pockets in amongst a set of rapids and along the inside shallows of a bend. These are often where I find the most active fish.
When I spot a carp I try to get in position for a cast so that I am slightly behind and off to the side of the fish but not so much that I am laying the line right over its back. I prefer being more perpendicular to the fish if possible as it makes fly positioning a little easier and I can see the fish suck the fly in. Get the fly so it drifts or can be stripped in front of the carp’s face. Carp have good eyesight and will often spot your fly before you would think.
Flyfishing for carp in my eyes is a blast but it’s also enough of a challenge to keep me coming back for more. If you like to flyfish but have never pursued a carp I urge you to give it a go. The battles can be extreme and the nature of sight fishing for them makes it a total win for even the most skeptical of fly anglers. I find the best times to hit the stream for carp is when the weather is hot and the water is clear so grab a map, find a stream with carp and be prepared to test the integrity of your fly rod!