Sunday, August 1, 2021

Pandemic Flats Fishing: Carp on the Fly
By Scott Smith

Things are crazy and weird in 2020. Travel bans are still in effect in many areas. People are adapting and looking for new places to fish.

If you love to sight fish, your options may be limited this year, but what if I told you that it was still possible to fish “flats style” and target fish over 20 pounds, with the possibility of a 40 pounder. What would you say if I told you that these fish and flats were right in your own backyard? Well then, let me tell you about carp.

Carp are the most targeted gamefish in the world, however, in North America, they have a bad reputation of being a trash fish, bottom feeders, and an invasive species. The fact is that they were introduced to North America in the 1800s, just like other more sought-after species. Now carp can be found in almost every waterway on the continent. They may in fact be the ultimate freshwater game fish for the flats angler. Chasing them on the fly is simply an exciting endeavour. These fish behave very similarly to redfish and bonefish. While you may not be able to travel to your favourite destination to target these salty species, I bet you can find a flat with some feeding carp nearby. The “Freshwater Bonefish” as they are called, live in a variety of environments including ponds, rivers, creeks, and lakes. They will test every aspect of your fly-fishing game.

So, why would anyone want to target carp, let alone put themselves through the pain of trying to get one to eat their fly? It’s the challenge. The challenge of trying to get them to eat your fly. The challenge of trying to repeat the process, and the challenge of keeping your cool when these fish decide to completely change their habits. One thing is for certain, if a carp clues in on you while working an area, you will not get that fish to eat regardless of how perfect your presentation is.

Flies for carp: these are the most challenging of flies, not because they are difficult to tie, but because carp eat almost anything they can fit in their mouth. At some point or another, they eat every nymph, adult, and terrestrial insect. It doesn’t end there, baitfish, sculpins, and crawfish stand no chance against a hungry carp. They even eat snails, mussels, algae, seeds, and fallen berries. They are the most opportunistic of feeders. Carp cruise around and once they find a spot, they start to feed. This happens at any given time of day, and in no specific order. They may have their face stuffed in the mud to eat worms, snails, and mussels only to see a wiggling caddis or damsel nymph going to the surface. At that point, they’ll switch over and suck it up, then start looking for more. Find a leech and in it goes, they eat whatever they want at any giving time – or sometimes nothing at all. This is what makes these fish so elusive, but if you key into their pattern at the right moment, you’re in for a ride.

One of the best places to target carp is in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are one of the few fisheries in which an angler has a chance of landing multiple fish over 30 lbs in a freshwater flats environment.  The waters are crystal clear and immense, quite similar saltwater flats. The opportunity to get multiple shots at fish is endless, practice makes perfect. The key is finding feeding fish and not wasting time on fish that most likely, will not bite.  The cast must be on point and be within a few feet of the fish. The retrieve varies by type of fly and the fish’s behavior. Fish your fly: if it is a crawfish it will move differently from leech or a nymph. Let it sink and bump it off the bottom with short strips. Nymphs and leeches generally work well when fish are feeding in the water column. Use a short strip to get the carp’s attention, then try and keep the fly static while maintaining tension. Anyone who has fished permit knows this can be harder than it looks. Every eat is different and not all of them will be obvious. Keep your eyes on the fish and watch for gill flairs, fin movement, or the fish changing from a horizontal to a diagonal, or even a vertical posture. Your strip set should be hard, long and quick as a carp will spit your fly out before you’ve had a chance to react.

While feeding fish are ideally what you are looking for, most often you will find carp sitting stationary, just below the surface, often in large groups. While common, these “sun tanners” are some of the hardest fish to catch.  They will drive you crazy, as you can see them and make multiple casts only to have no success, not even a look. Try throwing an unweighted nymph or floating beetle fly and fish it stationary. If the fish doesn’t eat after a couple solid presentations, move on.

Rods for carp vary, but if you’ve ever fished for bonefish or redfish you’re probably set. If you fish the big lakes and must deal with heavy wind, or large fish (20lb +), then you’re going to want to be using an 8wt to 10wt setup with a WF floating line. If you fish rivers or ponds where the average fish is under 10lbs, you can get away with a 5wt to 6wt rod, but make sure you have a large arbour reel with a smooth drag and lots of backing – you’re going to need it! Casting distance is limited only by your ability to see the fish, and you may get shots in the 40 to 60 foot range. Like most flats fishing, accuracy and presentation are more important than distance.

In 2020 things are uncertain. Who knows when you’ll be able to stalk bonefish over white-sand flats again. One thing is certain: carp are an awesome fish that can be targeted in a very similar manner. The skills needed to be successful are identical.  They will test your patience and casting, push your gear to the limit, and make you a better flats angler. So, get out there and explore your backyard!

The carp on fly community is quite tight, so who knows, we may even bump into each other on the water. See you out there.