The Joys of Fly Fishing for Carp – and what they can teach us.

Fly Fishing for Carp – the hillbilly bonefish – some pointers.

Lake Keepit flats smoker on a Sage Mod #5.

Let me just get one thing out of the way first, and if at anytime during the reading of this piece you think I’m defending European carp, then come back and re-read this.

Carp are an ecological catastrophe in Australian water-ways and we’d be much better off without them, and provided its shown to be secure and effective, I have no issues with any of the programs that will eradicate them.

So now that that’s out of the way, lets deal with the positive side of fly-fishing for carp, and I’ll actually give them a bit of a rap. I’m not one of those who seem to advocate burying your head in the sand hoping they’ll just go away by themselves, they won’t, so lets make the most of them. For people in the south – Victoria, South Australia and NSW (EXCLUDING Tasmania of course) and southern Queensland, there’s simply no better fish to help you hone a range of skills that’ll help you become a better fly fishermen.

All of the headwater streams of the western flowing rivers now have carp.

My own experience with them goes back to the first of the Wildfish series when in the mid 90’s we shot a complete episode about Lake Keepit and its carp. I got the word from Toby Evans about fly-fishing for them with Johnny Hamparsum, a keen fly fishing farmer from the Namoi Valley. Lake Keepit is John’s home water – he even takes a flats skiff out there these days, and he’d introduced Toby to sight fishing for them in the early 90’s. Toby never really fished anything heavier than a 3 weight Sage, for many years that was the rod he used to rack up a host of different species. The carp fishing with a 3 got him pretty excited too.

Keepit had been high for several years at that stage and the fish numbers were out of control, as they were right across the state. Their spread was not natural as isolated waterways on the east coast became infested as well. I suspect they had a lot of help from the coarse fishermen who so prized them, but who now seem to have now vanished; compared to the European fisheries ours are easy to catch.

Tim Fawdry on the classic carp flats of Chaffey dam near Tamworth.

We filmed with an English coarse fisherman who handled and released everything with loving care, and spoke about them as such special creatures. He didn’t really believe you could catch them on fly, so I challenged him to a competition. John didn’t film this, but we went by boat to an emerging island out on Keepit, and by the time he’d set up his complex rig, and got some berley happening, I had 8 dead fish on the bank.

Johnny Hamparsum’s favoured fly was a woolly worm and it still catches plenty of fish for me. A well tied woolly worm fished among the flooded weeds and grass of the Keepit shoreline doesn’t snag up when you sink it in front of a fish. The stiff hackle acts as a weed guard and it sits up proud on blades of grass and twigs and in the silt – there’s no better fly for this situation. The hackle also helps it to sink slowly into their face, and its buggy enough for them to just eat it. I tie them in a range of colours, both body and hackle, and also make few that are lightly weighted .

We also filmed an episode for John Haenke’s The Fishing DVD at Lake Keepit. John’s obsessed with any sight fishing and loves chasing carp. We filmed another episode of the same series out on the Turon River as well, and got some great footage of a carp charging a fly it had spotted from a meter away.

Through the 90’s I’d get up to Keepit for a few days several times a year with my sons, and used carp to try and interest them in fly-fishing, but they just preferred throwing rocks and spears at them.

Mudgee fly fishing winemaker Jimmy Manners  and a solid freestone river carp from the area.

The great thing about carp is also the worst thing about them, there are so many of them, so shots in a day can number a hundred or more. But what shots most of them can be, with fish cruising, tailing, and feeding, often in water that doesn’t cover their backs, and on some days, on some waters they’re sipping and slurping food off the top. Provided you learn a lesson, if you fluff a shot it doesn’t matter as there’s you’ll probably encounter a fish feeding in some way a minute later.

So what can carp teach us about fly fishing.

How to sight fish.

James’ fly landing right in front a of a feeding fish.

I think blind casting for carp is pretty pointless and completely misses the good side of these fish – (yes there is one). There should be no need to berley them with bread, and to use flies that look like a piece of bread. I guess in an ultra urban environment it’s okay, but in the wild it’s simply not necessary. Perhaps the first thing carp teach us about fly fishing, is that once you’ve worked out that it can be done, and how to go about it, you begin to understand that almost anything that swims can be caught on fly.

Colour, shape, and movement are the key elements to fish spotting. When one of these becomes two, 99% of the time it’s going to be a fish. We need to be attuned to these three all the time – look for one, lets say colour, then see if you can attach a second to what you’re seeing, what’s its shape, or did it move? In slightly murky water colour can also be a stick, or a rock on the bottom, or a contour in the substrate, in which case of course it won’t move – but they can also lie stationary, and when you change the angle the shape can be all wrong, or it might be revealed as a fish. The colour in the tail is often a give-away as well.

Colour, shape and movement. What looks like a fish in the background is the edge of a rock.

Ripples are a dead give away, and are usually a carp. 

Movement can be as little as a flick of the tip of a tail underwater, or 50 meters along the bank, or the yellow flash of lips, or an anomalous ripple. A puff of mud from a feeding fish is both colour and movement, but not shape – but it’s two out of three. These principles apply to all sight fishing, on any water. The additional elements are shadow and flash, but they aren’t so significant on carp water.

Stalking fish

On fish populations that have seen no pressure carp are really quite dumb and very easy to catch. There’s a river west of where I live with big sandy bends and gravel bars. Be there early in the season when they’re just begining to become active and the fish are relatively easy. After a few weeks of pressure you’ll see a big difference. From well back you might find a pool with a fish feeding happily right on the edges in the 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 just begin to slide off into the depths. They don’t panic and flee, they just slide away. Fish in deeper water, head down and rooting among the larger stones, are not so alert, but getting a fly in their face is a challenge in itself.

Fish in running water can be easily approached but very tough to catch and are among my favourites for the challenges they present. They’ll get into very skinny running water and root around in the pockets of finer gravel between the bigger rocks. You need to drift a fly right past their face and you need to react to those lips in an instant. The hard pressured shorelines of a lake seem to have a constant movement of fresh fish from the depths so on those shores they don’t become quite so wary.

Its there somewhere………crunchy river gravel underfoot never helps.

On the rivers the fish definitely react to a noisy conversation and to sounds on the bank. When they’re spooky they’re MUCH tougher than trout, but usually another twenty meters further on and you’ll probably find a dumb one.

River fish dozing on the surface in the middle of the day are usually very approachable but often don’t eat. A very slow sinking fly that you can get right in their face will sometimes get a bite.

Accuracy and Presentations

In spite of the folklore, carp can have great eyesight, and also at times seemingly ridiculously poor sight. I like to think they have a window of vision, that in average water clarity, is around 50cms in front of them, and around 40cms top to bottom and across in front of them – most of the time. But I think that’s just their feeding window and they become focused on what’s in that window. 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.

Carp have many different behavior modes from as dumb as a bag of hammers to what seems like genius level fish IQ. They sometimes seem to be in a world of their own, as though whatever they’re eating has some kind drug in it, through to hyper spooky.

They’ll eat most trout flies.

They certainly do spook from a fly that lands heavily too close to them, but at other times it just seems to alert them out of whatever they’re doing to a feeding opportunity. And this can change from fish to fish. Fish that are on food are usually so focused they’re not so spooky. Fish that are looking for food are on maximum alert. You’ll learn lots about fish body language watching these feed and react.

Because of water turbidity, their relatively poor sight, and their meandering ways, carp are one of the few fish we can comfortably use the strip and drop presentation method on. This is a great technique for those new to the sport, especially learning the sight fishing end of it. It’s a matter of casting the fly beyond the fish and before it sinks, strip it into the fish’s path to intercept it, and let it sink right in their face – watch for the yellow lips.

A warning here – don’t use this method on more finicky fish, it’ll scare the crap out of most of them as fish just don’t like having a fly attacking them, its completely unnatural, and at times it will also scare carp, especially in clear and harder fished waters – but there are plenty of other situations where it can be used, head down barras, laid up blue bastards, and also cruising goldies will respond to it if they’re not too pressured.

My rule is if they get me to the backing they live.

Learning to feed the fish.

There’s a term that often crops up among experienced fly fishers – its “feed the fish”. What does this mean? It means presenting the fly in front of the fish in such a manner that it almost has to eat it, that it almost has no other option, its an offer that can’t be refused. Carp love to be fed the fly. It can be suspended or slowly sinking but most of the time the best thing to do when the fish is right at the fly, 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, then let them eat it, that’s just one way of feeding them. Once you’ve induced a chase and you’ve got it committed, it will usually eat the fly.

These are very efficient, but lazy feeders that rarely have to hunt down what they’re feeding on, they want what’s right there in their window. Exceptions are fish on gravel bed areas that are often hunting small yabbies and larger prey items. These fish do get more active, and those gravel beds invariably have cleaner water over them. So get the fly in the fish’s face and bring it to life with small twitches just as the fish is almost at it.

Summertime is hopper time and on many waters carp love a small floating hopper pattern.

To do this successfully we have to learn another lesson, to read the fish’s body language. The two principle reactions of a carp to a fly are a) ignore it (possibly didn’t see it) or b) eat it. In my experience, if a fish seems to ignore (or avoid) the fly on repeat presentations, it’s probably seen it and will reject it on subsequent presentations. They aren’t stupid, and in fact are considered to be one of the smarter sportfish.

Hard to know who was the more shocked,celebrity snapper and trout manDave Anderson, or the carp when it saw who it had been caught by. Cudgegong river, Mudgee.

On some waters carp feed quite differently. Wyangala dam comes immediately to mind. It’s in the granite foothills of the western slopes, and impoundments in granite country don’t muddy up so easily. There are far fewer silty corners where these things can root around in the mud, but there’s enough of them to concentrate many of the fish.

The Wyangala carp are far more pelagic, feeding a lot on shrimp and baitfish. I’ve tracked them as they feed along a shore line by the showers of bait in front of them. To look at them in comparison with a fish from other dams they have fine thin lips like an angry mother in law, while fish that do a lot of rooting around have large inflamed lips like a Gold Coast society girl with a botched botox job.

How to fight a fish.

Carp fights can be extremely varied. The condition of the fish is obviously a factor, and post spawn fish can be pretty sluggish. Water temps affect them, high temps also means sluggish fights mostly due to low oxygen. I haven’t taken water temps so I can’t quote any figures here in relation to behavior, but in some waters they go like stink, in others they just thrash around a lot.

But considering that most carp we sight fish to are far larger than the trout most of us will encounter in a lifetime, we can learn a lot, and you’ll need backing on your reel, especially in the impoundments, (not so often in the rivers), and you will need good knots, and good technique to turn, stop, and tire a fish, and these techniques will stand you in good stead where ever you fish.

Carp killer of the first order Pete Hanrahan gives the come here treatment to a Burrendong carp on some freshly flooded banks.

I like a 4 weight best for carp and mostly fish with 6lb tippets. I like a simple tapered leader about a rod length and a bit long, say out at around 11 feet – this makes landing a fish by yourself much easier. I like a tapered leader because on the whole they’re more accurate and short-range accuracy is very important. This really is a case of “drive for show, but putt for the dough”. I like a simple 7.5 ft tapered leader with 3 feet of 6lb tippet added to the front – or I make my own leader out of sections of nylon.

Its impossible to generalize about how a carp is going to fight but be prepared for them to take off and most see to either thrash around or take off. If they’re the thrash around type its usually a bit of a slug fest and you use rod angles to turn them and roll them.

Rolling a fish is just about the deadliest thing you can do to them during a fight NO MATTER WHAT THE SPECIES is. Rolling them involves getting the rod tip well under the water and pulling them from underneath to make them stand on their head and flip over. It’s only something you can do to a fish when they’re in relatively close, no point in trying it when they’re a fly line away. It destroys a fish’s moral, and when you can practice this countless times on carp in a day it’ll stand you in very good stead when you have to work over a GT on the flats, or a blue bastard, a permit, or most other things – especially if you are fishing light.

They don’t like to feel the bottom on their belly when under duress.

You also learn to pull them from the angle that hurts them the most and to change that angle of pull constantly. Whatever turns them away from the direction they want to swim in hurts them. This of course leads you to a much better understanding of rod angles, the pressure we can put on fish, and assuming you’re fishing light, the importance of good knots.

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 and engulf it. Its pretty spectacular fishing. Carp do not require a big range of sophisticated patterns, they require a fly to be in their feeding space. Many trout flies will work on them.

Ben Honke honing his skills.

So go to it, hone your entire range of fly fishing skills on these fish, and just enjoy what they offer.