Lessons From the Carp Slough

When I first started fly-fishing for carp, I had never heard of anybody else doing it. I had just begun tying my own flies, and fished mainly in The Mississippi River near my home. Concentrating my efforts on the faster flows, I did quite well catching Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, Pike, Panfish, and the occasional Channel Catfish.

     When I first started fly-fishing for carp, I had never heard of anybody else doing it. I had just begun tying my own flies, and fished mainly in The Mississippi River near my home. Concentrating my efforts on the faster flows, I did quite well catching Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, Pike, Panfish, and the occasional Channel Catfish.

        One day, I wandered over to a backwater and spotted a small school of carp rooting around right near shore. Kneeling behind a large log there, I mulled the situation over. After tying a small olive nymph to my tippet, from my kneeling position I flipped a cast out into the school of carp. They were a mere 20 feet away. I twitched the fly once, then paused. Suddenly the whole school shot out into the main river, one of them dragging my flyline behind. My flyreel screamed as the carp made a fast run which took me into my backing. The fish battled hard and long, but eventually I slid an 8-pound carp onto the bank. After releasing this fish I sat behind the log for quite some time and waited for the school to return, but they never did.
Exploring the backwater further the next day, I found more active carp. I proceeded to spook all of them except one, and I watched this fish take my nymph. My hookset was too enthusiastic, though, and I left the fly in his lip. At the tying bench I invented a few new patterns to suit my needs on the carp front. I needed a slow-sinking nymph that was very visible so I could track it in the water from 30 feet away. I wanted to be able to track my fly to make sure it was right on the carp’s nose when it had to be, and also to watch it disappear when the carp inhaled it. So, I tied some Hare’s Ears, Damsels and a Leech all with bright green and pink rubber tails and got back out to my carping grounds.

        I started catching fish with some consistency now. In my system everything was visual, and it was an exciting way to fish. But, I still had much to learn. I still spooked fish on my approach, however careful I tried to be. Many carp would turn at my flies but refuse to take, often spooking. I figured my neon-tailed nymphs were coming off as unnatural to some fish, but they fooled enough that I kept using them. I began wearing camouflage and refrained from wading, which drastically reduced the number of spooked fish. I also switched from a 7-weight rod to a 4-weight, which improved my success. This outfit offered a much more delicate presentation with lighter tippets, and as an added bonus the 6-12 pound carp I was catching became epic battles.

    As I caught more carp, I began to realize that more and more I watched the fish instead of my fly at the moment of the take. Because I had gotten so used to visually tracking my fly as I guided it toward a fish, I now knew instinctively where my fly should be. Therefore, I was free to watch the fish’s behavior and when the carp turned his head, or tipped down and quivered his fins, or flared his gills, I knew he had taken my fly and so I set the hook. I no longer needed the visible fly.

        Next time out I brought a box of trout nymphs, and as usual sat quietly behind a log while I surveyed the scene. Numerous carp were cruising slowly parallel to shore, 15 to 40 feet out. The bright September sun was warming the shallows, and the carp were becoming active. I tied on a caddis pupa, and stripped line from my reel. A dozen carp or more went by before I spotted a good-sized fish that seemed to be actively searching for food.  This fish was still 60 feet away from me, slowly finning around a shallow, leaf-covered flat below a large Elm tree. He would occasionally nose into the leaves and feed, then turn and glide back into a deeper slot before repeating the procedure. A smaller carp invaded his space on the leafy flat, and he quickly shouldered him away then cruised closer to me. He had a swagger about him, and it was clear from his attitude that he would take a fly if I could present it properly. The fish turned toward the shallow feeding flat once again, and I made my move. Employing a back-handed sidearm cast, I plopped the caddis pupa 10 feet in front of the carp. I let the fly sink for a three-count, then retrieved it with a hand-twist so it would intercept the fish. This carp turned and accelerated toward my fly, and inhaled it aggressively. My largest flyrod carp up to this point, the 14-pounder put up a tremendous battle on the little 4-weight rod.

       The caddis pupa was destroyed in the unhooking process, so I tried a Hare’s Ear nymph with no response from a few fish. After a few more refusals on different nymphs, I switched back to the Deep Sparkle Pupa. The first carp I put it in front of turned and once again chased it down. I caught two more on this fly, and started to believe I was onto something. This fly must look like something particularly attractive to the carp, whether they take it for a pupa or something else entirely. It could even resemble a tasty morsel of algae, and the sparkle of the trilobal yarn catches the fish’s eye. Whatever the reason, this fly remains one of my top carp producers. The lessons I learned early on from my carp slough stuck with me, and the tactics I developed there proved to be effective wherever carp are found.

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