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A Case for Carp

Carp fly fishing in Colorado
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This is an article that would like to argue the case for Carp, and promote the fishing for them. As we enter into brave new worlds of modern Fly Fishing, Carp have a seat at the table, and so should you. There are 2 major species of Carp in our western waters, Common and Grass, and 1 minor, the Mirror. This article will focus on the Common Carp residing in ponds and lakes. Mirror Carp are taken with the same tactics as Commons, and Grass Carp are a sport unto themselves.

By now you’ve probably heard of a few folks tossing flies for Carp, probably heard all kinds of great things about them, the Carp that is. But you haven’t gone yet. Why, we are not sure. Mindset? Maybe you remembered about how your dad or granddad told you those fish were no good. Or maybe your fishing buddy is one of those guys who just won’t even entertain the idea of fly-fishing for Carp. Perhaps you heard the rumor that these fish are real tough. Nobody likes to get skunked. So chances are, you might have some interest in this, but you’re really not sure. This is our chance to convince you towards getting you some fresh blood in your fishing, some new opportunities to do something different. Please join us as we point out a few of the Carps high points, and some tactics for catching them.
Nice big Colorado Carp on the fly.

Carp as a Convenience

Most of us don’t live right on the banks of a world famous trout stream. Most of us don’t live on the banks of Brand X trout stream unknown outside of the county. A modest guess at the drive time for the vast majority of fly-fishers to even reach a trout would range from 30 minutes to several hours. There are certainly much worse things to be doing than driving to a trout stream. However, if you live in the city, hold down a job, have a family, etc; things other than fishing often take precedence. Here is where the true beauty of Carp is. These fish are more than likely not even 5 or 10 minutes from your front door, might even be within walking distance. They are excellent for quick trips to get your fix in.

Have a lunch hour? Go fishing. Have only 2 or 3 hours on Saturday morning? Go fishing. Taking the family to the park for a picnic? Go fishing. Feeling OK about stealing 30 minutes from your errands? Go fishing. Got the point? You could be out doing this and that “important” stuff, and in the middle of it go catch a 5lb fish, and then get back to civility. Chances are no one will even know.

Where Carp make their homes

Carp can live practically everywhere. A listing of exceptions will be much more efficient. Fast moving cold water mountain streams and river environments, and for the most part higher than 5000’ elevations. There are exceptions though. They live where most of us do. Everywhere!
Beautiful Rocky Mountain Carp.

Carp as a Game Fish

When was the last time you saw your backing? No, really, when was it? While you think about that for a moment, think about that pond down the street from you, or the lake across town, which have a multitude of 5-15 pound fish that would show you that backing.

How do you like sight fishing? For many it’s perhaps the most exciting part of the sport. Almost everything in Carp fishing is visual; you spot the fish, you cast to the fish, and you see the strike.

Chances are the Carp is the biggest fish in the lake and they are available almost every day from late March to early November in shallow, clear water. It would be hard to ask for much more from a game fish.

Carp as a Teacher

Progress as a Fly Fisher is an interesting journey. Carp can be a wonderful way to add to it. Now, most of the time Carp will be somewhat difficult to hook, and this is part of the game. Most of the reason they are hard to hook is because our skills are not up to par. The more we work on presentation, the better we will get at it, and the more fish we will catch. Carp will almost never be taken with improper presentation. If you think that this might rub off and carry over into our other types of fishing, you would be correct. Spooky Trout and Carp have much in common.

Another thing is sight fishing. Carp must be seen to be caught. In many cases they can be difficult to see. As you get more practice, your fish viewing skills become much more keen. Next time you go to the trout stream you can bet you will be spotting many more fish. A fish seen is a fish caught more often than not.

Saltwater? A Carp’s behavior is much like many saltwater fish. Now, if I was going to spend several thousand dollars on a trip to the Tropics to expand my horizons, I might do well to get as much practice in as I could. Carp are perfect for this. They have many of the same characteristics as Bonefish & Redfish and in fact are caught on many similar type patterns. Be prepared to go!

Carp Anatomy and Habits

In order to start catching Carp on the fly you must first understand some basic anatomy, and general habits of these fish. To start, the Carp generally are shallow water bottom feeders and have an under slung mouth and barbels (“whiskers”). The carp’s under slung mouth allows the fish to root and sort when the fish feeds. This will often create “muds”, or discolored water, indicating recent or current feeding. Due to the often muddy or off-color conditions the Carp creates for itself, the barbels help the Carp to “see” or taste food when in such conditions. Speaking of food, there isn’t much a Carp won’t eat, so keep that in mind. Carp will often be found with “heads down and tails up” when they are on a major feed. This is an excellent time to toss a fly at them.
Author ready to release a carp.
Carp have 5 specific habits or behaviors that are important to recognize for angling success. First, there is the cruising Carp. Cruising Carp come in 2 classes, Fast Cruisers, who are generally moving pretty fast (hence the name) and are not really interested in feeding. They are definitely going somewhere, and they mean to get there in a hurry. These fish often are in small squadrons, or packs of 2-6 fish. Then there is the Slow Cruiser, who may or may not be interested in food, sometimes they appear to be browsing and window shopping. Slow cruisers are often solitary fish, or maybe a pair. A well placed fly will often entice them into striking.

Second, there is the Sunning Carp. These fish can be seen suspended under a couple inches of water and typically don’t move around too much. The sunning fish are generally not interested in taking a fly.

Third, there is the Clooping Carp. First off, the definition of “Clooping”; this is a term from the British, where Carp are considered top shelf among the working class. Clooping was coined for when Carp are taking food off the surface of the water. Carp don’t have a classic rising fish form when they take food top water, they tend to suck it, and it makes a soft sound that sounds like a “cloop!” The Clooper is a feeding fish and can be seen slurping at the surface. These fish are feeding similar to a trout and are eating all sorts of aquatic insects and plants. When fish are clooping the following types of flies can fool a Carp into eating: Dry flies (match the hatch), emergers, midges, nymphs, slow sinking aquatic insect patterns, and imitation plants such as the cottonwood seed. Cloopers can be a lot fun.

The Fourth behavior we would call “Jumpers”, or as named in the landmark angling book and bible of Carp fishing, “Carp on the Fly”, by Reynolds, Befus, and Berryman, “Hellraisers”. We like that term and will use it, and it applies to fish who in random interaction are jumping and thrashing all about and generally raising hell, therefore, the “hellraiser” term. Do not even think about trying to catch one of these fish. It is a complete waste of time. Ignore it the best you can.

Finally there is the tailing fish. The Tailer offers the fly angler the best chance of getting a fish to take a fly. The tailer will be nose down rooting around in the mud in search of food. The best flies for the tailer include Wooly Buggers, aquatic nymphs, and Clouser style flies. For the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the tailing fish.
Another big Colorado Carp on the fly.
Authors carp fishing boat rigged with poling platform.

Tailing Fish

The key to success when fly fishing for tailing Carp is the position of the fly, rate of sink of the fly, and the action of the fly. To start, the fly must come within a couple of inches of sight of the fish. If the fly is off by more than the couple of inches your chances of catching the fishes attention greatly decrease. So your probably thinking that you’re casting accuracy is going to have to be precise, but not necessarily. If you land the fly in this zone you are most likely going to spook the fish immediately, therefore you must cast beyond the fish and strip the fly into this zone. This will take some practice to get the timing down, but before you know it you will be spot on!

Next is the rate of sink of the fly. We have found that most fish will take the fly more readily if the fly is still suspended in the water. The key here is to match the rate of sink of the fly with the depth and speed the fish is located.

Finally once the fly is in the zone, the action must be just right. Most of the stripping done once you get the fly in the zone is miniscule. Start with a tiny twitch once the fly is in front of the fish and watch the reaction of the fish. You will know when the fish noticed the fly because the generally will stop and beeline right for the fly. If you did not get their attention be patient; wait for the fish to pass and then re-cast. If the fish is does not appear to be moving and their tail is just visible, there are several approaches you can take to catch the fish’s attention. Start by visualizing where the Carps mouth is in relation to their tail and put your fly there by using the above method of casting beyond the fish and striping back. Once the fly is in the zone, keep your line low and tight and try a tiny one inch strip. Next watch the fish’s tail; did it seem to get excited? Wag like a dog? If so you probably are in the zone and either the fish has taken the fly or is looking for your fly. Keep your line tight and try another tiny strip.

The Strike

This is the moment of truth. Carp will not usually make a vicious strike at a fly, but ordinarily will suck it in softly. In order to make a hookup, it is pertinent that the angler be alert, keep a tight, yet soft line, and have keen vision and quick reflexes. Moments before the strike, it is important to clue yourself in on the fish’s behavior. As we alluded earlier, the fish will often change direction and move towards the fly in the case of a Slow Cruiser, turning slightly in the case of a Tailer or Mudder, or its tail will “wag”. These are all indications the Carp is intent on eating your offering.

Timing is crucial at this point. When the Carp sucks it in, there is but a split second for a strike. A very hard strike can often result in a missed fish. It’s best to softly yet firmly sweep the rod and keep tension on the line. Once the Carp feels the hook, it will almost always go on a powerful run, and seat the hook firmly in its lips. At this point, you’re almost assured of not having to worry if the hook will come out.

The Carp has a soft yet firm lip and mouth that holds a hook very well. For this reason, we recommend your pinching down the barbs on your hooks. It will be much easier for you to remove the hook upon landing the fish, not to mention the safety factor for yourself. Almost everyone has driven a fly into the back of their neck or head on a botched cast, or had a partner do the same to you. The 1 second it takes to pinch down a barb may someday be re-payed in not having to go to the emergency room or doctor’s office or the pain of self surgery to remove a barbed hook from some area of your body.

The Fight

Now for the fun part! After the hook set, the Carp will almost always go on a powerful first run. It’s best to make sure you have your drag set where you want it beforehand. Let the fish do what it will on this first run. Trying to stop it can often lead to broken leaders and straightened hooks. When the fish relaxes a bit, start to re-gain your line. Now, every fish fights a bit different, but they will usually come in a bit, then make a few more minor runs. However, beware at this point. When it looks like the fish is ready to come in, they will often go on yet another blazing run, usually when they see the boat or angler. Again, let the fish run. Then continue to work it in. It will determine when it’s ready to be beached or netted. Forcing things can result in broken leaders, particularly if the fish flops down on a tight tippet.

After securing the fish, pull the fly free, and let it go. A note here; some folks are afraid or squeamish to touch Carp, but let it be known they are safe to touch, and feel much like any other fish. They are slimy, but not so much more than any other fish. Carp are very hardy, so feel free to snap pictures as you see fit without worry for their death being out of the water for a time. When you’re done, put them back in the water and repeat as often as possible.

We have heard stories and actually witnessed anglers who feel it necessary to drop kick or heave a Carp upon the bank to die after the landing. These “Angler’s” have a lack of ethics and respect for life. While the Carp isn’t native specie, it does get up every day to make a living much like you do, and considering the fine sport they offer us, it’s in all of our best judgment to treat them cordially after the thrill they have just given us. Enough said for now; perhaps how an angler treats his fish, regardless of what it is, is an indication of their moral self worth.
Flies for Carp.

Flies for Carp

This is pretty easy, actually. The proper weight of the fly is probably the most important aspect. The fly must be able to be at the same depth and in sight parallel to the fish. Almost all Carp fishing will be done in 6” to 3’ of water, and occasionally a bit deeper to maybe 8’. Carry flies with different weights to meet these criteria. Lead heads and cone heads, to bead chains and wire wrapped hook shanks, to weightless are all needed. Particular patterns include having Damsels, Crawdads, Wooley Buggers, and Rabbit Strips, Clousers, and Saltwater stuff in smaller sizes, #4-12, and heavy on the #6-10. These flies should cover 99% of your fishing. If the Carp are hot on a hatch, which is rare, then break out the trout flies. The best thing is to incorporate materials with a lot movement, examples being soft hackles, marabou, rabbit strip, etc. The sky is the limit here. Many diehards have a few flies they rely on consistently, but are always trying a few new things out. Experiment!

Weather for Carp

Ideal conditions for Carp fishing are clear, fairly calm, and warm. A full, overhead sun is ideal for fish sighting. Early morning and late afternoon to evening hours are more difficult due to the angle of the sun. We recommend late morning and early afternoons in the spring before the wind picks up, mid morning to mid/late afternoons for summer, and late morning to mid afternoon for autumn. Certainly the Carp will be active at other times of the day, but seeing them presents a problem at times. It is best to avoid Carp fishing in times of precipitation events and cloudy weather. The famous High Pressure weather systems of the Western U.S. provide excellent Carp fishing weather.

Gear for Carp

You won’t need any specific tools to Carp fish. We would recommend a 6 wt rod and a reel with a good drag on it to begin with. You can make adjustments here as you see fit. Make sure you have plenty of backing on said reel. A net could be handy, but not necessary if working from shore, and only the very largest will be needed. For this reason it is often difficult for the wading/walking angler to use a net, and beaching a Carp isn’t hard usually.
Another big Colorado Carp on the fly.
The best pair of polarized glasses you can afford and a hat with a wide brim should round it out. Flies are simple, use larger sizes #4-12 with lots of materials that “breathe” or move in the water. Imitate the natural foods surrounding you. Leaders of 7-9’ tapered to 3x are perfect. If in doubt, please buy a copy of “Carp on the Fly” by Reynolds, Befus, and Berryman. This book was and still is the definitive guide to FF for Carp. Anyone serious about learning how to do this should have a copy in their home library.

In Summary

Carp are a hard fighting, big fish that is located near you. They are caught on a variety of simple patterns that are easy to tie with common, inexpensive materials. They can be caught using gear you more than likely already own. They provide an intense yet casual angling foray. In these days of high gas prices, crowded spooky diseased trout streams, and tight time schedules, the Carp is a non politicized, free and easy day on the water. We hope you take the opportunity to give chase to this fascinating fish, and that it might make you a better Fly Fisher. We are confident it will. Carp On!


© 2023 Andrew Spinato and Mark Kyner
Andrew Spinato is a Firefighter who in his spare time is an avid Carp angler and guide. For more information about hiring him and his boat, contact is Mark Kyner is a bum who pesters Andrew for boat rides and flies to catch Carp. They both reside in Longmont CO.