In the past, my carp fly-fishing explorations have come at times when other fish were not cooperating. I really enjoy fly fishing for carp, but I have only been out a few times with the intention of solely targeting these fish. So the other day I took an opportunity to go out with a fisherman who targets these fish more than anyone I know.
Andrew Spinato makes his home near Longmont, Colorado, the origin of his travels in search for the big-lipped species . Perched on his poling platform, his polarized glasses and camo-beige saltwater shirt, you’d think you might be in Florida.
"Sight fishing to these fish is what drives me" he says. Spoken like a true salty flats fanatic, which is no stretch since he does indeed have his roots set back in the Sunshine State.
Spinato has been fly fishing for carp for years and is one of the local leaders in the current trend of fly fishers turning to these powerful, fast-growing, and resilient fish. He creates his own carp flies which mostly resemble those you’d cast in saltwater. His "Carp Slider" is what we fished this day, rarely turned down by these oft finicky fish.
Andrew's Carp Slider is an effective carp fly for three main reasons: sink-rate, quiet presentation, and enticing marabou tail.
With the sun beating down and winds calm for the most part of the morning at Union Reservoir, conditions were prime for sighting fish. But still, the thick muddy waters caused by recent winds made it difficult to see even four inches deep. When an occasional small cloud would block the sun and cast a glare on the surface we were really hurting to see anything. Sometimes we would see the broad side of a fish, or a tail, or the lips of a ten-pounder nudging at the moss attached to a grass blade sticking out of the water.
"This is way to deep" would ponder Spinato as we brushed past the outside edge of a grassy patch tight to the bank. The lake was about as full as it can get. Under these adverse conditions we often relied on alternate signs of fish such as a ripple that indicated a carp was careless and stuck his back out of the water.
We sometimes heard slurping deep in the grass like there was a 3-year old child on the bank finishing the last of his milkshake; a fish located 20 feet back in the vegetation, making it impossible to see and impossible to reach.
Common carp being released. You can see how poor the clarity is even out in the deeper water, making sight fishing for carp all that more difficult.
So at times the poling would push the boat along quickly to each little nook that opened up in the grass leading us to a semi-clear opening to the bank. In most of these areas we would find a few carp, yet most were nose-down or tight to grass clumps. The nose-down fish would have typically been a good find, but with the clarity as bad as it was we couldn’t tell how long the fish were or which direction they were facing, making it difficult to place a cast in the right spot. Fish with their nose tight to grass robbed us of the opportunity to put a cast close enough in front of it to garner its interest.
As we pushed along to these openings, we would infrequently encounter a "happy" carp as Spinato described, cruising swiftly for available food. However, they often took us by such surprise that we were already on top of the fish and they would spook away. We would also pass several "sleepers", or carp who were suspended in the grass oblivious to anything around them.
Carp fly fishing of this sort is not easy. Not only are the carp spooky, but they come in a variety of moods at any given time on any given lake. After a while you begin recognizing the sleepy carp, the tough carp, the happy carp, and all the others. That’s when you realize the type of fish you’re looking for and then the fish don’t seem as plentiful as you originally thought.
The highly-visible, high-in-the-column carp, with some determination to their movement were the ones we looked for today. And we found them.
It's not every day you get to land fish like this when you're trout fishing. Heck it's not even every lifetime.
My best fish of the day came about an hour into the trip. After sending several fish scurrying into the depths, we finally found one twisting its way among a multitude of grass clumps. We watched the fish hoping it would turn into a small opening where I could cast rather than taking an alternate route into a jungle of brush. With some luck we got what we wanted and I placed a cast 3 feet in front and beyond where the carp would pass its last grass clump if it continued on its way. The fly sank and I gave it a quick strip to pull it in the target zone, leaving myself some room in case I needed to make a small twitch to solicit interest.
Often times carp seem to play games with you, turning at a right angle to their original path just as you place the perfect cast in front of them. But not this time. The fly began sinking again and was fading into the muddy waters when the carp closed in tight. Then the fly quickly disappeared. I set the hook and the fight was on. I strained my 6-weight rod and 10 pound test as much as I could to keep the fish from running for thicker vegetation and led it into more open water. The carp made some nice runs but was not as feisty as we’ve seen on other days, so after a few minutes we netted the fish and the barbless fly fell loose almost immediately. This 28-inch Mirror Carp, somewhere in the 10 pound range, was quickly photographed and released.
Having poled half the shoreline of this 740 acre lake, we landed several common carp all in the 24-28 inch range, which is average for this lake. Weighing between 6 and 10 pounds, these fish will give you a run for your money and then some. One thing that trout fishermen can take from carp fishing is landing these big fish. "I like to see trout fishermen who have never caught a truly big trout try to land one of these fish" comments Spinato, "If someone wants to learn to handle powerful and heavy fish on light fly gear, carp is a great way to start."
This day, two key elements improved our chances of finding and catching these fish. First, Spinato’s poling rig and platform allowed us to move quietly and in control to avoid spooking fish. Second, with two sets of eyes we could discuss what we were seeing and determine whether the fishy dark spot was a weed clump or a real carp, and if the latter, which direction it was facing. This teamwork approach helps greatly when casting to carp, since on a day like today every cast counted. Having fished solo for carp most of my trips before, I would often cast to the wrong side or to a less-ready fish, spooking the fish or others.
Once the clouds moved in for the afternoon we decided to call it a day. What little clarity we had with full sun had diminished drastically. We were content though in that we got the sun and calm winds we desired for a short time. Had the winds kicked up more chop or the sun not been cooperative it would have been tough to fool even one.
Numerous lakes, rivers, and ponds local to many of us on the Front Range and plains contain carp, making it a readily available fish. The general fishing public in the United States has had its nose turned down on carp for many years, but the respect is growing. With ever increasing crowds on our pressured trout rivers, carp fly fishing is a great sport to turn to. The good news is that it won’t cost much in additional equipment. Floating lines with 10 pound fluorocarbon tippet, a few trout flies, and you’re all set.
Andrew’s Carp Slider is a marabou and yarn fly that is easy to tie. We had most success casting past the nose of a willing carp, taking a quick strip to its nose, and letting it settle. The sink rate is key to this fly, and "it settles quietly on the water when casted" comments its creator. Once in the zone, a tiny twitch may encourage a non-committed fish. The carp turns, your adrenaline kicks in, and then the fly disappears into its mouth. If you get a docile fish the fight may last a few minutes….but if not, you might hope you have a fighting butt and no reason to get home anytime soon.
Fly fishing for carp will hone your casting skills for sure. Even the best casters will spook a third of the fish they cater to. The only way to get better is to get out there and keep doing it. With the Colorado state record common carp at 35lbs 5oz and the grass carp at 44lbs 8oz, you’re definitely going to be finding fish with serious heft to them.
Andrew Spinato with a nice Common Carp taken on his own creation, the "Carp Slider".