Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp
Catching “golden bonefish” isn’t complicated if you understand your targets
Step back in time ten years or so and fly fishing for carp was exploding. It became so popular that it served as fodder for fly fishing films, spawned new guide services, turned previously unknown waters into destinations, and even prompted big manufacturers to produce carp-specific lines and rods. The hype has since simmered, partially because many of the anglers who got sucked in early learned quickly that those “dumb” carp aren’t that easy to fool on a fly.
The reality is that carp aren’t stupid bottom feeders, which is, subsequently, why many people like me continued to target them long after the frenzy ebbed. It’s the challenge that makes them so fun. However, it’s not quite as complicated as some fly fishing media would have you believe and your success depends more upon where you target carp than what you cast at them. So, here’s a my no B.S. guide to fly fishing for carp. Whether you’re new to the challenge or ready to give it another go after some frustration, this will get your drag screaming faster.
Best Fly Rods for Carp Fishing
Choosing a rod and reel combo for carp is kind of tricky. People ask me about it often, and the problem is that carp sizes vary so drastically. If you look at trout, a standard 5-weight rod is perfectly capable of handling the occasional 20-plus-inch fish you might hook. That same 5-weight would be fine for carp, too, if they’re in the 5- to 8-pound range. But a 12-plus-pounder might not hit the net. A 20-pounder? Forget it. Make no mistake, part of the appeal of carp is that they positively rip when they’re on the end of the line. There’s a strong chance you will see your fly line backing come racing off your reel. So, it’s important to have an idea of the average sized carp in the water you’re fishing. You should also have an estimate of the maximum sized carp in that water.
White River Fly Shop Classic SS Fly Rod
It’s my belief that you’re better off being over gunned than under gunned for these fish, which is why I always recommend an 8-weight rod. Even 3- to 6-pound carp will have the strength to bend it deeply, and on streams where they may not have as much room to run, you may need to muscle them away from log jams or rocks. Should you luck into a behemoth weighing north of 12 or 15 pounds, an 8-weight will provide plenty of backbone.
Redington Behemoth Fly Reel
I’m not suggesting you need to run out and buy a saltwater-grade reel with the best sealed drag system on the market for carp, but you do want to make sure your reel’s drag is both adjustable and can handle a few sizzling runs. My favorite carp reel is the Redington Behemoth, as it’s both tough as nails and reasonably priced. Any full floating line will suffice for these fish, but leader and tippet sizes will naturally vary by fly size and carp size. What I can tell you is that I’d never use anything lighter than 3X tippet, even for small carp, and I’d rarely use anything heavier than 15-pound tippet because the stiffness can make flies look unnatural and turn the fish off.
Carp Species and Types
In my opinion, nothing is more critical than understanding the type of carp you’re targeting, which I break down into two categories: Wild carp and “neighborhood carp.” Yes, all carp are technically wild, but the labels speak more to their environments. My version of wild carp are those that live in places where they don’t have much interaction with humans. These could be carp feeding in a country stream out in the hills or carp in the Great Lakes. During the height of the carp fly craze, most anglers raced to places that featured “wild carp,” and quickly learned that these are the harder fish to catch.
Wild carp tend to be spookier. They are more intune to a misstep in the stream or the cracking of a branch at the wrong time. More importantly, they are going to feed on natural forage. This means it becomes far more critical to “match the hatch,” be it stonefly nymphs, crayfish, or caddis nymphs that they’re slurping up. Granted, hooking a wild carp is arguably more rewarding because it often takes more patience and skill.
Conversely, “neighborhood carp” are the ones that live in county park ponds, in streams flanked by bike trails, and public waters that see a lot of traffic. You might think that these fish would be more difficult to catch, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. These carp are used to joggers, dog walkers, and anglers targeting other species. Importantly, they are more apt to “taste” a wide variety of things that simply look like they might be food because I believe they see a wider variety of forage, be it Power Bait intended for stocked trout or bread thrown in the water for ducks. Therefore, fly selection becomes easier because you don’t always have to match the hatch. All you’re really trying to do is present something a carp might think is something edible.
In either scenario, what you want is a lot of shots. The more clean presentations you get to make to happy, relaxed fish during an outing, the higher the likelihood that one of those shots will turn into an eat. To give you some context, my two most memorable carp days were complete opposite scenarios. I once landed a 15 pounder on a quiet stream in the wilderness after crouching in silence for an hour waiting for the fish to get into perfect casting position. It was one of only two fish I presented to all day. The most carp I ever stuck in one day was in the middle of a New York City park in the Bronx River. It was so loaded with fish that you got another chance or two around every bend, and the constant foot traffic meant they weren’t easily spooked. The bottom line is your location plays a huge role in tactics and results.
There are of course a variety of carp species that fly anglers target. The most popular are:
- Common Carp: Found in waters all over the U.S.
- Grass Carp: Found in Midwest and Northeast and in several waters in the West
- Koi Carp: Ornamental species often found in city ponds
Sight Fishing for Carp
There are some anglers out there who will tell you they routinely catch carp on the fly blind, meaning they only feel the take. I say that’s rubbish. Is it impossible? No, but it’s never happened for me. Likewise, the fun of fly fishing for carp is that it’s visual. It’s a sight-fishing game, hence the comparisons to saltwater redfish and the nickname “golden bonefish.”
A carp’s mouth is far more sensitive than most fish. That heightened sense of feel is what helps them determine if the morsel they just sucked out of the mud is, in fact, food. This is why European carp anglers have gone to such great lengths to develop rigs that either hide the hook in the bait entirely or have it floating on the leader just above the bait. In less than a second, despite violently Hoovering up a bait or fly, a carp will feel the metal and spit it out.
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Therefore, it’s critical that you physically see the carp inhale your fly and strike quickly. It would be rare for one to suck up something entirely artificial that doesn’t feel or taste natural and swim off with it long enough for the tension to transmit through the fly line. This is also why it’s rare to target carp on the fly in water more than a few feet deep. Barring scenarios like berries dropping from a tree or a cicada hatch where carp feed on the surface, you’re going to be fishing subsurface and you need to be able to see your fly—or at least know roughly where it is—at all times.
Finding Active Carp
Most gamefish like bass or trout can be coaxed into a predatory feeding response even if they’re not actively looking for food. Carp aren’t really gamefish and that rule doesn’t apply to them at all. This tends to trip up a lot of newer carp fly anglers, because it’s not uncommon to come upon a pile of carp hovering just under the surface in deep water, or swimming around in a river hole. At first glance, you might think you just hit the jackpot, but 99% of the time you’re going to pull your hair out with these “neutral” carp. You’ll plop flies in front of them for hours only to have them spook or swim right by your bug without even looking in its direction. It’s very difficult to make carp eat if they aren’t already eating.
When you first start fly fishing for carp, it’s crucial that you seek out actively feeding fish, even if that means walking away from 20 hoverers to locate one feeder. When carp are actively rooting around on the bottom, their guard is down. They’re less discerning and less focused on your presence. Ideally, you’ll find some fish working in 2 feet of water or less. A dead giveaway of a “hot” fish is when its tail is breaking the surface and its body is arced down. Puffs of mud or silt that it’s kicking up as it feeds will trail behind it. When you see doing this, your goal is to land a fly on the bottom in that carp’s path. The challenge, of course, is that they don’t always move in a straight line, and even when one does collide with your fly, there’s no guarantee it’s going to gobble it up.
Even if you don’t find hardcore grubbers, carp swimming around in shallow water are generally there to feed, and far more likely to take a swing at your bug than those in deeper water. In moving water, long, slow, flat stretches are prime feeding zones, as are side channels and eddies with minimal flow. In lakes and ponds, find the cove or corner that’s the shallowest. You can’t bank on the carp being in those zones during every visit, but it’s where you’ll need them to be for maximum success on the fly. It’s important to frequent carp spots often, because you can begin to figure out their routine. You might notice that they are feeding shallow most often just after sunup or at midday. You may notice that they feed harder after a slight bump in flow. Behavior will change seasonally, but there is always a loose pattern you can follow.
Best Flies for Carp Fishing
As it goes with selecting flies for any species, the perfect ones will vary by location and situation. There are certainly cases where carp may dine on a niche food source only available seasonally or regionally, but my intention here is to provide a jumping off point. These flies have worked for me in many parts of the country, and while you may develop or find patterns more fine-tuned for your area, these will score some eats whether you’re flinging them in a neighborhood pond or clear backwoods river.
If I could only choose one fly for carp, it would be the classic salmon egg. This, of course, is most potent for “neighborhood” carp and less so for those “wild carp,” but it’ll fool both based on color. I’ve had lots of success on white and tan eggs. Yellow looks just like a kernel of sweet corn. In pink or purple, a salmon egg becomes a berry. Regardless, a tiny round egg simply looks like some kind of food and if you land one in front of enough faces, it’ll eventually get vacuumed. I’ve also found that eggs with some sparkle can be highly effective, and other times the sparkle seems to be a turn-off, so carry some of each.
Sucker spawn works well for the same reason as salmon eggs—it comes in a wide variety of colors and represents a generic morsel that might taste good. Sucker spawn, however, tends to be bigger and fluffier than a salmon egg. This is beneficial when carp are simply more tuned into a bigger target, but it also has a nice, slow sink rate after it gets saturated, and it’s not uncommon for fish to suck it up on the fall.
It’s hard to even call this worm pattern a true fly because it’s made of a very stretchy soft plastic material. It’s got so much wiggle that it’s considered cheating when used for trout. But I never feel bad about using one for carp, because any carp eat is a good one. This worm’s sexy undulation can really trip their triggers. As a carp approaches, I just give the rod a gentle twitch to make my worm wag ever so slightly. It often gets the fish to commit instantly.
Hare’s Ear Nymph
The beauty of hare’s ears is that they are available in many sizes and colors that can represent a plethora of mud-dwelling foods “wild” and wary carp tend to eat. In brown or rust, the fly can present a tiny crayfish. In black it’s a stonefly larva. In olive it’s an emerging damsel fly.
Like the hare’s ear, buggers are available in lots of natural colors that mimic a variety of carp forage. Granted, the larger size of this fly means it’s usually reserved for larger fish, but they’re worth carrying for a few reasons. Their thick hackle feathers move mud and water, so if you twitch one on the bottom, it’ll make enough commotion that an approaching carp won’t miss it. The long shank hooks that buggers are tied on also increase the odds of landing a big fish, should you happen to stick one.
Crazy Charlie Saltwater
Here’s the truth—you won’t use this fly very often when fly fishing for carp, but when you do get that chance, you won’t forget it. The Crazy Charlie is a bonefish fly, but in tan, orange, or brown, it’s a killer baby crawfish imitation. If you ever encounter carp on a flat grubbing the bottom and moving quickly, there’s a good possibility they’re actively chasing crayfish. Lay out this fly and wait for a fish to get near it, then start stripping it along the bottom. Carp in the right frame of mind will charge it down like a pike and the eat won’t be dainty or subtle.