Carp on fly – Chapter 1

This is the first chapter in a series of two articles that will explain how I catch carp on fly (I am also working on a short film about carp, but that will only be ready later in 2015). These methods are those that I have adapted from art-lure fishing (when fishing as a youngster) and fly fishing for various fish species over a period of probably twelve years now. Keep in mind that the techniques and methods described in my writing are not necessarily my own or the only way to catch carp, they simply work well for me and I usually come right with a fish or ten using them. I’d like to start off with technique before discussing fly patterns in detail.

Time of year                                                                                                                   

Carp fishing = summertime for me. Carp may be seen basking in the sun in clear dams in winter, but they are sluggish then and coaxing them to take a fly will be hard and probably not worth the effort. Since the larger still waters in the Western Cape only warm up from mid October onwards, I rarely venture out before that to search for carp. The carp season usually ends in the Western Cape after the first big cold fronts that raise water levels and cool the water temperature in late April or at the beginning of May.

Time of day

When I used to fish the art-lure leagues, the guys usually started looking for carp in the shallow, grassy parts of the dams from about 11 am onwards. There was no point in looking for these fish earlier, since it would be seen as a waste of time, which could have been spent catching other fish species that were actively feeding in the earlier morning hours. There is a lot of truth and value in that game plan, especially when targeting carp in larger still waters.

Carp enjoy warm water and their metabolism speeds up in the mid-day hours, when they will most actively forage for food. One could almost compare it to flats fishing in the salt; the start of high tide (pushing tide) will bring the fish onto the shallow flats and they will feed aggressively until the tide drops again (right up to approx. peak low again, then there is a definite lull). Over the low tide period you may have the odd shot at fish on the flats or edges of the flats, but the action only really starts taking place with the shift to the high tide period (and typically lasts for about two to three hours per fish species in different time intervals on the push and the drop).

So carp become more active as the water warms from 10 am in the morning and they will typically slowly move from the deeper parts of the dam into shallower water as the sun rises and the air and water temperature rises with it. The early morning hours and late afternoon/evening hours are included in the ‘lull’ when you could still catch the odd carp, but unlikely experience the ten-fish-in-two-hours type of fishing. This holds true to some extent for river carp as well, but river carp feed more sporadically and they can be a lot more temperamental – I will discuss them later in this chapter.

The first appearance of carp in still waters in the morning is usually observed as mud clouds popping up in slightly deeper water, just beyond the submerged vegetation in the shallows. These pods of feeding fish, which often also include bigger fish, can be caught on fly, but they are incredibly difficult to approach. As with most cyprinids, carp are very sensitive to vibration and the slightest crunch of gravel/rocks from a footstep, or the classic ‘crack’ of a breaking branch underwater, will spook them (heavy tramping on the bank will also make them bolt into deeper water). As a rule and knowing that they would soon (within an hour or two) appear in the shallow water less than 50 cm deep, I hold back and spend the time waiting for their tails to break the surface by fishing for bass or catfish in the same area (unless a tail the size of my two hands placed thumb-to-thumb breaks the surface of course).

A general good time to start hunting them with a fly rod would be from 11 am onwards. Then you can fish for them as long as they are visible and/or as long as they eat the fly aggressively. As soon as the sun drops down in the afternoon, the fish will become more wary and will less likely take the fly. It is also more difficult to spot them and observe the takes in low-light conditions – sight-fishing is a crucial part in successfully catching carp on a fly.

The author hooked into a big carp on a three weight
The author hooked into a big carp on a three weight
The fight lasted one hour and fifteen minutes
The fight lasted one hour and fifteen minutes
The 33 lb+ carp is landed on 3X tippet
The 33 lb+ carp is landed on 3X tippet

The spot

Carp love foraging in submerged or within floating vegetation. This includes aquatic plants as well as terrestrial plants that may become submerged after rain. A good example is the grassy banks of dams and large reservoirs in the Western Cape that get covered with water in winter. The water then slowly drops in spring going on to summer (October to December) and the submerged, grass-covered banks become fantastic spawning grounds and feeding areas for carp. If there are no grass banks available, spend your time looking for carp in the shallow bays of the dam. The windward bank is usually the most productive area. Stream inlets can be really productive in big dams; search for them on Google earth and fish them in mid summer.

Rivers that fish well are usually the ones that are clear enough to spot fish in up to a metre down. Look for sand bars and shallower areas with less flow to target fish on fly. Carp also enjoy the tail outs and heads of pools and will hang around these areas when the water temperature is high enough (20 degrees Celsius or warmer).

This fish was spotted and caught in a scum line near an inlet in a dam - look for stream inlets in big dams, they are hotspots for carp in summer
This fish was spotted and caught in a scum line near an inlet in a dam – look for stream inlets in big dams, they are hotspots for carp in summer

The approach

Once feeding fish have been located a slow, stealthy approach is needed to get the fly in the right place, without giving away your presence. Carp will rarely swim more than a metre to eat a fly. Try to place the fly ahead of the fish, approximately 10 – 20 cm in front of it. If you think you’ve leopard crawled before when fishing, or made a stealthy approach to a trout then carp fishing will raise the level of patience and stealth required to catch one on a fly.

I mostly wade for carp, unless they are feeding very close to a slightly raised bank or in those rare instances when fish are feeding in clear, open water. When wading, try not to lift your legs out of the water, simply raise your feet and slide them forward before gently placing them on the bottom. It is important to slowly ‘feel’ your way through the water; do not tread on a branch or an unstable rock for instance, rather move your foot slightly if you feel one of these obstacles and place it on a soft spot that will not make a sound and spook the fish. It is helpful to approach fish with the sun behind your back, but watch your shadow and the shadow of your rod, fish will spook if a shadow moves over them.

Methods (note that the ideal carp rod for me is a 6 wt and is the recommended rod for the methods described below):

Dipping

Right, here comes the controversial part of carp fishing with a fly rod. Some people refer to this technique as short-line nymphing, others may use a technique closer to Czech nymphing; I call the method I use “dipping”, which in my view is the more accurate name. The technique was derived from the art-lure technique, in which carp are “dipped” with a small lead head jig (a.k.a., the loodkoppie) with a pole or long rod (ideally 3 m or longer in length) when fish are visibly feeding in shallow water, or when mud clouds and air bubbles are seen in water between  1 – 2 m deep.

You will have a 4 – 5 m section of 3X tippet (this can be increased to a maximum of approx. 15 lb line – too thick a line will influence ‘contact’ with the fly, but most lines in the 15 lb range are still thin enough) to the end of your leader. A jig-head fly or bead head fly with either a lead bead or tungsten bead should be fished with this technique. Weighted Black Zulu variations work well, which is my first choice when dipping. The fly should then hang no further than 1.5 m under the rod tip (the shorter the better when fishing in shallow water of course, which would be the norm); the tippet should be long enough to run onto the reel so that the index finger of the fishing hand has contact with the line – finger contact is important to ‘feel’ the takes.

A smallmouth bass caught on a dipped Zulu fly - bass cannot resist a dipped Zulu
A smallmouth bass caught on a dipped Zulu fly – bass cannot resist a dipped Zulu

There is no casting involved when dipping fish. A fly is simply lowered in front of the fish’s nose and ‘wiggled’ in one spot until the fish visibly engulfs it or if the line feels heavy (as if snagging weed) in deeper or murky water. A weightless fly may be presented to fish feeding in shallow water with very little or no floating vegetation; the weight of the hook and wet material will then be enough to dip the fly in windless conditions. A weighted fly will be needed to penetrate surface weed or to keep the line still in windy conditions. Rapid and pronounced movement of the large orange lips of the carp is the give-away to set the hook.

If the fish is visibly feeding on the bottom, or if a mud cloud or air bubbles are observed, the fly should be lowered right to the bottom in front of the fish, or down the centre of the patch of air bubbles (the sucking motion of the mouth lifting debris off the bottom is responsible for the release of soil-trapped air resulting in a fine patch of air bubbles appearing on the surface). The fly has reached the bottom once the line goes slack; the fly should then be lifted slowly, with as little rod-tip movement as possible off the bottom (lifted less than 5 cm) and dropped back down again. Repeat until the weight of the fish is felt (unless the fish is visible and the take was obvious). A sharp lift is required to set the hook when the fish has taken a dipped fly.

Dipping is deadly and I’ve caught the most carp using this technique. It is also adrenalin pumping stuff when dipping a 6 lb fish or bigger right in front of your legs. If you believe this is not fly fishing, then you should either go trout fishing for the rest of your life or ask yourself how “fly fishing” is defined – is it really a method used to catch fish by casting a fly line, or is it a method by which fish are fooled with flies? I believe that fly fishing is as versatile as you allow it to be and that a fly rod can be used to manipulate flies in many different ways to catch fish.

A lovely fish caught on a fairly long cast with a tiny Black Zulu fly
A lovely fish caught on a fairly long cast with a tiny Black Zulu fly

Casting

When sight fishing to cruising carp or fish feeding on or near the surface in open water (carp may often be seen sucking in food particles trapped in scum lines) flies can be presented by making longer casts with a floating line. Short leaders (2 m or less) help with accurate presentations; I normally use a rapidly regressing tapered leader ending in about 70 cm of 3X tippet. The shorter leader will also improve the hook-up rate, since the takes can be quick and there is less slack and better contact when using a short leader.

Flies that work well are weightless Zulu variations, woolly worms, and/or girdle bugs. Hackle may be used as an aid in Zulu’s to ‘suspend’ the fly in front of fish as it sinks slowly to the correct depth to intercept the fish. When casting to tailing fish, mud clouds or a patch of air bubbles, cast the fly (soft placement) over the selected area and strip or drag it back on the surface to drop it as close to the head-area of the fish. It is important to keep the line straight; takes are either felt on an extremely slow figure of eight retrieve, or seen if the tip of the fly line moves. Remember to strip-strike before lifting the rod tip. Note – I have tried suspending flies under a strike indicator and although fish have taken the flies when presented like this, I have always missed them. I believe the strike indicator creates slack in the line, leading to less contact and the reason for missing fish on the strike. Avoid using strike indicators for carp, it is more of a hamper than a help.

When targeting river fish, I usually cast a weightless fly upstream of a feeding fish and time the drift so that the fly ends up drifting slowly into the feeding lane of the fish and almost onto its nose. Aggressive fish will swim towards the fly and engulf it; strip in the slack line as the rod is lifted on the strike. If the fish moves after the fly, but doesn’t commit within the first few seconds after reaching it, leave slack in the line to allow the fly to drop onto the bottom. This is often a trigger for picky carp to take the fly. If the fish swims around nervously after spotting the fly, leave it to swim off on its own time – don’t cast at it again, it will simply scare the fish more and its reaction will send off the alarm, warning other fish in the vicinity about your presence. Rather stay put and look for a ‘fresh’ feeding fish after the spooked carp has disappeared.

This young fish was feeding on a scum line when it accepted a Black Zulu suspended in the surface film - the fish broke the rod after it was forced out of the bushes on the right in the foto
This young fish was feeding on a scum line when it accepted a Black Zulu suspended in the surface film – the fish broke the rod after it was forced out of the bushes on the right in the photo

Summary of tips:

  1. Fish for carp at the most productive time of day in still waters: approx. 11:00 am – 16:00 pm;
  2. Tread carefully and approach feeding carp slowly;
  3. Look for movement (usually a slow sub-surface disturbance creating concentric circles on the surface), mud clouds and tiny air bubbles when targeting carp;
  4. Stand still when a large number of fish are feeding and moving around you, they will most likely come to you – don’t rush towards them;
  5. Use nothing lighter than 3X tippet for carp;
  6. Dip fish in heavily weeded water, deeper water or in windy conditions using a heavily weighted fly;
  7. Cast to fish with a floating line and near-neutrally buoyant flies (slow sinking) when fishing open water;
  8. Watch them orange lips, if they open and shut rapidly the fish most likely has the fly inside its mouth – strike!
Gerald Penkler with a large river carp caught on a small, weightless girdle bug
Gerald Penkler with a large river carp caught on a small, weightless girdle bug

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