Stalking Spring Carp, Part 1
By Chris Marshall
The water of the shallow cove was clear and unruffled, shimmering in the afternoon sunshine. It was unusually hot for early May. I was standing in the shallows of a wide bay, camouflaged among the dry stalks of last year’s cattails, absolutely motionless. Across the bay something large sloshed on the surface. Not yet—too far away.
Then—a subtle bulging of the water and a trembling of the cattails to my right. And I saw them—three huge blue-grey shadows, fat as footballs, yet sleek, exuding power. Slowly, they came closer, foraging casually along the outside edge of the cattails. I could make out the tubercles of their nostrils, the occasional flash of orange-pink lips as one paused to pick up something from the bottom, and the hint of bronze scales beneath the dusky patina of their broad backs.
A gentle push on the rod, and the line curled out towards the fish—now less than 15 feet away. The weighted nymph dropped a foot in front of the leader, barely rippling the water. By the time the fish reached it, the nymph had almost touched the bottom. There was no hesitation: the mouth opened, inhaled, and the nymph was gone.
Like me, carp are immigrants. They’ve been on the move from their homeland in Asia for centuries, arriving in Europe in the Middle Ages in the backpacks of monastic aquaculturalists, destined for ecclesiastical stewponds. They arrived in North America about a century before I did, and, today, the waters are swarming with them.
Bill with a Wyoming carp
In Canada, carp are found from Quebec to the Prairies. Many anglers curse them; few fish for them; even fewer fly fish for them. But those of who do, have come to delight in the challenge of seducing them into taking a fly and in the terrifying power of their runs.
You can catch carp on flies wherever they swim—I even hooked one on a Woolly Bugger when I was fishing for smallmouth in the plunge pool of one of the dams on Ontario’s Trent River. They love warm water and are most active in the summer, but they can be taken from May to September. Where I live in Eastern Ontario, the Bay of Quinte offers superb carp fly fishing. This long, shallow stretch of water is perfect habitat for them. Fish over 20 pounds are common and there are specimens over 40. Our biggest on the fly weighed in at 38½ pounds.
Colin with a carp from the Bay of Quinte, Ontario
My favourite time to fly fish for them is in the spring, when they move into shallow water prior to spawning. The water warms up more quickly in the shallows, and the fish bask there, soaking up the warmth, feeding on invertebrates in the newly sprouting aquatic vegetation. In these conditions they’re particularly partial to an artificial nymph placed strategically in front of them.
This is no delicate business. Leave your trout gear at home. What you need is a heavy-duty #9 or #10 weight rod, at least nine feet long, with a fighting butt. I use a ten-foot rod with a WF9 floating line—the same rod I use for chinooks. The extra length makes it easier to maneuver the line among the cattails without fouling it. It’s perfect for making the short flip casts, which are what most situations demand. For you have to be close to the fish in order to see them take. Carp are so quick to spit out an artificial fly, that the usual method of watching for the leader to twitch is useless. Most of the time the leader never even moves when a fish takes.
The reel should be big enough to take not only the big line, but also at least a hundred yards of backing, which should be top quality dacron and at least 30lbs test. A good disc drag is an asset but not strictly necessary, so long as the reel has an exposed, flanged rim for manual braking with fingers and palm. Good quality, large arbor, salt-water models fit the bill nicely, as they won’t seize up when these powerful fish take off on their characteristic long, blistering runs.
Choosing an appropriate leader presents something of a dilemma. For such powerful fish, a strong tippet is essential. Yet, at the same time, it has to be fine enough to allow a natural presentation of small flies. If you opt primarily for strength, you lose out on presentation. If you opt for presentation, you lose out on strength. Luckily, the latest generation of leader material designed specifically for fly fishing. For my tippet (the end of the leader to which you attach the fly), I use an Australian product which offers 3X (0.008” diameter) with a breaking strain of over eight pounds and 2X (0.010” diameter) of over ten pounds. In relatively snag free water the 3X is fine, but where fish have to be turned or stopped sharply, 2X or even 1X should be used, although the latter will restrict you to flies of #8 and bigger. In all cases, whatever size you use, a Duncan Loop knot will allow you fly to swing free, enhancing the naturalness of the presentation.
Coming soon – Stalking Spring Carp, Part 2: Flies and Tactics