American Fly Fishing

By Dennis Collier

In 1997, Barry Reynolds, Brad Befus, and John Berryman published Carp on the Fly: A Flyfishing Guide, illuminating the small, cultlike band of American fly fishers who clandestinely pursued this lowly nongame species with fly rod and fly. I personally know Reynolds and Befus, and happened to work for the publisher—Johnson Books—at the time. However, like most self-proclaimed trout purists, I haughtily dismissed this travesty as pure sacrilege. It turned out I was depriving myself of some great angling entertainment.
   The common carp (Cyprinius carpio) is a fish that will eat everything but the kitchen sink, yet display some of the most fickle and frustrating feeding habits imaginable when it comes to taking a counterfeit of fur and feather. Furthermore, every carp venue, from the Columbia River to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to some brackish backwater in the Deep South, and countless liquid environs in between, necessitates research on the angler’s part to find the favored food of the local carp. Here is an abbreviated carp food shopping list to get things started: leeches, aquatic worms, crayfish; insect nymphs, larvae, and pupae; adult mayflies and caddisflies; grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets; round gobi, minnows, scuds, snails, freshwater clams, tadpoles; mulberry fruit, cottonwood seeds, and aquatic vegetable matter. Accordingly, a prolific collection of carp flies has emerged from the vises of anglers in imitation of these food sources.
   An excellent example of seasonal and local factors can be found on the vast freshwater flats around Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan, where the invasive round gobi has become the nearly exclusive food source for huge common carp, some weighing more than 30 pounds. Round gobi are sculpin lookalikes and grow to several inches in length, necessitating similarly sized fly imitations.
   In contrast, at certain times of the year, fly fishers enthusiastically probe the shadows of overhanging mulberry trees when the ripe, purple fruit starts plopping on the water’s surface and ringing the dinner bell for eager carp. Urban anglers cast white cottonwood seed imitations to “clooping” carp in little condo-cluster ponds in the middle of major metropolitan sprawl, while curious residents, nosy dogs, and honking geese add to the entertainment value. If you can befriend the groundskeeper at a local golf course, you just might be allowed to fish the numerous carp-populated water hazards that are part and parcel of any respectable links.
   On the Missouri River near Craig, Montana, anglers in the know search out and fish for carp along foam-flecked eddies and current seams. These fish will ingest insect-laden suds that accumulate along these features, where hatch remnants of mayflies and caddisflies, and wind-deposited terrestrial insects, provide a concentrated buffet of calories for the fish—and superb sport for those who temporarily divert their attention from the equally attractive trout fishing at hand. The point of all this is that there are literally thousands of carp corrals around the country; you just have to do your homework to find and then figure out how to catch them.
   Today, carp flies abound. One of my favorites is Jay Zimmerman’s Backstabber, one of the most popular carp flies on the market; it is sold by Umpqua Feather Merchants. Zimmerman recently authored The Best Carp Flies–How to Tie and Fish Them, an excellent compendium of proven carp flies accompanied by step-by-step tying instructions. Jon Luke’s Carp Candy is another great carp catcher, and is available through Spirit River; Luke is the creative director of this magazine and an experienced and enthusiastic carpaholic. Other noteworthy carp flies include Egan’s Head Stand, John Montana’s Hybrid Worm, Reynolds’s Carp Bitters, McTage’s Trouser Worm, and Clouser’s Swimming Nymph. 
   Small impressionistic crayfish patterns, such as McTage’s Primordial Carp Stew and Whitlock’s Near ’Nuff Crayfish, are pretty much universally accepted as carp attractors. However, keep in mind that, contrary to popular perception, carp in general probably eat fewer crayfish than they do other food items. Soft-hackle wet flies, tied on heavy-wire hooks in a variety of colors, are likewise must-haves in any serious carper’s fly box.
   If you look at enough carp flies you’ll see there is a lot of repetition in each design class, so home in on the seasonal and localized foods your neighborhood carp might be eating at any given time—specific to lake, pond, or river—then customize your fly selections to best match the hatch, so to speak. Far better to carry a few flies and fish them well than to be overwhelmed
with choices.
   Orvis currently has two good books on carp and carp flies. The Orvis Beginner’s Guide to Carp Flies by Dan C. Frasier is a valuable addition to your library, and The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp by Kirk Deeter is equally informative. A number of carp fly-fishing blogs also offer excellent information, including and I use these websites, and a host of others, as a continual source of inspiration and education.
   If common carp are like a bachelor’s degree, grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)—aka white amur—are the equivalent of a Ph.D. In other words, if you start feeling pretty smug about your ability to catch common carp, go find some grass carp to hasten you back to reality. Grass carp, especially big 3-foot-long specimens that have been around the lake a few times, are tough to catch on a fly and even harder to land once you’ve managed to hook one.
   Grass carp are only slightly more discriminating as to what they eat, but with a potential annual growth rate of up to several inches, it takes a lot of food to sustain that rapid teenager-type physical expansion. The trick is to find hungry fish that might be receptive to your offering, then make a presentation stealthy enough to prevent spooking the target. As the name suggests, grass carp eat grass and other aquatic vegetable matter, including floating pond scum and moss, but they also eat aquatic insect larvae and nymphs, adult insects such as Callibaetis mayflies, aquatic worms, freshwater clams, minnows, leeches, crayfish, and more.
   One of my local grass carp lakes holds an expansive, shallow mud flat that often has several large carp with tails in the air, digging craters in the detritus as they forage for food. The cratered flat looks like the surface of the moon. I’ve spent many hours in pursuit of these fish, with only marginal success. I am likewise aware of another small, and very private, lake, where the huge resident grass carp, having depleted the pond of all vegetable matter, adapted to a diet of crayfish, which they now pursue and attack with vigor. As they say, fishing is fishing and catching is, well, sometimes another story.


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