American Fly Fishing

By Bob Gaines

San Diego County lakes are best known for bass fishing. Ten of the top 25 largest bass of all time have been caught here. Lake Henshaw, located near the town of Santa Ysabel, at the foot of the Palomar Mountains, has produced some big bass, but is best known for its fly fishing for carp—in particular dry-fly action, a rarity in carp fishing.
   To get to Henshaw, take Interstate 5 to Oceanside, then head inland on State Route 76. The urban sprawl fades into orange groves as you reach the Pauma Valley, where you’ll find the palatial Pala Casino Spa Resort, an incongruous monumental façade in this rural landscape. The highway climbs east through oak-covered hills, where the tree canopy arches over the winding road. Then terrain levels into a broad, flat valley, and Lake Henshaw comes into view. At 1,000 acres, it’s the largest lake in San Diego County, with more than 20 miles of shoreline. Stop at the Lake Henshaw Resort store ( to get a $7.50 key code for the lake’s gated entrance, and once inside, you’ll feel as if you are fishing a private lake, at least on a weekday.
   From the boat dock/launch ramp, walking the shoreline to the right (south) will put you on acres of firm sand flats where you can prowl for carp foraging for insects among the flooded vegetation. Look for tailing fish, nervous water, puffs of mud, and bubbles, all of which reveal fish rooting around on the bottom, and listen for “clooping” carp. Clooping is the snorting or sucking sound carp make when surface feeding, often heard when carp feed in shoreline vegetation.
   The one drawback to Hesnshaw is visibility. Wind churns up the water to the color of coffee with cream, and it’s tough to see the fish. The carp’s vision is also compromised, so they are less spooky, but you’ll need to put your fly inches from their nose. A fly stripped at the fish will spook it—carp aren’t used to getting attacked by insects—so in the turbid water, the best strategy is to cast a weighted fly in the path of feeding fish, let it sink without them seeing it, and allow the fish to find it. Look for subtle signs of a take: a sudden move, a twitch of the body or tail, or any rapid turn or pounce. React with a quick strip-strike, but don’t sweep the rod, as this will spook the fish if you rip the fly away without a bite.
   No float tubes, kayaks, or canoes are allowed on the lake, but half-day and full-day boat rentals are available, or you can launch your own boat. On the lake you’ll often find carp surface feeding on scum lines in small “shoals” of half a dozen or so fish, sipping the surface film like soup. An accurate cast—placing a Parachute Adams or Stimulator inches from their snouts—will often fool them in this situation, and when a carp mouths your fly, wait a beat, then strike with the classic trout set. A carp’s rubbery lip is about as tough as a car tire, and once you’ve set the hook, it’s almost impossible to lose a fish unless you break the tippet. 
   More than anything else, Henshaw is famous for its prolific summer grasshopper hatches, and a tan or yellow foam hopper is the ticket this time of year. Each June, Lake Henshaw is home of the annual Carp Throwdown, a unique carp fly-fishing tournament (, organized by Conway Bowman, who guides fly fishers for mako sharks off the San Diego coast, and Al Quattrocchi (aka Al Q), known for targeting urban carp on the Los Angeles River. The tournament has two divisions: a boat division for one or two anglers and a wading division for individual anglers. The rules are simple: the five largest carp are photographed on an official “Carp Throwdown ruler,” and one point is awarded per inch. The most points wins.
   If you’re new to fly fishing for carp, and want some guidance from an expert, guide John Hendrickson, (858) 500-2761,, captains a flats boat
at Henshaw.


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