I’ve already declared 2008 the Year of the Carp. One reason for that, besides occasionally obsessing about weird fish, is I’m tired of living vicariously through the exploits of John Montana, who posts all about whacking carp on one of my favorite blogs, Carp on the Fly. He also routinely competes for the Slab of the Month on Moldy Chum. (I think he won the whole year once.) There are several stages to the carp fly fisherman, and since I’m still at the flailing like an idiot stage I figured I’d pick his brain about how to get it done. He was kind enough to answer my questions:
1. What is it about carp that makes a grown man dedicate so much of his free fishing time towards them?
JM: I heard about carp fishing through Andy “AP Emerger, ” a local Portland fly fisherman that had gotten into carp early. For a long time I tried fishing for them in various sloughs, rivers, and lakes with no success, but I really did want to find out what all the fuss was about. On a trip to MN to fish with my friend Wendy Berrell of Fishing and Thinking in MN, I caught my first carp on a 6 wt cane rod. The fish really took me for a ride, and I was even more intrigued. What actually got me hooked was finding the fish in shallow water feeding like bonefish. I remember the first time I found a spot with a big flat of 2 ft water and tails breaking the surface all over…I was completely taken in. I spent the day casting and casting, couldn’t catch a thing. I actually called in to work the next day and took the day off, went back to the same spot and spent another few hours casting at tailing carp until I figured it out. Once it clicked, most other types of fishing were over for me. I really enjoy the challenge and thrill of stalking big fish in shallow water. I love the visual aspect of carp fishing, where often the take is so subtle you have to watch for gills flaring or small head movement in order to know when to set the hook. Combine those exciting, shallow water visual candy moments with the sheer power and force of a hooked carp and you’ll quickly forget about nymphing for trout, or standing in a river blindly swinging and hoping a steelhead hooks itself.
2. I see carp swimming all the time but they seem utterly uninterested. What kind of conditions are ideal for pursuing carp on fly?
JM: This was the biggest challenge when I started carp fishing. I asked everyone I saw if they had seen carp, and most people could tell me about places where they had seen the fish, but the fact is that finding carp is easy. Finding feeding carp is a bit tougher. Unlike most fish like trout or steelhead, you really can’t “entice” a carp to eat. They are so efficient, that they really only eat when they want to. Ideal places for a fly rod carper are shallow, warm water. I like to look for small gravel or cobble for the bottom structure, and if I can find cobble adjacent to deep water, I know I’ll find some larger fish. Warm mud bays always hold feeding fish, but can be less fun to wade. The depth and bottom structure is really the key, as carp can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, sloughs…pretty much anything that holds water can hold carp. The key is finding those shallow flat like areas in nearby water bodies, you’ll find the fish. Another great tip that my friend Matt pointed out the other day is to do your scouting during the spawn. Spawning carp are easy to see, and you’ll know right away if the fish are around.
3. Where are you most likely to find carp willing to eat?
JM: Carp can and do eat just about anything, so you can find feeding carp anyplace. I’ve seen carp chase crayfish and baitfish, seen them dig around for nymphs, and cloop cottonwood seeds off of the surface. The key for fly fishing is to find them in shallow where you can see them. When you do find carp, I focus on three “types” of fish. My favorite target for flies are the carp I call “slow cruisers.” These fish are moving slowly along near the bottom, usually at a slight angle with their head down, and casting from side to side in a zig zag pattern. They are clearly on the prowl and respond extremely well to flies. My second favorite target is tailing carp. Tailing care are usually at a 45 degree or vertical angle, sometimes with their tails breaking the surface. A seriously tailing fish will be digging up a mud cloud and getting down to eating in a serious way. Tailing carp will take a fly easily, but detecting the strike can be tough. Their heads are often obscured by a silt cloud, so the visual cues are usually limited to a the tail speeding up, the carp changing positions suddenly, or the fisherman’s sixth sense. One tip for tailing fish, put the fly slightly to the side rather than right on their nose. You can often see them dart their head left or right and use that as the cue to set the hook. My third favorite target is clooping fish. These fish are eating on the surface and would be my favorite type (who doesn’t like to catch big fish on the surface?) but in general it takes quit a bit of food to get them to the surface. I’ve seen carp feeding on mats of cottonwood seeds, and had no chance of getting them to eat a natural.
4. Is it all sight fishing or is it possible to connect with carp while blind casting?
JM: I used to think it was impossible to catch a carp blind, but they do occasionally get aggressive enough to feel the take. For the most part, you have to see it. When in MN each spring Wendy Berrell and I take some time to blind fish for roughfish below the dams, and we catch quite a few carp this way. We fish with indicators in moving water, just like trout fishing and it does work well, but the real thrill of carp fishing is in seeing the take.
5. How important is fly selection? Is it more valuable than presentation?
JM: After three years of chasing carp almost exclusively, I’m still torn on this question. As a general rule, presentation is absolutely the key. As I mentioned earlier, carp are extremely efficient eaters and can turn just about anything in the water into calories. Because of that, they rarely work for their meals. There is the occasion where I find big carp that are more active and will chase crayfish flies, but if you want to catch a lot of carp, you need to feed them the fly. I try to place the fly so that it hits the bottom within 8 inches of their mouth, keeping in mind whether the fish is moving, water depth, etc. Presentation wins out but as recent as two weeks ago my day was salvaged by a timely pattern change. Last year Zen Piscator turned me onto the San Juan Worm for carp, and I have had a tough time fishing other patterns since using the worm. On my last trip the worm worked ok, but the fish didn’t respond well to even the best presentations so I switched to a Rubber Legged Hare’s Ear and ended up landing 12 carp, including a 23 lb female…all but two on the size 12 RLHE. I guess I’d say stay flexible. Make sure you are fishing something readily available in your waters, and concentrate on making good presentations before spending too much time changing flies.
6. How important is stealth mode? Are they easily spooked by approaching footsteps or by false casts? Will the splash of the fly spook them?
JM: I’ll waffle on this question as well. Carp do have better senses then most fish, and once spooked they emit a chemical in the water that keeps their buddies from the area for a little while as well. Combine this with the fact that they often school together in large shoals and stealth is a necessity. That said, you can sneak up pretty close to carp in many conditions if you move slowly and watch your footfalls. I’ve caught twenty pound fish from a rod length away, and I’ve also spotted and stalked big tails from 100 ft away that mysteriously disappeared when I got 1/3 of the way there. I think it makes sense to watch your profile, wear muted clothing and do what you can to limit the amount of water you push when wading. False casting over the top of a fish, or lining the fish with a bad cast is the surest way to spook a carp. There are very few predators for carp in the Columbia river system and my guess is their biggest fear is of a swooping Eagle or Osprey, so I really pay attention to shadows on the water. One more key to spooky carp is the weight of your fly. I tie and carry a wide variety of flies in the same pattern, all weighted differently. You need a fly that gets down quickly so you can cast more directly at the fish, but it if is too heavy and makes a big plop you’ll surely spook the fish.
7. I’ve often heard that smell and taste are huge factors in carp fishing. How important is sight? Are they wary of leader length? Is fluoro better than mono?
JM: Carp do feed by smell, taste and vision. They do a lot of rooting around, sucking up mouthfuls of bottom strata and spitting out the stuff they don’t want. That is part of the challenge of catching them on a fly. I read a quote online a few years ago (can’t remember who said it) that applies to carp fishing for me. “I’d rather fool a fish than feed a fish.” There are much better ways to catch carp than with an artificial fly, I just think that the artificial is the most fun and rewarding. If you find feeding carp in shallow water, getting the carp to eat the fly will not be nearly as difficult as you might imagine. Where their super senses come into play is in how quickly they will eject the fly. The guys who bait fish for carp a lot talk about how quickly a fish can eject the bait…and that time triples when there is no scent or taste to mask the hook point. I’ve seen carp suck in a crayfish pattern from a foot away (without moving) and spit it back out in the same motion…so fast that I didn’t even set the hook. The key to carp fishing is detecting the take, and timing the hook set. As for leader length, fluoro, mono, etc. Carp are smart. When I first started fishing my local pond, I caught the heck out of the fish on everything I threw at them. Now, I’m down to 5 x tippet, fishing obscure flies and I’m lucky to catch one fish per outing. It really depends on the situation, but most carp are not pressured enough to be concerned with tippet and leaders. They learn pretty quickly though.
8. Have you ever thought about quitting your job and becoming a full time carp guide?
JM: Never. I have a ton of respect for guides…and I simply don’t have the patience most guides do! I took my dad out for carp, and standing there mentally screaming “Set the hook!” for hours was draining. He didn’t want me to tell him how to do it, so I had to watch him go through the carp pains I had already been through! I love fishing, but I’m not cut out to be a guide!
9. I have reason to believe that John Montana is not your real name. What are you trying to hide?
JM: I might be crazy enough to live in OR and ignore the trout, salmon and steelhead available; foolish enough to fish for a trash fish with a cane rod; and deluded enough to take pictures of carp next to a Hardy MK IV Bougle reel…but I’m not stupid enough to do all of that and use my real name!
All photos courtesy of Carp on the Fly.