7 Best Carp Flies And How To Fly Fish For Carp
Are you tired of fishing for bass or trout? The good news is that no matter where you are in North America, Carp can be found in a river or lake near you. Carp are one of the most technically challenging fishes that a fly fisher can pursue on a fly rod. Once considered, and still thought of by many as a garbage fish not worth pursuing, the carp has gained a cult-like following by fly fishermen in the last decade.
Found in both urban and rural environments carp are fun to chase with a fly rod. I have been on many fishing trips, and carp rank up there in terms of the most difficult fish to trick with a fly rod. That list of species includes permit in Central America, redfish on the Gulf Coast, and Tarpon in the Keys. In this article, we will cover some basic carp biology and then examine some flies and tactics that work for catching carp on the fly.
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Understanding Carp Biology
Being the hardy and prolific breeders that they are, carp were brought to America sometimes in the 1800’s. They were introduced as a source of cheap protein, and eventually as a way to control grass in rivers and reservoirs. They are the largest member of the minnow family. Often growing on average to weights from 6-15 lbs. They grass carp reach weights in excess of 50 lbs.
Because of their fast breeding cycle and ability to live in almost all water types, carp are considered trash fish by many. They are bottom feeders and more often than not, they are found in muddy stained water. Similar to catfish, they utilize their barbel like sensors and sucker mouths to root in mud at the bottom of lakes and rivers turning over grass beds in order to forage for food. Being bottom feeders, they degrade water quality when large numbers of fish feed simultaneously. Carp will navigate around lakes and rivers, sucking mud into their mouths, filtering out food, and spitting the mud back out. Smell is an important part of how carp find their food. As fly fisherman, we are at a distinct disadvantage when fly fishing for carp, because our flies are tied from synthetic material. Fly patterns need to grab a carp’s attention in order to be an effective fly pattern.
Their food sources vary, but much of what they eat is anything that is found on the bottom of lakes and rivers. This includes, but is not limited to worms, crayfish, mollusks, algae, leeches, snails, clams, and even berries. They are opportunistic eaters, and as such they are very difficult to pattern. While carp will eat just about anything, they can be highly selective depending on the forage that is available in their particular body of water.
Recognizing Carp Behavior
One mistake that is often made when fly fishing for carp, is that anglers will often target carp that aren’t in the mood to feed. Identifying and learning to read carp behavior is an important piece of the fly fishing for carp puzzle.
Preferably, we want to target carp that are specifically searching for food. In my my experience, since carp are bottom eaters this means anglers should look for slow moving carp, close to the bottom of the river or lake and in shallow water. Observing different type of carp behavior will allow fly fisherman the best opportunity to catch these golden ghosts.
Fast Moving Carp
Fast moving carp is a dead giveaway that you are fishing for spooked carp. Carp are slow methodical movers, spending most of their time searching for nonmobile or slow moving forage items. They spend their days either sunning themselves or cruising through lakes or rivers in search of food items.
If carp are swimming very fast, or fly by you at high speeds on a shallow mud flat, then don’t bother casting a fly to these fish. Fast moving carp are spooked carp, and the best strategy here is to let them go. Hoping that they will settle down somewhere else, eventually giving you a realistic shot at them later on.
Carp in Splashy Water
Carp spawn in the late spring and early summer. As with all animals, reproduction is the main goal of survival, so feeding during this time is at a minimum. While it is enticing to cast flies at splashing carp, your time is better spent looking for single or small pods of carp that are cruising at slow speeds and shallow in the water column.
Slow moving carp are fish feeding or looking for food. Make note of when and where the spawning behavior was taking place because while the spawning bite is slow now, there will be lots of feeding carp post spawn.
Heads Down Tails Up
When I am carp fishing, there is not a more exciting moment than scanning a shallow water flat and seeing fish with their heads down and tails up. These are carp actively digging in the mud looking for food, and as such, they are the best targets. This is a telltale sign of feeding fish.
Where I do most of my fly fishing for carp in central Texas, the head down tail feeding characteristic is very similar to the way that redfish on the Texas coast feed for shrimp and crustaceans. Tailing fish will have their heads down in the mud rooting around and their tails will be up near the surface of the water. Sometimes, their tails will stick out of the water, and this is the easiest way to spot them. Essentially, these fish are doing a headstand in the water column. This feeding behavior will also be marked by a cloud of mud. Tailing carp are actively sucking up mud and looking for food. This is the best chance for anglers to catch a golden bonefish on the fly, fly placement is critical.
Slow Moving Carp
Many times, you will see singles and pods of carp cruising slowly around lakes and rivers. There are several reasons for this: first, carp are cold blooded, so carp cruising in shallow water is often an effort on their part to warm up or find shallow water. Second, as we mentioned before, carp are opportunistic eaters and most fish move to search for food. Carp’s foraging behavior presents sight fishing fly fishers with an excellent opportunity.
Unlike other gamefish that hunt or ambush prey, carp are omnivorous grazers, and cruising shallow flats is the most efficient way to find food. Fly anglers looking to chase carp on the fly have a solid opportunity to connect with a fish cruising mud flats shallow in the water column.
Carp Fishing Fly Gear
Fortunately, for most fly fishermen that already have a trout fly rod, fly fishing for carp does not require much additional fly gear. Whether you are fly fishing for carp in the clear waters of Lake Michigan or the dirty urban waters of down town Denver, carp on the fly can be pursued on a 6-weight fly rod in most scenarios. The average size of grass carp is going to be 6-10 lbs., and these are amazing fish to catch on a lighter fly rod.
A weight forward floating fly line will do the trick. Rio makes a carp specific fly line, but for most fly fishers, a standard trout fly line will work just fine.
We will get to specific flies later, but carp flies are generally on the smaller side, so choosing leaders and tippets that match are critical to finding the right balance between a stealthy presentation and a strong enough leader to present the flies in an accurate manner.
I usually start with a 7.5-foot leader and add some 3x or 4x leader depending on the water clarity. If fish are acting spooky I might go with a longer leader depending on the conditions. I always use fluorocarbon tippet. Fluorocarbon tippet doesn’t refract light, so it is virtually invisible underwater.
I am not sure if fluorocarbon makes a difference, but in my mind it does, so that is what I go with. My main concern is that my leader and tippet have enough strength to present flies accurately, so I can try to present my fly to the carp’s nose. Fly choice is also critical when chasing carp on the fly.
Carp Fly Presentation
Most of your fly carp fly fishing is going to be done sight casting to fish. That means you will not cast blindly into the water. Anglers will wait until they actively see carp within casting range.
As we mentioned earlier, carp will root around in the mud looking for worms and nymphs. This feeding behavior is similar to the way inshore saltwater gamefish forage for fish on tidal flats. Much like saltwater fly fishing, the window for fly presentation is small. In my experience, the best strategy is to cast slightly in front of and past the carp’s nose. Then subtly drag the fly back to the carp and into it’s feeding lane. Letting the fly settle and sit in the carp’s feeding lane, waiting for the carp to suck the fly into its mouth. This is called the drag and drop method. This requires weighted flies and is often dark in color. Flies tied in black, dark green, or rust colors stand out better on a mud colored floor.
When sight casting for carp, you will often see carp slowly cruising across flats in shallow water. Although they don’t have their head down and tail up actively eating, these fish will still eat a fly. This is an opportunity to choose an unweighted or slightly weighted fly. The same drag and drop presentation applies here. The only difference is the fly is going to settle slowly. Predicting where the carp are going and presenting the fly out in front of the carp is critical. These carp aren’t looking down, so presenting the fly in the correct portion of the water column will provoke eats from the golden ghosts of the freshwater flats.
Carp Fishing Flies
Choosing the right flies for carp fly fishing is critical to being successful when it comes to catching carp on the fly. Carp live in many different environments, crystal clear water around Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and chocolate milk stand water throughout the Southern United States. Choosing the best carp flies often depends on an angler’s preference and what you have confidence in. However, there are some fly characteristics and things to consider when choosing effective carp patterns.
As we mentioned before, carp live in a variety of waters and this means that they eat a variety of food sources. They are generalist in their diets, and they will eat just about anything they can find. This is what makes them so difficult to catch. Fish in one lake or river will eat something completely different then carp in another neighboring lake or river. In areas in the Western United States, carp will often eat dry flies in areas where cottonwood trees are abundant. They are super selective generalists.
Carp anglers need to be students of the water, and let the habitat and water conditions dictate what fly to choose. This really is no different from saltwater fly fishing or fishing for other fish species. The environment is often what dictates what fly pattern we would choose. No matter what, these same principles apply to carp anglers both novice and veteran.
If you are carp fishing muddy rivers of mud flats of lakes, and you are seeing lots of tailing fish, then this is a solid clue of what fly patterns you would want to choose. To catch carp in these conditions, then choose worm patterns or nymph patterns. The mud bottoms of lakes and rivers hold lots of nymphs and worms, and these would be excellent fly patterns to start trying.
If you are seeing chasing carp and observing large carp skimming the surface of a lake or river, then there is a good chance that just like trout, they are eating small aquatic insects, or they could be eating seeds, snails, beetles, small pieces of floating vegetation and even large insects like grasshoppers when given the opportunity. This is where a keen eye for observing the exact feeding conditions will help an angler choose the right carp fly.
I remember the first time I ever observed this type of behavior, I was fishing on the Bighorn River in Montana. We were about to pull the drift boat out of the water and there was a small oxbow lake coming off the main stem of the river, as the main river was blown out. In this oxbow lake, there were close to a hundred large carp skimming the surface and eating some sort of floating seed.
No doubt fishing pressure was light, as we were able to approach the carp and cast dry fly after dry fly without spooking these large fish. This is unusual behavior.
We tried every dry fly in the arsenal, we even tried small nymphs and woolly buggers to no avail. Our flies were refused as the carp’s attention was focused squarely on the floating seed. This was an excellent learning moment, as we realized that although carp will eat anything, they can also be extremely selective eaters.
Big carp found in clear water will often times act completely different then carp in muddy water or carp high in the water column eating dry flies. In environments such as these, there is less food available because, in clear water, the bottom of the river or lake is usually limestone or rocks. This means that there is not going to be an abundance of worms or nymphs.
In clear water, anglers will find that carp will eat baitfish and many times crayfish. Most of my experience carp fly fishing, has been done in conditions such as these, the crystal clear limestone lakes of central Texas. Canyon Lake in the Texas Hill Country has gin clear water, and both weighted and unweighted crayfish patterns are the most effective patterns depending on the feeding zone that a carp is in. This is because the lake almost appears sterile in nature. There isn’t a ton of forage outside of baitfish and crayfish, so crayfish patterns are an important carp fly in these specific lakes and rivers.
Taking the time to recognize both obvious and subtle differences in the areas that you fish will give you a head start in choosing what fly patterns to choose when carp fly fishing. Here are some flies that are tried and true fly patterns that work for carp fly fishing.
Effective Carp Flies
Every trout angler knows that the San Juan worm works well for trout. It also works equally well for carp. This is one of the best flies for muddy water fishing. When carp have their heads down and are rooting in the mud, they are most likely eating worms. This is a terrific fly for fishing using the drag-and-drop method.
In addition, the San Juan worm fly is versatile. It comes in many different colors. Variations of the San Juan worm, like the squirmy worm, imitate real life worms in look and feel.
The mop fly is one of those flies that exploded onto the fly fishing scene and quickly made an impact in the trout fishing world. Depending on the color of the mop fly, it can imitate a wide array of different aquatic insects. The brighter colors can imitate caddis flies or worms, and the tan or darker colored versions represent crane fly larva or caterpillars which all make great meals for big carp.
One tip, whether you are fly tying your own bugs or buying your flies at a fly shop or online retailer, is to try to match the color of your fly with the bottom of the river or lake that you are fishing. This can be the difference between catching fish or not, as this seems to increase the effectiveness of the fly.
The Carpinator fly is tied with dumbbell weighted eyes on a wide shank hook. The dumbbell weighted eyes help the fly stand upright when it is resting on the bottom of the lake or river. This upright profile is critical to helping catch carp on the fly. Most carp flies lay flat in the mud and blend in too well with the bottom, offering little to no contrast.
It is made specifically for sight casting to fish both cruising and rooting in mud flats. The way the dumbbell weights are tied and positioned on the hook makes the fly stand vertical on the bottom of the river. This creates an outstanding contrast and fly profile that makes the fly easy to see.
Clouser Swimming Nymph
The clouser swimming nymph was designed by Bob Clouser. He invented the clouser minnow, one of the most popular streamer patterns ever created. The clouser swimming nymph, was originally created to catch smallmouth bass. In contrast to other carp fly patterns, which are usually tied heavy and fished in drop, drag and wait method, the clouser nymph can be fished in an active manner. It represent’s both crayfish patterns and dragon fly nymphs, both are well liked carp forage. Not only is it an effective fly pattern to catch carp, but it also catches bass and trout too.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, carp anglers need to identify what forage carp are eating in their specific fishery to have the best results when choosing carp flies. Several years ago, a fly hit the internet tied by a carp angler named John Montana. It quickly became one of if not the most popular carp flies on the market.
Montana’s hybrid worm is a truly effective carp fly and does catch carp effectively. This fly works particularly well when fishing water that has clams present. If your river or lake has clams or mussels, then this fly should be in your fly box.
Carp anglers know that if your local river or lake has mulberry trees anywhere near the water, then carp will know about them too. Much like a deer feeder calling in well conditioned animals to the sound of a timer spinning corn, carp are well accustomed to and know the particular sound of a mulberry hitting the surface of the water. This usually natural phenomenon occurs in late June as the mulberries ripen and fall from the limbs of trees. The loud plopping noise created by the impact of a berry hitting the water is the carp dinner bell.
The Mulberry fly is an effective carp pattern that imitates the natural phenomenon of mulberries hitting the water. The key to this fly is to tie it with just enough weight so that it plops on the surface of the water and then slowly sinks to the bottom of the river or lake. Fish will eat this fly at every level of the water column. Occasionally, they will even eat it on the surface of the water, making for some of the most exciting surface action in fly fishing.
The Woolly bugger is a great carp fly that is not only effective at catching carp on the fly, but it also works for many other fish species as well. Every carp angler should have a variety of wooly bugger patterns in their fly box. Choose drab natural colors in olive, black, brown and maroon. Different sizes and colors imitate a wide range of insects and forage species.
Tied weighted or unweighted, the woolly bugger has the ability to reach any depth in the water column. In addition, there are many variations of the same fly pattern: rubber legs, dumbbell eye weights, cone headed buggers, and even jig headed varieties as well. The woolly bugger is a solid fly choice and an investment that will keep you covered in many different fishing scenarios.
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