Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Carp Fishing in America

Many things seem like great ideas at the time, yet most are only figments of a hopeful imagination or intoxicated faculties. Few actually take off with the vengeance of sprinters after the start gun. Few actually work or have legs to stand on. And although they are there if you look hard and long enough, success stories are few and far between. We cheer them on, those long shots. And I’ve always been partial to the underdog.

So had I been around in the late 1800s, I would have cheered on the carp. Facing pressured fisheries and depletion of native stocks, the U.S. Fish Commission (just as English monks had done in the 1300s) made the decision to import what they thought to be the most economical food source for their country’s growing population, the best return on investment: the carp. Having proved their worth over centuries in Asia and Europe, it seemed the most logical move to make.

However, what was not foreseen was the success of that idea; or rather, success of the carp and failure of the idea. Based upon the well kept carp ponds of Europe and the model of the thousands of acres of ponds maintained by the Schwarzenberg princes of Austria, the newly arrived carp in the United States were placed in a series of New England ponds -- and although still harvested, were found to be far less tasty than the selectively bred carp of the old world.

Within the twenty years following, carp had been distributed throughout the states and were already being viewed as a nuisance and invasive species. Their population burgeoned just as wild game fish’s decreased in unfortunate synchrony. For in truth, it was the turn of the century’s increased manufacturing and mining at fault. Yet much like other erroneous assumptions of the past, people noticed the concurrence and concluded that the pollution of rivers and fall of game fish must have something to do with carp. They were thriving. Obviously, there must be a correlation.

Tough and determined, adapting and changing with their environment, carp were revered by the ancients for their persistence and stoicism. In manicured ponds, for luck; or in abandoned gravel mine mud pits, forgotten -- they keep on. And they always will. They will always do their thing. They’re survivors. And they’re smart; too smart, it was once thought, to be catchable.  

But then in mid-20th century Britain, carp began gaining popularity as a game fish. Quarried with breadcrumbs and bait, they were prized and respected as a worthy opponent. Yet it would be almost fifty years before they achieved that same status as a game fish in the United States. And strangely enough, it would come by the fly.

In late 1990s Colorado, with damsel nymph and crayfish imitations, fly fishermen such as Barry Reynolds and Jay Zimmerman, designed flies, wrote blogs, authored books, and brought fly fishing for carp into its own -- proving that carp can indeed be caught on the fly and validating those who do. It wasn’t easy though – it still isn’t -- stereotypes of carp as bottom dwellers and rough fish abound, and they were thought unworthy of being chased with a fly rod.

Yet carp aren’t easy themselves, claiming some of the highest places for game fish IQ, and as otophysans they have intense auditory sensitivity due to the design of their inner ear. They will hear you coming and they will remember your fly. While trout are hailed as picky, carp are many times worse. And that is a vast understatement.

Things must go just right: the cast, the presentation, the hook set. Rarely will you blindly catch a carp on the fly: it’s precision sight casting with a five or six weight, and you must be deadly accurate with primarily short casts, keeping the line off the water and the carp’s back when they’re in close, feeding in low water. Also easily spooked, you’ll quickly be familiarized with the stomach sinking wake when you set one off, when they take off for deeper water. They might come back, but then again they might not.

Your best bet is to move on.

You also must judge the direction and speed of the carp, casting ahead and stripping in until the fly is in the carp’s line of vision (you have to make it easy for them), and then twitching to get their attention – sometimes they will turn and pounce like a skeleton of a barn cat on a mouse. In early autumn when the water levels are low and cooler from longer nights, the carp will feed more aggressively on what they can get. Like cold winter nights when darkness and snow are falling, your options are limited, and it’s past hours for the delivery place down the street: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich scavenged from the pantry will do just fine. Yet most times they don’t pounce. Satiated and fed, and far too cunning to play with a toy. The success rate of carping is very low most days.

And carp have a knack for getting into your head, making even the most seasoned and accomplished angler feel inept. Only the most self-deprecating even attempt. But when the weight of a take finally comes, you realize that in those three straight hours you cast to carp (and logs and rocks when you’re extremely dehydrated, which is often), you could have caught many more trout (perhaps into the double digits): brookies and browns eager to take dries in midsummer. Yet you’d take this one carp any day. And when your old fishing friends say you have lost your mind, they are most likely right. Fly fishing for carp often has that effect on people – making them walk softly and carry a big rod. And like any other addictive stimulant, you’re always left wanting more. One cup of coffee is never really enough, is it.

Yet trumping all, as my carping partner tells me, the most important thing you can have (or develop) for fly fishing for carp is short term memory: the willingness and strength to try again. I suppose that goes for life, too. Looking back and fretting over mistakes and blown opportunities isn’t going to get you ahead unless you have a time machine. But even then, we humans are widely known for repeating our mistakes. So you have to cast again and again, and in the process clear your mind of self-doubt. And a true fly fisherman will always have at least one last cast left in them if asked.

The day he told me it was hot, even at 7:30 a.m. rigging beneath shade at the truck. And the reservoir low in summer’s heat, gaining us five or more feet of shoreline enabling stealthier movement, wallowing through mud instead of rocks that give way to noise underfoot. And the familiar golden hump of a common carp rose and fell, aggressively feeding in close. “You’re up…” I heard from behind, and so I unhooked my fly and wetted it down quickly. Feeding carp change their minds faster than a rabbit in a garden (or your stereotypical woman), nibbling here and there, and often the window of opportunity is nothing more than cracked. So without much planning but sure of my aim and placement, I made a cast out to the left trying not to spook it; and holding my rod high, stripped in the fly letting it drop right in front. The carp turned, my line tightened, and it ran. Muddy water splashed up and wakes of nearby feeders spooked. I grinned and started getting line on the reel. It ran again -- and farther this time, too.

Until my line stopped.

Now, carp will take you into your backing, but I’ve never been taken to the very end of the line. Confused, I looked down to see my line tangled in the reel. I tugged and pulled with all I had. So did the carp, in fact. But with another burst he was gone. My fly and tippet, too.  

I looked down and breathed slowly, knowing that was possibly the only carp I’d get that day. But I remembered the advice of my fishing partner: short term memory. I knew I couldn’t dwell on the one that got away. There were other carp in this reservoir, and they are hungry too. So I repaired my leader, tied on a new fly, and moved down the mudflats.

There are times in fly fishing, and life too for that matter, when things are just right -- like goldilocks’ chair. You settle in deep down, and it feels good. Made just for you, even. Your size, your place. Yet in both those moments are few and far between, because the winds will start blowing, you’ll stick your foot in your mouth, or maybe your timing will just be all off. Your head won’t be in the game. But when those moments do come (and surely they will) when everything lines up, you’ll feel like a million. You’ll smile even, while knowing it won’t last. And that’s why we keep on casting -- for the hope of those times when things will go just right; for the belief that sometimes, the long shot does win.  

 ~ Originally published in Waterlog Magazine, September 2012, Summer Issue, 80