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


64 comments:

  1. Okay, I get it...no mas, no mas!

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    1. I prefer to think of us as revolutionaries, but mafia works.

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    2. Aw come on, Howard...join in the revolution!

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    3. I'm afraid that I am in Howard's boat on this one.

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    4. RD - Uh oh!!! It's much better out on the flats! ;)

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    5. I will certainly go when the right opportunity arises...this may call for personal lesson Erin.

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  2. In spring in Illinois we get massive caddis hatches on the rivers. In the quiet spots the carp will school and feed on the surface like pigs at a trough. No need to be too careful, just make sure you know which caddis is yours.

    As much as I like to make fun of carp fishing and those that fish for them, a few years ago an IDNR fisheries biologist told me that largemouth bass are just carp in disguise, they find them living in water so degraded that even carp won't live there. Makes me wonder about casting to a largemouth ever again. Luckily nobody denigrates the smallie. Plenty of creeks around here that rival any trout stream I've seen, only they're all full of smallies. And the occasional carp or two.

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    1. Ken G - Largemouth and carp...both at the top of the intelligence-scale. Which also, makes you wonder. Around here it's the "cottonwood seed hatch." Come spring, they sip off the top and I tie up flies to match out of dog hair. Good fun.

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  3. I've only ever caught two carp. Both were on soft plastics, and i wasn't targeting carp. One, i was largemouth fishing in Lake Michigan and I saw a pod of carp that I cast towards, the other was in a deep pool in a river whale smallmouth fishing. Both times I thought to myself "oh no, what have I gotten myself into?"

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    1. Nate - You'd gotten yourself into a happy accident in my book!

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    2. Nate, on the rivers in Illinois, always look for schools of carp and cast directly into them. They stir up the bottom, which brings in the minnows, which brings in the smallies and their hillbilly cousins. Biggest smallies in the river are usually hanging out with the carp for that reason. Carp eat minnows too you know.

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    3. Hey Ken :)

      The lake right near where we talked about smallie fishing on your site (Oxbow) it's not unusual at all to see LMBs and commons moving together. Interesting symbiotic relationship between the two.

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  4. Good as I would imagine, or better, Erin,

    Carpin is addictive, so much the more so for that elusiveness that is that hallmark of them despite their abubdance. It really is cerebal, fly fishing for carp, but you said that far better than me.

    Gregg

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    1. Gregg - It is just that fact, their abundance and lack, all at the same time...that is so alluring, eh? Thanks as always for stopping by to read!

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  5. Good to hear from you. Nice piece, although I'm one of those raised on the trash fish view of carp. Interesting how, after more or less successfully removing my prejudices toward other people, I still hang onto my piscatorial prejudices. Still, I'm working on it. Funny how I vividly remember the few big carp I've accidentally hooked in the past. A five pounder scared my little daughters to death. Anyway, thanks for helping to expand my mind.

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    1. Jim - To step back and assess oneself is one of the most difficult things. And ironically, now the "carp guys" are "prejudiced" if you will, against trout fishermen. We must all work on these things. And I could very well see being frightened of a carp...they are kinda freaky. :) Thanks as always, Jim!

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  6. Carp? Who would fish for those stinky buggers that only live in sewage and raw waste? Madness!

    Great stuff as always EB! I know of what you speak...

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    1. John - A lovely madness! And thanks!

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  7. Really good stuff as always Erin. I like this part the best - "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" - Another way somebody described it to me is loving punishment.

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    1. Trevor - Yes indeed, I've been told that too...and it's true. Which really makes you wonder about "us." Madness, as John M. said. Madness.

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  8. Never have I fished for carp and they are all around here. Sounds like its as heart stopping as a steelhead. Might have to give it a go this spring/summer. Cheers!

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    1. Mia - Oh yes! You must give it a go. I know you'd have a knack for it...and it is absolutely a rush. After a long-long wait. Which, as I've been told, is quite similar to steelheading!

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    1. TKIBOSS - Thank you for the good word!

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  10. As always, so well said, Erin.

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  11. "And carp have a knack for getting into your head, making even the most seasoned and accomplished angler feel inept"

    I love this line because, from just my few attempts at chasing carp, I know exactly what you mean. And just when I was thinking I might be able to ignore carp for awhile...now I'm inspired and can't wait for warmer weather...

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    1. David - Yep, you've been overtaken, in part, by the dark side. ;) No turning back now! Best of luck this spring!

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  12. A great article that gets to the heart of fly fishing for carp. Thanks

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    1. Mark - Many thanks for reading and for the good words.

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  13. I was starting to think you had abandoned us Erin, then you come back with this. An inspirational piece that brought many nods of agreement from this side of the pond and will doubtless encourage others to point their rods at this most worthy of adversaries. Loved it.

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    1. Dave - Oh, I'm writing feverishly...be sure of that. :) Just, a "project" to be revealed in due course. And it's an honor to have you and your countrymen's nod...

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  14. My first fishing memory is centered upon a carp. Family lore and my tender memory say that I caught it. Photographic evidence and reason suggest otherwise. Who to believe?

    Thanks for taking me back there.

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    1. I think I'd go with your memory, Mike. If for no other reason than story...and that's worth it. Perhaps the adult-anglers in the group were jealous and arranged the photo to their liking, eh?! ;) You just never know. And you should try going back there someday...with rod in hand.

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  15. A wonderful read Erin and containing many sentiments that echo as much about life itself as fishing, a true joy to read from a master wordsmith such as yourself.

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    1. Thank you for reading, Mark. I really appreciate it...and the good words, too.

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  16. Given my enjoyment of the fly and my unfortunate lack of "trout waters" I have adapted to throwing to the warm waters. Bass and 'gills have found my hook. I'd live to hook a big 'ol carp on a handmade fly!

    Great read! By the way loved your book!!!

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    1. Seth - There has to be some great carp fishing around Lincoln...next time I'm back to visit my folks I'm going to make sure it's in summer, and I'll be sure to pack my fly rod! And thank you for the good word on my book. I've very glad you enjoyed it!

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  17. Carp on the fly? Definitely for me this summer.
    Short term memory? Well that's definitely me too!



    Carp on the fly? If I can remember, I will certainly give a swish ;o)

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    1. Richard - Best of luck to you this summer...it sounds like you're of the right stuff for it. ;)

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  18. Enjoyed this one the first time around in print. And now as well. Excellent read.
    Ty

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    1. Ty, I really appreciate you going in the first go round....with all the scuttle lately in the blogosphere presently about carp, I figured it was worth putting up here too. Thanks as always!

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  19. great blog, only just found it, will be following from now on

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    1. Thanks, Jamie....glad to have you reading along!

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  20. Well, given it's 30 minutes from here to the Big Hole, 20 to the upper Clark Fork, 40 to the Jefferson and an hour to Rock Creek, it may be awhile before I seek out any carp here.

    Mild winter here, there have been midge hatches on the Clark Fork recently, spent an afternoon catching browns on a #20, which I could barely thread onto the tippet.

    Glad to see you still posting.

    Mike

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    1. Mike - Ah you know, I'm all about fishing local. Carp and small streams are local for me, so that's what I fish. So trout your heart out on those rivers...if I were in your shoes, I surely would. Mild here too, although finally today we're getting a decent snow. Thanks as always for making the time to stop by and read!

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  21. Ah, carp. I have many memories of my older cousins going after them with fishing-specific bows and arrows. Always seemed exotic to me. This is such a well-written piece, Erin. Many congrats on its publication!

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    1. Thanks, Emily! I have childhood memories of carp, too....but only them snapping the line off. I hope you're doing well, and are enjoying the new Little One.

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  22. I have floater fished for carp in years gone by, an excellent way too pass a few hours and hope for a fish.

    Lovely as ever Erin

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    1. Tom - It is indeed good for the hours...and is always, always a hope. Thanks as always for reading!

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  23. What a fascinating piece."Looking back and frretting over mistakes and blown opportunities isn't going to get you ahead unless you have a time machine." Love that! And "-change their minds faster than a rabbit in a garden(or your stereotypical woman)" Great lines. I'm starting to read your book AGAIN and I NEVER do that with movies OR books!

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    1. Hart - Again!? Oh my! That is quite the compliment indeed. Thank you.

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  24. "the most important thing you can have (or develop) for fly fishing for carp is short term memory"

    I don't fish for carp, but I really liked that line.

    Great article!

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    1. Peter - Quite applicable to other species too, eh? And life in general. Thanks for stopping by to read!

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  25. This was a good piece, like most you do...the others are great. I didn't comment when it was posted originally, but thought today appropriate. A couple nights ago I had a dream I was fishing from a small boat and hooked into a large carp. As weird as dreams are, this was not a unique dream. When the carp got near, my spool popped off the reel, the rod disappeared, and I was left to pull in the carp like the old man in Ernie's book. Not sure if I landed it because I woke up. I'll guess no sharks ate it though. I'll guess this means I need to fish for more of the fresh water beauties this season. Thanks for your carp ambassadorship.

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    1. M.A. - Ah thanks...and perhaps this is the season of weird dreams. I've been having a few myself...although unfortunately, not about carp fishing. Thanks as always.

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  26. Great article!

    Carp and Smallies are my targets this year. Though I will take whatever gets the fly. :)

    When I was little people always said Carp were trash fish. When I lived in Germany in the 80s and early 90s all my German friends fished Carp. I went with several times and was totally amazed at how wonderful a fish they are to catch.

    Last year I hooked several that got off and quickly thought, these would be a hoot on a fly. And now with all the attention they are getting from recognized fly fisherman/institutions I know I'm on track for a great year.

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    1. Rick - Thanks for taking the time to read. Carp are absolutely worth the time and effort involved with chasing them on the fly. Best of luck to you this season...it's a ton of fun!

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  27. Carp suck, are not worth even trying to catch, are poor fighters and dumb as the mud bottoms they frequent. My advice to everyone is do not waste your time fishing for these fresh water pigs. Just leave them to me to deal with, I'll take care of these trash fish, you guys stick to trout!

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    1. Well played, anonymous....well played indeed.

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