Carp fishing with flies

I have been a fly-fisherman since I was about 12. I helped start Deep Creek Flyfishers, one of the biggest fly-fishing clubs in California, and I even taught basic fly-fishing classes for a number of years. I have tossed flies for a variety of fresh and saltwater species all over the West, landed a couple of northern pike on big gaudy streamers in Minnesota, and even caught a lake trout on a dry fly in Saskatchewan. Just one.

Now please don’t think that I’m some sort of expert. I’ve decided I’m more like the blind pig in a forest with a big acorn crop. I used to think that I was a pretty good trout fisherman and could reliably get a few bass, bluegill, or crappie on flies. Since I’ve been trying to catch carp of flies, I’ve decided that trout are truly very stupid fish, which is probably why fly-fishermen target these species. To make ourselves feel better, we huddle together and talk about how difficult the fishing has been and write books explaining the intricacies and difficulties of fly-fishing for trout. I won’t go so far as to say we are just pretending and deluding ourselves about the trout, but I will say that when compared to carp, even I’m a trout Pied Piper.

I recently did a story for California Fly Fisher magazine that detailed all of the carp I have ever landed on flies, by hook or crook, but it was still a very short story because the total is less than five. This is a sore spot with me considering how often I try to catch carp, so I won’t say how many fingers less than five. If you press me on the issue, you might get a hand gesture that could be misconstrued as an answer to the question by someone naïve. 

Esteemed scientists have said that after we humans manage to wipe ourselves off the planet along with most other species that at least two animals will survive – carp and cockroaches, one on land and one in the water. Carp are already found just about everywhere and they compete well against most other species so the takeover might happen before we are gone. In the interim, I’d sure like to figure out how to catch them consistently. They are big, strong fish that pull with more vigor and intensity than most other freshwater gamefish. The few I’ve hooked have reminded me of hard-pulling ocean fish like bonito.

So I try to catch them every time I see they are present where I’m fishing. I might go to a local county or city park lake to catch tiny bluegill to try and ease jangled nerves for an evening. Then a carp cruises past, or I see them stalking along a shoreline, obviously feeding, and I frustrate myself skulking after them until I can’t see because of the dark. I come home in worse shape than when I left. Even the Labrador senses the frustration and stays away from me.

Now, I’m not talking about hand-fed carp in marinas that you can have come up and slurp dough globs out of your fingers. I’m not talking about unfished carp that can be illegally chummed to the shoreline with corn and caught on anything the size and color of a kernel of corn (especially if you dunk it in the canned corn juice). I’m talking about carp that live in local waters that everyone tries to catch (both legally and illegally) that just learn the game.

I have read a lot of the English literature on carp fishing. These dedicated anglers mix up unusual bait concoctions that float or sink or something in between, and they fish them on tiny hooks and leaders. They mix up things carp love to eat, and they can legally chum over there. But these carp are so attuned to this game, they’ll pluck through a bottom covered with an angler’s home-made batch of chum “boilies,” eating all the ones without hooks, and then peck apart the one with the hook in it and eat the pieces once they fall away from the hook. They’ve been stung by a hook before.

According to the English, carp know that none of their natural foods float in the middle of the water column, suspending there. The natural stuff either floats, sinks slowly, or rises up through the water. But those fish will come up and nose around a floating dough bait because they like the smell and taste of it (they can actually taste it before eating it). If it is enticing enough, and the fish is young and dumb, it might actually eat the hook-laden dough and get caught and released. (Oh, yes, the British release all those precious carp. They name them. Challenge each other to catch ol’ Mister Pouter. Get on covers of magazine if they catch one over 10 pounds.) The smart fish simply figure out a way to get the tasty morsel off the hook so they can eat it.

Carp have a widely varying diet that consists of vegetable and meat forms. They might siphon algae off the face of a rock one minute, and then share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich some kid hurled into the water the next minute. They will eat aquatic insects and crawdads and even minnows. In fact, there are not too many things they can’t process as food.

So a fly tied well to imitate some form of food in a particular park lake should interest carp. Right? That’s mostly theory in my experience.

Yet, there is a growing legion of fly anglers across Southern California who have “discovered” this gamefish. Many call them “golden bonefish” because we fly anglers have snobbed up our sport a little and catching a lowly carp seems beneath us. At least until you actually catch one, and then you realize you are battling an amazing fish, a golden bonefish, one of the mostly highly evolved, intelligent fish species on the planet. Consistently catching them on flies now qualifies you for MENSA membership. 

I have been fortunate to know Glenn Ueda of Huntington Beach for a long time. He taught me how to catch Lake Skinner striped bass on fly-lined baits on two- and four-pound test spinning gear decades ago and the tactic still works like a charm. He’s a versatile, expert angler who is at home with a fly rod as a jig stick. He is one of the best anglers I have ever seen at figuring out how to catch any species of fish, fresh or salt, in any given situation. An avid fly angler, Glenn has fished most of the popular species from bonefish and permit on tropical flats, to trout on the most famous rivers in the West. He has caught yellowtail and yellowfin and bonito of flies. Stripers and largemouth bass aren’t safe when he’s around. He’s one of a handful of fly anglers who regularly catches corbina in the surf with fly gear, and now that he’s retired, he’s just getting better, if that is actually possible. Fishing with Glenn is a humbling experience, especially when you think you are pretty good at something and he comes to your home turf and shows you how it’s done by a real master.

I mention Glenn here because I have been trying to catch carp off and on with fly gear, mostly unsuccessfully, for decades. Glenn decided to try to sport for the first time this year because we have so many urban waters near our homes that are jugged with big carp. Between March and this week, I think Glenn is now over 100 carp, including a number of “doubles,” as the British call carp over 10 pounds.

Glenn’s not the only one. Pasadena Casting Club anglers, Matus Sobolic and Adrian Uribe and others are regularly hammering the carp on flies. (The pair have also been heading up a monthly “Vice on Ice” fly-tying event held in South Pasadena at the Round Table Pizza. The event runs from 7 to 9 p.m. the third Thursday of each month. It’s an open round table for fly tyers sponsored by the Pasadena Casting Club, and it has sort of become the brain trust for local carp fly anglers.)

The point in all of this is that carp are a great gamefish increasingly being admired by true expert anglers, and I didn’t want my inability to catch them stop you from getting into the game.

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