It’s difficult to think about fly fishing for carp and not let an overwhelming sense of nihilism creep in. Chances are it already did and that’s how you got here.
What switch in a fisherman’s brain trips that pushes them to go after carp? It’s not for the sheer enjoyment of catching fish; otherwise, they’d be yanking out dozens of bluegill at a time. It’s not the same type of sport as the noble trout or even a bass. There is no aggressive take like most saltwater fish, and nobody I know is doing it because they’re hungry.
I don’t know if the desire to catch carp — particularly on a fly rod — is due to revelation or some sort of psychosis.
Not everybody has the same history as I do with this overgrown goldfish, but dammit they give me more trouble than any fish I’ve consistently tried to catch using a fly rod. They’re much more difficult to catch than you feel like they should be.
I can remember wet wading the Harpeth River near Nashville during the hot summer months, and every now and then a tiny smallmouth or moderately sized longear sunfish would slam a popper. But for the most part, the water was low and the fishing was slow.
As I waded from pool to pool I’d often see large fish dart ahead of me. I made several attempts at casting towards them, but they never seemed interested in any pattern I put in front of them. I can remember landing a black wooly bugger right on its nose, and the fish didn’t even flinch. I gave it one slight twitch thinking that would entice it into eating, but the exact opposite thing happened.
Like a bolt of lightning the fish darted off.
What the hell? I couldn’t even tell which direction it went! Talking to the guys at the local fly shop I’d learn that the fish that had spurned me so hard was indeed a carp.
There are plenty of pseudonyms used to describe the common carp. I do feel it’s pertinent to point out that we’re not talking about grass carp. That’s a whole other topic for another day. Common carp are very, well, common. They eat common things — see, everything. They’re so common that they’re basically goldfish. Is there anything more common than a goldfish?
I think that’s about the extent to which their easily discounted characteristics end.
The most appropriate alias used to refer to the common carp is, in my opinion, the golden ghost. Nothing more accurately describes their temperament. If they believe they’re alone then they’re active and feeding. The moment they sense something has changed they spook.
I later got to the point where I was hooking fish on the Stones River and on Percy Priest. A major revelation came in learning how to effectively stalk and sneak up on feeding fish. I brought my enthusiasm for carp back to Alabama when I moved back home. I knew there were big fish in the Chattahoochee, and I couldn’t wait to fish it for carp. I learned a new lesson about the golden ghost when I came back. Not only are they tough to catch, but not every carp in every water acts the same.
The differences in the Chattahoochee and the places I was fishing in middle Tennessee became apparent quickly. These waters were not nearly as clear and finding fish became a problem. When I did find a fish it wasn’t in anyway interested in the usual flies I had caught fish on in the past. What was going on?
It wasn’t until I decided to spring for The Orvis Beginner’s Guide to Carp Flies that I learned some very important facts about the diet of common carp; their diet has quite the range. They will eat anything from berries to other fish and everything in between. They’re essentially freshwater goats. What I hadn’t taken into account before though was that “everything” also included freshwater mussels. It wouldn’t take more than a cursory glance into the shallow waters of the Chattahoochee to see many “spent” mussel shells.
Fishing mussel imitations and hybrids that crossed over into that category certainly increased my catch rate, but carp weren’t done teaching me. Getting a fish to eat is only a small part of bringing a carp to hand. Playing the fish and landing it can be equally as challenging. A 10-15 lb fish peeling drag off of your reel in snag-filled water is a dicey situation at best. Keeping the right amount of pressure on the fish while praying it doesn’t swim in between dock pilings or submerged stumps is fairly nerve wracking especially when the prior three fish hooked all found similar ways out of being landed.
Most recently I had a carp take a fly and as soon as the hook was set he screamed off like a bat out of hell, and before I was able to clear my line a slack loop of fly line hanging below the reel became taught and wrapped about the butt of my rod. The leader snapped, and it took the entire rest of the morning for me to really absorb what had happened.
Damn the golden one: that’s a common sentiment that myself and other acquaintances on Twitter share from time to time; although, I feel like it’s mostly my misfortune that proposes such commiseration.
Whoever coined the saying, “failure is not an option,” wasn’t wrong. It’s not an option. Failure is an outcome. If fly fishing for carp has taught me anything it is that those are not the same thing. Preparation is optional, and it weighs heavily on the outcome. However, the outcome has never and will never be optional.