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Carp On to the Dark Side of Fly Fishing

Despite being called trash fish and the dark side of fly fishing by some, when a fly rodder hooks into a golden bonefish on a freshwater flat, the sound of a fly line melting off of a large arbor fly reel is the fishing version of music to the ears

Carp On to the Dark Side of Fly Fishing
Carp On to the Dark Side of Fly Fishing

I must admit, my introduction to the idea of “carp on the fly” was a bit on the accidental side.

Sure, like any fly angler worth his salt, I had noticed the national trend in the direction of fishing for these strange looking but plentiful piscatorial critters after a trio of fly fishing reads hit the market nearly two decades ago.

The first was the essay Carp that noted fly fishing author John Gierach penned in his 1996 book Another Lousy Day in Paradise, a story that detailed his fly fishing for the species in the trout rich state of Montana.

While there was already a cult-like following of Rocky Mountain trout guides spending their day's off fly fishing for carp, the idea was still something of a novelty elsewhere until one of the noted voices of modern fly fishing first wrote about it in one of his well-read books.

"The fishing is delicate, demanding and visual, and the carp fight unusually hard in that cool water," Gierach penned. "Several times now I've been taken well into the backing by carp that weren't all that heavy."

Something like a bonefish run, thousands of miles away from any sort of saltwater flat. And what's not to like about that?

Next up in the fly fishing for carp progression was the 1997 book Carp on the Fly: A Fly Fishing Guide by Barry Reynolds, Brad Beefus and John Berryman, a tome that detailed their education on learning how to cast a fly in the direction of tailing carp.

That was followed a year later in a piece penned by the great author, teacher and fly tier Dave Whitlock, the Ozarks trout fishing legend who wrote about fishing for carp in the clear waters of the Great Lakes region in no less than the hallowed pages of Fly Fisherman magazine.

Like the two previous literary works, the July 1998 article by Whitlock (Stalking the Golden Ghosts) continued the national trend of blowing the lid off of the idea of pursuing carp on the fly.

As the years have passed since then, a whole cadre of carp based articles, books and websites have emerged as fishermen look to figure out how to catch the persnickety fish on the fly and fly tiers look to tie up various patterns that imitate the varied diet of carp (there are even imitations for cottonwood seeds, berries and such).

Heck, these days, there is even a carp fly line designed by industry giant Rio Products.

And so widely entrenched is the idea of fly fishing for carp now that Vermont-based Orvis now carries a full line of carp flies and has even printed two books on the subject (Fly Fishing for Carp by Trout Unlimited magazine editor Kirk Deeter and The Orvis Beginner's Guide to Carp Flies by Dan C. Frasier).


And there are now even a few celebratory carp fly fishing events like Conway Bowman's and Al Q's Carp Throwdown tournament on California's Lake Henshaw.

But despite all of that national attention, for some reason, I remained on the sidelines in terms of fly fishing for carp, a species that for years has been call a trash fish by some.

In a personal fly fishing career that progressed from the usual Rocky Mountain trout on to warmwater bass hitting poppers and then finally on to tailing redfish on a saltwater flat, for some reason, the idea of casting flies to these golden brown figures ghosting around the shallow water of local lakes had never really appealed to me.

Until a fateful day, that is, on a regional water where the largemouth bass refused to cooperate with my warmwater fly fishing intentions.

That’s when I noticed the dozens of tails popping up all over the place, little flags waving slowly in the wind.

For just a moment, I thought I might be wading on a South Texas redfish flat and not a regional reservoir filled with the golden brown fish.

After swallowing my bass junkie’s pride just a little bit, I decided to search around in the box and cast a fly or two in the direction of this group of tailing common carp.

A half hour of refusals later, I was beginning to think there was little common about these fish since I was still going hard at it with not even a single one of them giving my fly a curious glance.

Keeping on, I laid the Halloween-color fly in front of tailing carp, hoping one would eventually fall prey to the black wooly bugger with a small orange conehead.

Just about the time I was prepared to give up, it finally happened and I hooked one.

What happened next is still something of a blur. But there was a hook-set followed by the sudden jolt of a fish running for all that it was worth at the end of my fly rod as the line evaporated off the large arbor reel and exposed bright-color backing for the first time in ages.

As I got that fish onto the reel and steadily began to gain back lost line, my previous Mr. Bassman's snobbery gave way to a new found rush of adrenaline.

As the leader appeared again, I could swear that I heard a heavy breathing mechanical voice somewhere in the background saying "Welcome to fly fishing's dark side, Mr. Skywalker."

Fast forward now a few years down the road and these days, you're likely to find me tying up carp flies as often as I do bass flies, all the while seeking out a spot where the water is shallow enough and clear enough to stalk these hard fighting and most difficult to catch fish.

I'd like to tell you that I'm well on my way to becoming something of a Jedi Carp Master, a cross between the World Fishing Network's Conway Bowman and Star War's Skywalker himself, but the truth is that I'm far, far away from that reality.

Even in the same galaxy, no less.

While there are plenty of lakes in Texas that support healthy populations of carp – even some bona fide double-digit giants – the waters are often not shallow enough or clear enough to make them conducive to fly fishing.

Meaning that when you do find a treasured spot or two, any carp fly angler worth his or her salt will guard that secret like the combination to the front gate of the gold-rich Fort Knox.

While good locations aren't a dime a dozen in my backyard, the fish themselves are plentiful and ultra challenging to catch, allowing me to put into action lessons honed over the years on a redfish rich Laguna Madre saltwater flats of South Texas.

On occasion, the stars align just right and I hook up with another carp, a species that always surprises me with their difficulty to catch and their hard fighting nature.

When it all works out right – like the time a giant ate my fly and headed for the far side of a reservoir a couple of miles away – there is a big smile on my face.

Or is that a smirk instead? I can't be sure.

Unfortunately, that carp, the biggest by far I've ever had on, broke me off and left me to wonder how many pounds (I'm guessing 20-plus) it weighed.

Recently, the carp fly fishing pilot light has been lit once again after laying dormant thanks to a hefty carp specimen that found my small rabbit strip pattern too interesting to ignore.

And once again, as my eight-weight bent double and fly line disappeared from the reel, I was left to wonder why I was ever so reluctant in the first place to pursue these fish seriously.

The dark side of fly fishing indeed.

While other species like trout, bass, freshwater stripers and salty redfish still take a considerable chunk of my angling attention, these days, carp continue to gain a solid foothold in the cerebral front door as I search for new regional waters to target these golden hawgs that will ever so often take a well presented fly.

I may have been late to the carp fly fishing party, but I'm trying to catch up as quickly as I can.

Carp on brother, carp on.

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