When most anglers first start fly fishing they picture their first fish on a fly to be a trout, I was just like one of those anglers and my first fish on a fly was a brown trout, but my first real ‘fight’ on a fly rod was with a Carp – and it was unforgettable.
The thing I love most about fly fishing is the challenge that I am faced with every time I step into the water, can I outsmart any fish today?
With fly fishing for carp that challenge is set to another level. These “trash” fish will bring the best and worse out of me because of how smart and tricky they are to catch. One of my first opportunities to catch a grass carp was in Arizona. I was new to fly fishing still at the time so I was feeling very excited! I wanted to catch one of these “spooky heifers” to prove to myself that I could do it. I was fishing in a canal that winded and curved through a neighborhood where every midwest grandparent resided. I was on a small boat with a couple friends that new the water and the habits of these grass carp very well. We cruised around squinting at the banks of the water looking for little mouths to slowly come up and chomp on the surface of the water, all while dogs would be running up to the bank and start barking at us. Despite the noisy dogs, I had a few chances to cast my dry fly at a couple rising carp, that is when I realized just how spooky they truly are. First cast, I spot the carp and get excited and make my cast quickly and as I watch my fly dropping and getting closer to the water I realize that it is going to land right on the fish’s head, and in just that moment of realization the fly lands and the fish darts away and takes all his homies with him!
Not only are carp on high-alert majority of the time and spook easily but they can release a pheromone when they feel threatened or scared to alarm other nearby carp, so you rarely get another chance with a nearby fish once you spook the fish off. We moved on to another spot, then another, and another and another and then finally after feeling frustrated from blowing it over and over again we spotted a school of grass carp all eating and this was my chance, I felt it – I was going to get one here! There was a man that lived at this property that looked like a house out of the movie Scarface. He is feeding them to what I believe is dog food and my friend had a fly that he tied that looked as close as it could to dog food. I got myself positioned, watching them all eating, looking for the best spot to cast.
The man feeding them waved at us, smiled and then began walking away and the fish were all smart enough to know that “dinner time” has ended. They all started to slip deeper into the water, disappearing. I knew I had to make my cast now before they all disappeared. I spot one in the school of about 10 fish, I lifted my fly rod up and cast my dry to the left, above the carp’s head. I see that it landed perfectly! I waited and watched the little mouth slowly opening and closing…getting closer and closer to my fly, my adrenaline starts pumping, I feel the excitement building up as I impatiently wait for this fish to get to my fly. What was only mere seconds, with my excitement taking over it felt like an eternity for this fish to get to my fly!
Here it is, I see my fly and the fish’s mouth slowly open, his head turns to my fly…then BOOM! it happened so fast, in a blink of an eye… I set my hook and grin… just as fast as my excitement came to me it left me even quicker. I had popped the fly right out of the fish’s mouth. This is where “carp bringing the worst out in me” comes in. I turned into a drunken sailor with no filter yelling out every curse word I knew. I was so frustrated with myself, but in hindsight, it definitely taught me not to never do that again! The sun was setting and with the sunlight playing a large roll in carp fishing we decided to bring the boat in. As if being frustrated and being outsmarted by grass carp all day wasn’t enough, as we are getting the boat onto the trailer the trolling motor falls off the boat, it must not have been fastened on tight enough. I offered to go into the water and get it since it was not that deep and I was wearing shorts. I took two steps towards the submerged motor and “swoosh” the thick algae covered cement boat launch knocked me down like a rug being pulled beneath my feet and I fall completely into the water. Needless to say more, I finished the day with some beers to saturate my carp frustration.
I was not going to let that frustrating experience stop me from catching one of these fish. It just made me want to outsmart one and challenge myself to get one even more. I attempted many, many more times resulting in more frustration and no carp. Then, one day I was home alone during my second summer here in Portland. I have not made many friends since moving here so if KC is not around I have the option to go fish alone. With the many strong, slippery and rocky rivers here I decided since I was going out alone that maybe this would be a good chance to finally get my carp on the fly!
It was about 7am when I left to head out to a spot where I felt confident I could spot some common carp. When I arrived I watched the water from a high bank where I could have a good advantage to see the fish without them seeing me or my shadow. It was a bright, very hot day and I could see fish everywhere. Some of the carp were just cruising and there was a few sunbathing, so I knew I did not want to go after those and kept walking and looking. I made my rounds through a couple spots from the bank casting at fish with a few rejections and a few spooks. Another “perk” of fishing for carp is that you are sight fishing for them and typically not in the clearest of waters, forcing you to rely a lot on your senses of touch to know when to set the hook and noticing if the fish does anything different than what they normally would do or if you have the advantage of seeing their gills flare, and even then you can still get it wrong. After moving on from spots where I had no luck I waded out to about knee deep in the water. With myself being so short it can be difficult to not get the sun glare on the water when trying to spot fish but after squinting, with my hand blocking the sun from my eyes I spotted three carp tailing. I waited and watched to see what direction they were going so I knew where their heads were. They were about 40ft out from me, give or take. I cast above and in front of the fish’s heads and waited for my fly to sink, then I slowwwly started stripping my fly in towards them as they were heading towards my fly. I watched them all swim right over my fly without even thinking twice about it… I was not giving up though! I took a few steps to the right and made my cast again and this time Instead of an actual strip retrieval method I was sort of twitching my fly as I stripped in and I watched as one tail stopped right where I believed my fly should be, I felt the smallest twitch in my line and I set my hook in hopes that this time I will have a fish on my fly and not being ripping it out of the water alone once again. Within seconds after setting my reel was screaming at me, peeling line out! I got him! The carp was going nuts! Swimming out and then back in, splashing his tail on the water, giving me the fight I have heard about so many times. I was Screaming and laughing with excitement! I felt so satisfied! I finally outsmarted one of these fish and was having the best time because of it!
As the fish was getting more and more tired I reeled him in close to me. I was alone so there was no handy ‘net guy’, I needed to tail and land this fish on my own. Carp are still spooky and will try and run even after they are tired with a hook in their mouth so after two attempts of tailing and the fish running off I was able to get my hand around his tail and when I went to step and angle my body to grab under the fish with my other hand my boots were stuck in the muck, muddy bottom of the water and I started to fall and all I could think as I was falling to my knees was DON’T lose this fish!! I had my hand still around his tail and pulled the fish towards me in the water as I fell and he was flailing all over the place splashing me. I was getting covered with mud, but somehow I managed to get my first carp on the fly and all on my own!
This memory will stick with me as one of my favorite fly fishing stories and I couldn’t be happier it was with a carp. They remain still to this day as one of the funnest fish to catch on the fly to me, even through the rollercoaster of challenges, frustrations and excitement they put me through and when I do get the chance to outsmart them which luckily happens more often now after all the practice I’ve had, the fight they put up makes it all worth it.
Written for @flylords Magazine