Carp on the Fly: Five Blind Casting Techniques to Help You Catch Carp All Year Round

It’s starting to get warmer in Eastern Idaho, but old man winter isn’t leaving quite yet.  Most backcountry roads are still heavily snowed in, most of our lakes are frozen, so why would I be writing about chasing carp when all of our tail waters are in prime trout condition?  Perhaps it’s because I finally knocked January off the list. For many years, it was the only month of the year a carp had evaded me.  Maybe I just like fishing for carp a little too much.  Either way, I hope the thoughts I share here might help you find more confidence in fly fishing for carp, as well as dispel the myth that you can only catch carp you can see.

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Throughout my experience chasing carp, I have often heard others say and have been told myself that carp cannot be caught unless you can see them actively feeding, tailing, etc.  Early in my carping adventures, I spent some time at Blackfoot Reservoir, which is considered by many one of the best carp fisheries in America.  The most common way to chase carp here is blind casting the flats.  It is often windy or cloudy and sight-fishing conditions are not frequently found.  Most anyone who has chased carp at Blackfoot knows that the fish are extraordinarily aggressive there, so it might not seem too unusual that they would be willing to eat a blindly stripped fly.  However, in order for my personal theories to be sound, I realized that they must be tested in multiple bodies of water throughout Idaho and in at least one other state outside of my home waters.

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Tip One: Find “Carp Water”

Carp Water varies depending on time of year and where you are fishing.  The most thorough way to discuss the subject is to break it down by the season of winter and the rest of the year.  Most of my focus will be on winter water, as spring, summer, and fall are fairly similar, though they each have their nuances.  Again, it can vary even in these seasons, so I am generalizing a little bit but will try to cover it to the best of my ability.

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Winter: There are a few things to look for when searching for carp water in winter.  First, try your best to identify warmer water of some variety.  The word “warm” is fairly subjective here, as warm might be 40 degrees, when most water nearby is much cooler or frozen solid.  Simply put, carp can detect even the smallest changes in water temperature, and they will take advantage of this.

Warm water can be found a few different ways.  The most common in the places I have fished is natural spring water.  Spring water may come directly out of the ground or it may dump into a body of water from a stream.  If you find spring water, chances are there aren’t carp too far off.

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Tail waters also remain much warmer than free stone streams, generally speaking.  If you can find a dam and open water running below it, quite often you will be able to find carp.  One more form of warm water that is less common in Idaho but common in more urban areas is warm water being dumped into a waterway from waste facilities, factories, etc.  As I mentioned, this is not common in Idaho but where these places do exist carp love to pile up nearby.

The second factor for finding winter carp water is identifying the depth you should be fishing.  You can fish near a spring or other warm water inlet, but if you are fishing the wrong depth you will miss out on a lot of fish.  Most of the carp I catch in winter are found holding somewhere between 3 to 8 feet.  This is much deeper than where they will hold in the warmer months, which is typically somewhere between 1 to 4 feet.  With that said, I have sight fished to carp in February in 12” of water.  There are always going to be exceptions to any “rule”.  The fish prefer to hold in 3 to 8 feet of water because it remains warmer, yet it is shallow enough for them to actively forage on their main food sources.

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As for the rest of the year, carp water is not that difficult to find (again, painting with a rather broad brush).  Look for shallow flats, anywhere between 8” to 4 feet deep.  As the day warms up, fish will typically move shallower.  Likewise, as evening sets in and the water begins to cool, fish will push back deeper.  I could go into much greater detail about carp water, but this is already long winded, so it will have to wait. It’s time to move to the next point!

Tip Two: Find Jumping Fish

If you are having a hard time identifying any kind of warm water in your local carp hole, sit back and watch the water for a while.  Carp love to jump.  Day or night, winter or summer, they love jumping out of the water.  Many fly anglers are annoyed by the seemingly pointless jumping carp do.  I have no idea why they jump (I do know it has nothing to do with spawning), but the sight of jumping carp instills a great deal of confidence in how my day is going to go.  If there aren’t carp visually tailing on the flat, then spotting a jumping carp is the next best thing as far as I’m concerned.  Carp are a schooling fish, generally speaking, and if you find one, you usually find a hundred (or a thousand).  Can’t find any jumpers?  Well don’t give up hope yet, because tip #3 might be just what you need.

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Tip Three: Fish The Mud Line

You’ve finally decided on where you want to fish.  You’ve found the perfect flat that is hopefully full of fish.  Maybe you’ve even seen a fish or two jump.  You rig up and begin casting.  An hour passes and you are still fishless.  How could this be?

As was mentioned earlier, carp are a schooling fish, and it doesn’t take long for them to make a mess of the water.  I have watched a pod of 200 carp in crystal clear water dirty the entire place in less than 30 seconds.  Casting your fly into that pile of mud and expecting a fish to eat is like trying to eat peas one by one in the dark.  The chances of a carp seeing your fly are very slim.  This is where identifying a mud line, which more properly could be referred to as a feed line, comes into play.

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There are two ways to identify a mud line.  The first is the most common that I use.  Scan the water for a minute or two and try to establish where the fish are.  It usually doesn’t take long to identify muddy water, as long as the sun is high in the sky.  Work your way towards the mud and observe it a little longer.  Believe it or not, you will see that mud line progress in a specific direction.  The area with mud will be full of feeding fish, but they aren’t the fish you want to target, unless you enjoy fighting tail hooked carp.  Instead, work your fly parallel to the mud line, directly where it meets with the clearer water.  Fly retrieval techniques will be discussed more thoroughly a little later.  There are two advantages to this.  First, you are putting your fly where the fish can see it.  There is no question about whether or not your fly will be visible to them.  Second, you are targeting the most aggressive fish that are working the front of the line.  They didn’t get there by being lazy, waiting for other fish to stir things up.  Often times the fish at the front of the line are the biggest fish in the group.

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There is a second scenario that happens from time to time and is more common during the spring months when fish are on a serious feeding frenzy.  You make your way to your favorite flat, only to find that it is completely mudded out.  There is not a single portion of clear water to be found.  How can you identify the mud line in this scenario?  Tricky as it might be, it certainly can be done with a little practice.

Like you would in the first scenario, sit back and observe for a moment.  As you start to take in the water and your surroundings, you will be able to differentiate coloration patterns in the muddy water.  The darker the water, to thicker the mud and the lower your chances are of getting a good presentation.  Find where the lighter (less muddied) water meets the dark mud.  This is more than likely a feed line that fish are actively working.  Work that line as you would in the first scenario and you should be able to find success.

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If you can’t find a mud line, there is another option to find feeding fish.  Again, sit back and observe the water.  If it is shallow enough, you will be able to see where fish are swimming based on the waters movement.  Try to place your fly in the path that fish are moving.  If you don’t spot any moving fish, look for mud clouds rising in the water.  They are being created by actively tailing fish that will readily eat your fly.  It can be a guessing game casting to these fish, so it is obviously not the most ideal of scenarios, but fish can be caught.

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Tip Four: Fish The Right Flies

I’ve tried to organize this article in a somewhat chronological order, so naturally fly selection would come next.  What flies you choose to use on your home waters will really depend upon what the main forage base for your fish is.  Most blind casting fly patterns are going to vary from the classic short shanked, dumbbell eye style carp flies.  These flies are great for targeting tailing fish, but outside of that realm their functionality is quite limited.  There are three styles of flies that I like to fish when blind casting for carp.

First, and my personal favorite are cone head style leeches.  Generally they are tied with Simi-seal or diamond dub.  I like to add a marabou tail to my leeches because it adds a little bit more movement to the fly.  I like this style of fly when fish are actively cruising through the area that I am fishing.  It gets my fly deep enough, but not so deep that I am dragging it through the mud.  Lightly weighted flies like this can work particularly well during the winter months when carp aren’t digging in the mud quite as aggressively.

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Second, lightly weighted bunny style flies.  Most flies that I incorporate bunny into in my carp arsenal are meant to imitate crayfish.  Crayfish are plentiful in Idaho and our carp love them.  I like to use a lightly weighted crayfish pattern because when a crayfish flees, they often swim away in an upward direction.  I have witnessed carp crashing crayfish the same way a trout will crash a school of minnows.  There is the idea among many anglers that crayfish must be very heavy to work effectively, but I have not found this to be the case, especially when blind casting.  The lightweight crayfish perfectly imitates a fleeing crayfish and many carp find it very hard to resist.

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Third, heavy dumbbell weighted leeches.  I use these flies the least, although they certainly have their place.  When the carp are tailing deep (7+ feet of water), it is too time consuming to wait for a cone head or bunny fly to sink. Fishing a heavily weighted leech will get you in the zone quickly and will leave you more time to fish.

The main thing you want to get out of your fly when blind casting is plenty of action and movement.  The carp are going to use their lateral line to pick up on some of that movement, so a fly that pushes a lot of water is ideal.  Now that you’ve got the right fly, it’s time to perfect the retrieve.

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Tip Five: The Retrieve

There are several different ways to retrieve your fly while blind casting. I’ve narrowed it down to the three that I have found to be the most effective.

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The first retrieve style is what I refer to as “The Erratic Retrieve”.  This style works best when working a visible mud line.  It is done by casting parallel to the mud line, allowing your fly time to sink into the feeding zone (this will vary based on water depth and fly weight).  I then begin to strip the fly back in short but aggressive 0.5” to 1.5” strips.  The short strip allows the fish more time to find your fly.  The aggressive nature of the strip pushes more water and improves the chances that your fly will stand out.  A word of warning, many carp will hit the fly extremely hard in between strips, so always be on guard and ready to strip set.  Keeping your rod tip down will help increase your hook ups when strip setting.

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The second retrieve is the “Cloud Casting Technique”.  This is the style that works best when casting to a cloud where a fish is feeding but you cant see.  After you’ve found the cloud, put yourself in a position where you can make a cast that won’t be much longer than a rods length.  After making the cast, allow your fly time to sink into the feeding zone.  Slowly lift your rod and wait for tension.  If there is no tension from the fish, repeat one or two more times until you need to cast again.  If you didn’t get a take the first time, you know you didn’t put the fly in the fishes face.  Try again until you feel tension from the take.  As goofy as this might sound, it is a deadly technique when fishing very cloudy water.

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The third retrieve I use is what I call “The Bobber Twitch”.  When taught to nymph, we are typically told to mend over and over again so that our bobber never moves.  This technique entails doing just the opposite.  Find a mud line or cloud that you would like to work and set your bobber at the appropriate depth.  Allow your fly time to sink and slowly retrieve the fly by twitching the bobber every few seconds.  When your bobber doesn’t want to move any closer, set the hook because you probably have a take.  Even the most miniscule movements of the bobber should be treated as a take.  I have seen this technique used in both still water and rivers with equal success.

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Conclusion:

Although blind casting for carp isn’t the most popular thing in the world of fly fishing, it certainly has its perks.  First and foremost, it opens the door to year round carp fishing opportunities, even in the coldest of places.  If I can catch a carp on the Snake River in the Middle of January, there is no reason you can’t do it too in your home waters!  It might take a little practice and maybe even a few pieces of humble pie, but I’m a firm believer that it can be done just about anywhere.  Second, if you think a big brown trout hitting a streamer is a rush, just wait until you get a grab from a 20+ lb carp crushing a crayfish.  Few things in fresh water fly fishing are as exhilarating.  Get out there and catch some fish!

Respect

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It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write a blog post.  Between family, work, and school, life is busier than ever, and the free time I do have I’d rather spend on the water with family and friends.  As fly fishing becomes more popular, the social media scene associated with it continues to grow at a seemingly endless rate.  Is this a bad thing?  I don’t think so at all, in fact I think anything that puts fly fishing on the map is fantastic.  More minds willingly working together towards stream access and conservation is a wonderful result of the social media movement.   With that said, there are a few points that I would like to touch upon.  Some have been on my mind for a while, others only for a short time, but it has taken me some time to think of how to properly gather my thoughts.  The last thing I want is to come off as arrogant or condescending.  Please keep in mind the disclaimer that I have been guilty of many of these things myself, and my end goal is to help others from learning lessons the hard way.

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Respect For Fish:

One thing that I feel in some ways has been negatively affected by the social media scene is respect for fish.  Here is a common example.

Fly angler “John Doe” is so excited about the large brown trout he just landed and can’t wait to post it on Instagram when he gets home from the river.  The problem is, he doesn’t have any pictures yet.  All the things that he has been taught about catch and release are suddenly forgotten and his mind is overcome with one thing.  At all costs, he must get the best picture ever of this fish!

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Just because you saw the fish swim away does not mean that it will survive.  In fact, even the best catch and release practices can result in fish mortality.  Hooks get lodged in the wrong places, and there is very little that can be done to prevent death.  Fly fishing is after all a “Blood Sport”, and this is the nature of the beast.  My comments are not directed at those wishing to keep a fish or two for dinner, rather they are directed at those who wish to practice catch and release.  One of the most frustrating things that I see time and time again on the water is other angler’s holding fish out of the water for way too long.  My personal opinion is that anything over 10 seconds is too long.  I prefer less than 5.

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Here are some of the more common examples of what I witness frequently.

  1. Carrying the fish over to their buddy for a picture (out of the water for up to 60 seconds)
  2.  Holding the fish out of water for the picture (out of the water for up to 60 seconds)
  3. Taking an excessive amount of time to unhook a fish (out of the water for up to 60 seconds)
  4. Pulling fish on the bank because the angler didn’t bring a net (out of the water for up to 60 seconds)
  5. Throwing fish on the bank to take your own picture (out of the water for up to 60 seconds)

I will again add the disclaimer that I have been guilty of some of these things, if not all of them.  My purpose is not to preach, rather to educate in a common sense way on why some of these things are not good for fish.

Point 1.  If you have to carry the fish out of the water to get to your fishing buddy, you need a bigger net or you need to find another way to make it work.  In my mind, there is no excuse for this one.  If your buddy is far away, keep the fish in your net in the water, kneel down, and wait for your friend to make their way over to you.  Fish breathe water, and they aren’t going to go anywhere if you keep them gently resting in your net.

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Point 2. If you are holding the fish out of water for more than 10 seconds for your photos (5 seconds ideally), then that is too long.  Brain damage will begin to occur shortly thereafter.  If it is cold, damage will occur to the gills.  Learn how to properly hold a fish, or do not remove them from the water at all.  It’s that simple.

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Point 3: This is one that I see more often than is necessary at all.  Ideally, the fish should be unhooked before ever taking pictures.  If you’re scared it might get away or want a fly shot, I can understand why the hook might be left in.  What I don’t understand is why the fish must be held out of the water for up to a minute to remove the hook.  Just as it is ok to lift for a few seconds for a picture, the same can be said about the hook removal process.  You have a net, you most likely have forceps, you probably have some fingers, so get the job done in the water as often as possible.

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Point 4: This is one that there is absolutely no excuse for, and I honestly see far too often.  This is also one that I myself did not understand for several years.  Pulling a fish on the bank, letting it flop all over the place, and then expecting it to swim away unharmed is unrealistic.  Not only is the fish not able to breathe air, it is also beating its body against the rocks, covering itself in mud, or removing its slime in grass.  The solution to this problem is a simple one.  Purchase yourself a net or learn how to properly tail a fish in water.

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Point 5: Similar to point 4, don’t throw fish up in the rocks to snap a picture.  Not only will you come away with a poor quality shot and you’re putting the fish in a situation that will be difficult for it to recover from.  Learn to use a self timer (it’s not that hard), or keep the fish in the water for your photo shoot.

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If you witness any of these things on the water, do not approach the person in a condescending or rude way, because chances are they have no idea that what they are doing is harmful to the fish.  As was mentioned in the example earlier, it is easy to get caught up in the moment of catching a trophy trout.  At the end of the day, we’re all trying to have a fun and enjoyable day on the water.

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Respect For Resources:

The resources we have available to us as a fly fishing community take us to some of the most beautiful and wondrous places on earth.  When I say resources, I am referring to the waters we all love to fish.  Social media has made the discovery of once “secret” places a much easier task.  I say “secret” because chances are, someone else was fishing your secret hole long before you ever were.   There is however a balance that must be struck between hoarding information to one’s self, and sharing everything you know about a fishery on the world wide web.

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One of my favorite things about fly fishing is the adventures it takes me on.  Exploring new water and discovering new places that fish like to hold is a huge part of the draw.  There is a feeling of satisfaction that can’t be replaced that comes when you figure out a fishery for yourself.  It is similar to the satisfaction that comes from solving a complicated puzzle.  As I have spent thousands of hours exploring different bodies of water and figuring out the nuances behind them, I think it’s fair for me to feel a little frustrated when people try to, and at times successfully take closely held information so freely.  If you are not familiar with the term “Hot Spotting”, it consists of a few different things.

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If someone posts a picture on a social media platform and they do not reveal where they are fishing, it’s probably for a reason.  Trust me, there are many places I would love to know a little more about, and perhaps I’ll be able to figure them out at some point in time.  Have the courtesy to let them keep it to themselves, if that is what they want to do.  If you’d like to know more about where someone is fishing, try sending them a private message.  The fly fishing community is a pretty tight knit group, and most anglers are willing to at least point each other in the right direction.  If they don’t want to tell you, respect that and enjoy the challenge that comes from playing “Where’s Waldo.”

Blurring Photos:

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There are a lot of things that have been said about blurring the background of fishing photos.  Some people love them, some people hate them, and everyone on social media seems to have some sort of opinion on them.  Many people make assumptions about why an individual chooses to edit the background of their photo, and most of those assumptions are off base.  Here are a few reasons the backgrounds of photos are commonly edited.

  1. The fishery can’t handle the pressure
  2. The individual has been threatened before
  3. The person doesn’t want people to know exactly where the fish was caught
  4. The person is self absorbed and wants the entire river and every fish in it to themselves

Point 1.  Some fisheries are small and in all honesty can’t handle very much pressure.  They have low fish counts and are often small in size.  Places like this usually take a lot of time and energy to discover, but often hold very nice fish.  If too many people end up fishing the fickle fishery, chances are it won’t stay good for too much longer.  This is something that I have seen happen first hand, and is a reason I choose to blur backgrounds.

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Point 2. Some times anglers receive threats from other anglers because they feel that they somehow own public water.  To avoid further confrontation, the background is blurred.  This is another thing that I have personally experienced, and needless to say it is not a comfortable situation.

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Point 3. I think that this is the most common reason for blurring backgrounds, and in my opinion, it too is an acceptable reason.  Others may disagree with me, and that is perfectly fine.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  Even in a well known fishery, take the Henry’s Fork for example, blurring or changing the background can prevent an area of the river from becoming overcrowded.  In the case of the Henry’s Fork, it can handle the pressure just fine.

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Point 4. Kidding.  Although this is not a real reason in my opinion, it is one of the more popular assumptions made in regards to anglers who blur/edit their backgrounds.  I have read things like, “Another blurred background, what a joke!”, “Blurred backgrounds are stupid”, “Can’t you just take water shots?”  Again, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I am attempting to clear up some common misconceptions.  Water shots don’t always offer the same perspective on a fish’s size as a shot with the full angler in view.  The main reason that I blur the backgrounds in some of my photos is because I am attempting to protect the resource, while at the same time providing my blog followers with the content they enjoy.  It is after all about the fish, so a blurred background shouldn’t be a very big deal.  If you don’t like a blurred photo, lucky for you, no one is going to make you look at it!

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Don’t Overuse the Resource:

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Although it might seem like fish are an unlimited resource, they are not.  As was mentioned earlier, even practicing catch and release will result in fish mortality from time to time.  When I refer to overusing resources, I’m not talking about the many big rivers and lakes we are blessed to have in Idaho.  I’m referring to the small streams and lakes, the places that can’t handle more than a few anglers at a time.  If you go day after day, the fishing is going to turn south rather quickly.  Once again, this is something that I have unfortunately seen happen due to angler’s getting gluttonous.  It is OK to take a break, sit back, and enjoy the moment.

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Respect For Others:

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One of my favorite things about social media is the opportunity it has given me to connect and meet with so many amazing people.  It has also allowed me to discover new places to fish, and I love playing “Where’s Waldo?” to discover new fisheries.  When I first started my blog, it was as a personal journal.  Since, it has transitioned into fishing stories, photography, and tips to help you have a better day on the water.  Part of having a good day on the water is respecting our fellow anglers.

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Keep it secret, Keep it safe:

Receiving information from other angler’s about a location they hold close to them is not something that should be taken lightly.  If they have asked you not to show that spot to anyone else, not post revealing pictures from there on social media, etc., have the respect to listen to them. Don’t take it upon yourself to show the entire world your new found location.  As the old saying goes, loose lips sink ships.  It only takes a few loose lips to quickly sink the ship of a phenomenal fishery.  Some fisheries may never recover from the damage that can be done.  I’ve seen it happen.

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Keep your Distance:

If you roll up to the river, only to find your favorite run occupied, move on and find somewhere else.  An easy way to avoid any frustration happening from this is by having a plan “B” or plan “C” backup plan.  You can go fish the secondary water and head back in an hour or two.  Chances are they will be gone and no one likes to be crowded.  Similarly, if you see someone coming to fish a nearby run, don’t hurry and spread out so they don’t have anywhere to fish.

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I once pulled up to the river and saw that the run we were hoping to fish was occupied.  I had a plan “B” near by, so it was fine.  To my surprise, the anglers occupying the run I had hoped to fish saw us and took off running to the other run (We didn’t even have our waders on yet).  They left the prime water they already had because they thought they might miss out on a fish or two from the secondary water.  If you’re in a good run, enjoy it and learn to share.

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Be Kind:

All too often, rude comments are said on the various social media platforms.  There is a big difference between being malicious and making a joke.  Things as simple as name calling, calling people liar’s about the size they claim their fish to be, etc. are all uncalled for.  If you don’t like the way someone is fishing (Dry vs. Streamer, Nymph vs. Swinging, etc.), keep it to yourself.  There are a lot of ways to go about catching fish, do the one you prefer.  We’re all on the same team and if we don’t have anything nice to say, we’re probably better off not saying anything.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, many of these things are lessons that I have learned the hard way. It is my hope that my words will help at least one person see things in a new light.  Remember to always be respectful, and things will work out for your good.

Year of the Carp

A few years back I set out with a goal to learn all I could about catching carp on the fly.  Carp have always been an intriguing species to me, mostly because of their massive size.  My first experience with fishing for carp came sometime around the age of 8 or 9.  I was blessed to grow up in a neighborhood with several fishing ponds.  Most of the ponds had bass and bluegill, but a couple of them had a small population of very large grass carp.  Day in and day out, I did all that I could to try and catch these wary fish.  I tried every fly in the box.  I even went to several fly shops around town in search of carp flies, only to discover that they didn’t really exist at the time.  One of my old favorite shops in Boise, Anglers (the Orvis shop) had an employee that gave me a handful of flies he had tied up for carp, free of charge.  I don’t recall his name, but I am still grateful for his generosity.  Even these flies couldn’t fool the picky grass carp, although they would have been very effective for their less picky cousins!  Eventually I discovered I could catch them by tying a clump of grass onto a bare hook with Monofilament line.  Yes, it was technically bait fishing, but as a young kid I didn’t really care.  I just wanted to feel the pull of a massive three-foot fish on the end of my line.  Now, some fifteen years later, I can say with confidence I know how to stick carp on the fly just about anywhere in Idaho.  I’ve fished all over the state, in a variety of different situations.  Some very technical, others not so much.  In the near future, I plan to do a feature on several different places to fish for carp in the state of Idaho.  Enjoy some photos of my carp fishing adventures thus far in 2015. The Snake River: IMG_2107 IMG_4746_2 IMG_4751 IMG_3187 IMG_3199 IMG_3226 IMG_3265 IMG_3281 IMG_3296 IMG_3366 IMG_3428 IMG_3411 IMG_3425 IMG_3882 IMG_3889 IMG_3903 IMG_3946 Photo Jun 24, 8 59 25 PM Utah IMG_2364 IMG_3435 IMG_3482 IMG_2400 Utah Carp Blackfoot Reservoir IMG_2945 IMG_2996 IMG_3142 IMG_3025 IMG_3041 IMG_3099 IMG_3105 IMG_3180 IMG_3181 IMG_3182 IMG_3317 IMG_3154 IMG_4849 IMG_4867 IMG_4899_2 IMG_4919 IMG_4944 IMG_4973_2 Lake X IMG_4593_2 IMG_4550 IMG_4522_2 IMG_4500_2 IMG_4491 IMG_4295 IMG_4291_2 IMG_4448_2 IMG_4248 IMG_4232_2 IMG_4219 IMG_4201

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