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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!