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Why Are Carp So Hard To Catch?

Why are carp so hard to catch on a fly?  Carp are a wary creature and can be very frustrating to catch on a fly.  We are going to explore why carp are so hard to catch and also gain a new understanding about this misunderstood fish.

People often ask, “why fly fish for carp”?  The answer is simple.  Carp are the largest readily available freshwater fish in the US.  They can easily reach weights into the 30-40 pound range and they pull really hard.  Carp are also perfect to practice on.  If you can catch a carp in clear skinny water then a bonefish, redfish or permit will come much easier.  Carp are extremely difficult to get to eat in clear water.  Carp are considered one of the most difficult freshwater fish to catch on the fly and there are several reasons why.

Carp have a massive lateral line.  This is what allows the fish to “feel” his surroundings.  Any vibration or sound in the water is felt by the fish.  This can be you talking, walking, wading or even your fly hitting the water.  Carp are most often spooked by your fly line and fly hitting the water.  Once you know and understand this, you can target carp much better.  Your fly must either land softly or land well away from the fish.  Same goes for you too.  Carp can feel you yelling and moving in the water.  I usually fish from the bank or in ankle deep water.  Try not to send waves across the water, that is an alarm bell going off for a carp.

Carp also talk to each other.  Well not by voice, but they do communicate.  Once you spook one carp in a pod, the entire group is spooked.  This is because carp emit an emergency pheromone once spooked.  This alerts the rest of the fish in the pod that they are in danger.  I try to find small groups of fish or single fish.  I like to avoid the large pods of cruising fish.  You make one mistake and you blow the whole thing.  A single fish that is eating off the bottom is usually my favorite fish to fish to.

Carp most often eat by smell.  Ever noticed the whiskery things on a carp’s mouth?  Those are barbels, which are scent glands.  Carp use them to “smell” their food.  This is also why carp are so easy to catch on smelly bait or garlic balls.  They cannot resist the smell.  But an unscented fly is a different story.  Getting a carp to see your fly is more difficult than you think.  The fly must be a foot to 2 feet directly in front of the fish.  If it is not, he will not see it.  Carp do not have the best vision down in front of them.  Once they see the fly and move toward it, do NOT move your fly.  If you do, they can often lose track of it.  They are relying on scent and feel to find your fly.  Once the carp is on your fly, do NOT set the hook.  Let him eat it.  They eat your fly by sucking it in.  I count to three once he is on it and then set the hook.  Do it to soon and you yank it right away from him.

Fly fisherman put a lot of emphasis on carp flies.  Really, it is not that complicated (at least in Colorado it is not).  Carp love to eat crayfish and worms, but they will eat just about anything.  Carp are opportunistic, they never really “key in” on a specific thing and ignore everything else.  If you make it look like food, they will usually eat it.  I carry just a handle full of flies with me.  Mainly Woolly Bugger variations in several different sizes.  I also carry worms, eggs and large nymphs.  There are certain times of year when you do need other flies.  Cottonseed flies come in handy during the spring.  The carp on the South Platte also eat Tricos in the summer, so Parachute Adams are a must have.

Carp will never get the recognition they deserve, and that is fine with me.  Once I introduce people to fly fishing for carp, they get it.  The eat and the pull of a carp speaks for itself.  Once you see your first tailing carp and it eats your fly, you will understand it as well.  Yes they are slimy, but what fish isn’t?  Everyone who knocks it, has never tried it.  Once you get past that, you are in for a real treat!

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5 Responses to Why Are Carp So Hard To Catch?

  1. Yo, nice article. Question though, is the whole “carp spook at close presentations” thing just in Colorado, or everywhere? After reading up a little on carp I went after a few in Indiana. All my stealthy, “lead the fish” presentations went ignored (probably because of their poor vision, like you mentioned), so I went to presenting like for permit: aim at the fish, and miss a little. Bang! I started hooking up. So, what’s the deal with that. Seems like if I dropped it right on their head (in fairly clear, very calm water) they could see it and eat it. No spook. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    • In my experience, Carp will nearly always spook if you hit them on the head. But my experience has only been on high pressured fish here in Colorado. I say, if it is working for you, then keep at it! I wish it would work here, it would make my life a lot easier! Carp do have bad vision, so the fly needs to be right in front of them, but it cannot hit the water hard right in front of them. So I cast past them and pull the fly to the fish and that is what works for me!

  2. When you fish nymphs, what size hooks are you using? On wooly buggers I can’t go smaller than a 10 without problems setting the hook. Thanks for all of your videos, they are my goto fly tying resource.

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