Chasing Common Carp on the Fly in south Louisiana – December 12, 2020
Years ago, on a field herpetology forum of all places, I came across a post by the great Tim Borski about stalking carp on the flats in his native Wisconsin. As with most things Tim, I was immediately intrigued. I had grown up watching massive carp cruise the shorelines and tributaries of Lake Ontario, but not once (with the exception of the time my father’s prized grass carp inhaled a woolly worm as I bass fished) had the concept of carp on the fly crossed my mind. Though fishing was only a small part of my life at the time, I made a mental note should the opportunity ever arise.
In the years that followed, the opportunity never seemed to arise. But as I once again delved deeper into the sport of fly fishing, I continually stumbled across references to carp on the fly. Dave McCool’s “Golden Bonefish” of Lake Michigan. The works of Jay Zimmerman and Barry Reynolds. While it was by no means on the level of trout fishing, it clearly had a passionate and devoted following.
2020 State of Mind
With dreams of far flung adventures back-burnered in the age of COVID, I found myself redirecting my efforts towards local species I had largely ignored (at least on the fly rod) in years past. The first few (Crappie, Redfish, Speckled Trout, Spotted Bass and Long-Eared Sunfish) all came rather quickly, but two (Common Carp and Chain Pickerel) remained largely ignored as I wasn’t really sure where to start.
By the start of summer (often early May in SE Louisiana if you’re judging by the mercury), it became apparent those two would have to wait. I was better served sticking to what I knew during the brief morning windows where temperatures allowed for outdoor recreation, and that’s just what I did. Spotted Bass wade trips became the norm with interspersed early morning trips to the marsh for larger game.
Carp and Pickerel remained on my mind though, and, as summer turned to fall, I began investing more time in researching the two species.
Starting at the Vise
With the weather final cooling off and some unexpected work chaos behind me, I decided it was time to try my hand at carp flies. With a cursory google search of “Best Carp Flies” producing some 2.5M results, it became apparent I would not be lacking in options. Narrowing my search pulled up a much shorter list with significant overlap in patterns existing within the articles I selected.
Settling on a set of patterns that I felt covered a fairly wide spectrum of potential prey items, I began tying. At the end of the day, the following filled by box.
The Carp Carrot
Clouser’s Swimming Nymph
John Montana’s Hybrid
Extended Body Damselfly
The Carp Crawler
“Crayfish” Crazy Charlie
Armed with what I felt was a reasonable selection of carp flies, my next question became “where should I fish?” New Orleans seemed the obvious answer with its expansive City Park and system of urban and suburban canals. Still, even as the local Orvis store promoted the option on social media, I found myself hesitant to commit to an hour’s drive to unfamiliar waters in hopes of chasing a species I had no experience with.
Turning instead to non-fishing sources, I scoured fishmap.org and iNaturalist for carp records. To my surprise, the latter included a glaringly obvious option that had not crossed my mind to this point…the LSU Lakes!
I Love It When a Plan Comes Together
With a stocked fly box at the ready, and prospective location decided upon, I committed to making a short midweek trip in hopes of checking a common carp off my life list. Worst case, I’d get in a nice walk on a sunny December day before stopping for groceries.
Arriving mid morning at a largely empty parking area, I was greeted by blue skies, hungry ducks and an algae covered lake. The lake’s other carp species, the grass carp, stocked en masse some six months earlier to address the vegetation clearly weren’t working.
Still the waters, where not clogged with vegetation, were crystal clear. Perfect for sight fishing.
Working my way along the shoreline, my eyes began to focus on fish. A mix of common and grass carp cruised about, though too often they were just out of reach. Even with polarized glasses they were often difficult to spot, and after a while I became concerned with whether or not any active feeders would be close enough to shore to allow me to take a shot.
Eventually though, as I passed beneath the shade of a Live Oak I spotted a large tail emerging from the shoreline vegetation. Head down, it appeared to be feeding. Rigged with the Carp Crawler fly above, I took my shot and was met with rejection. While the fish did not startle, it swam off calmly. Paying no mind to my offering.
As it swam off, I spotted an additional pair feeding 20 feet from shore. Flipping the same fly in their direction elicited a brief follow, but no strike. Swapping to the Carp Carrot produced a similar result before an errant third cart spooked the feeders.
Swapping flies once more, I tied on the Hybrid and continued my trek along the shoreline.
Another fifty feet down the shoreline from the live oak, another carp actively fed. Unlike the others, however, this fish was not nose down scouring the bottom. Instead, it actively swam just below the surface knocking clumps of dense vegetation with its head. Taking a step back, I spent the next few moments observing before deciding to cast.
It was clear that timing would be everything with this fish. And as the fish knocked into another clump of vegetation, momentarily obscuring its vision, I delicately dropped my fly along the opposite edge. The carp emerged from the vegetation as the fly began its descent, darted forward and inhaled the small black & red offering before it hit bottom.
Setting the hook, my 7-wt doubled over as the water exploded. The fish, perhaps in the low 20″ range, made quick work of a drag set too light and darted into the thick vegetation and deeper water beyond.
Tightening down on the drag, I slowly worked the fish out of the weeds. Fingers crossed that the light wire hook would hold.
Out of the weeds, the fish still had some fight left. And it was perhaps another five minutes before it tired and slid towards shore.
Its face covered in vegetation, I hazarded a quick picture before reaching down to clear the weeds. I wanted this documented just in case…
Feeling accomplished, I snapped the photo above and sent the carp back on its way. Clearly this carp on the fly thing wasn’t as challenging as everyone made it out to be.
Proceeding down the bank for perhaps another third of a mile, I encountered only one additional carp before doubling back. Approaching the first Live Oak once again, I spotted a group of four carp actively rooting in the mud beneath low overhanging branches. Far from an easy cast, I proceeded to work the fish for 20 minutes. Along the way I snagged in the branches multiple times, was followed and refused at least four times, and eventually spooked the group with a poor cast before conceding defeat.
Returning to the location where I took the initial image of the weedy lake, I spotted a large common carp cruising the mud flat some 40-50′ from shore. Its nose was down and it was clearly feeding. Swapping the Hybrid for a Clouser’s Swimming Nymph, I stripped 40 ft of line from my spool and launched a quick cast in the fishes direction.
Off the mark, I hauled in line as quickly as possible and launched a second cast. This one landing ~3 feet in front of the fishes nose. Pausing only momentarily to let the nymph sink, I proceeded to slowly retrieve the line in with a series of short 3-4″ strips. To my surprise, the large fish turned, raised its head from the bottom and inhaled my nymph.
The water again exploded as the larger fish took off like a freight train. Hooked in the lower left corner of the image above, the fish was on the reel within seconds and touching the far weed line along the right of the image before I began to gain control.
The equal of any similar sized red I’ve fought, this fish garnered an audience as a few passing cars stopped to watch the battle.
Eventually wearing the fish downI now had to drag it through the near weed line to land it. As a result, it was caked from head to tail by the time I brought it to hand. Reaching down to clear the weeds before taking a photo, the light wire hook gave way leaving me with 5lbs of coon tail and algae for my trouble.
Still content to have battled such a large fish, I decided to call it a day and made the trek back to my car.
What I learned
Looking back on my morning a few things are apparent.
First, I count myself lucky to have landed one, let alone two, carp on my first time out. Of the 30 or so carp I cast to, only a dozen even bothered to glance at my fly. And of that dozen, the vast majority were unimpressed. The fact two fell for my offerings is a major win in my book.
Second, no two carp are alike. This sentiment came up repeatedly in the articles I read as I researched carp flies, but it is more apparent now after this first excursion. The fish I encountered fed in a variety of manners and responded to my flies in a variety of ways. On future trips, I will be better served to step back and observe as I did with the first fish I hooked. A single cast may be all you get with these fish, so having a plan prior to casting can really make a difference.
Finally, I really need to come prepared. The lack of a net and use of fine wire hooks both cost me the opportunity to photograph my second, larger carp today. I’ll be packing a new next time and shopping for some heavier wire hooks before my next time out.
Until next time…tight lines!