Chasing carp, gar and anything else that will look at a fly.
While this sentiment may get me black-listed by trout stream purists, the big bass crowd and those who rise early to chase bull reds, I’m going to say it anyway: There’s more to fishing than game fish. In fact, entire online communities have been built around a shared passion for these “Rough Fish.”
Given these “other” species may not seem ideal candidates to be targeted on the fly, but many are. It’s often simply a matter of adjusting tactics.
And with The Mayfly Project’s 25 on the Fly tournament less than four weeks away, there may be no better time to begin honing those tactics.
Know thy Enemy
Pre-fishing and planning are said to be key to remaining competitive in the 25 on the Fly tournament format. Having the “where,” “when” and “how” of each species down to a science borders on necessity with only a day and a half to check so many boxes. In our team’s case, however, pre-fishing isn’t feasible as we find ourselves hours (more than 20 in my case) away from our intended fishing grounds. As a result, the “where” and “when” must be largely left to chance, and what little can be gleaned from memory, books and the internet.
The “how,” however, is still feasible from a distance. So long as the target species are available nearer to home.
Of the 25 eligible species for this tournament, roughly two-thirds do not occur in Louisiana or are rare enough to deter me from targeting them as I prepare. Of the remainder, it is the rough fish (categorized as either “toothy” or “slimy” by the tournament) that offer the highest potential point values. In fact, from an accrued point perspective, the common carp alone (300 pts) is the equivalent of the three most common trout and two black bass species combined.
In the simplest of terms, knowing the “how” of these rough fish (gar, catfish, & the three carp) could be the difference between a top three finish and finishing “outside the money.”
Practice. Practice. Practice.
With rough fish on the mind, and the tournament a mere four weeks away, time to work out the “how” of these species was limited to say the least. Intent on targeting gar, common carp and grass carp in a single outing, I selected a day with clear skies and light winds for a visit to the LSU Lakes.
While confident that the Lakes would provide the opportunity to target all three species, I cannot say I held the same confidence in my own ability to make the most of that opportunity. Though I landed two common carp during my initial foray into carp fishing this past December, I had been repeatedly stymied since. Given, occasional takes had ensued, but each seemed to end in disaster.
A day of attempting to perfect the “drag and drop” technique went fairly smoothly as I registered four takes on a fresh batch of Primordial Carp Stew. However, all four ended in missed hook sets as I failed to sense the subtle take before each fish tasted metal and rejected my offering.
Worse still, other afternoons have ended in pulled hooks or popped tippets. Each serving as proof that I could fool the finicky carp, but, that perhaps, I lacked the skill or proper equipment to bring the big fish to hand. As the same equipment has wrangled countless redfish, however, I think it is safe to say more fault lies with the former than the latter.
Still, this level of success far outweighs my combined success with the other two rough fish species.
My success with gar on the fly can be summarized as a single fish taken on a Crease Fly while bass fishing a year prior. Beyond that, my field notes contain only the occasional reference to unexpected, streamer destroying strikes often at the most inopportune of times. Worse still, this level of success far outweighs my success with grass carp as it has been more than two decades since I have landed one on the fly. Given, I’ve turned a few heads with a well presented fly on recent trips, but drawing momentary attention from these torpedoes is a long way from consistently hooking and landing them.
Regardless of my past performance when faced with these three, each represents a box I’ll need to check during next month’s tournament. And, there’s no way that will happen without practice. Lots of practice!
Conditions May Vary
As with all fishing, weather plays a role in success when targeting carp. Stable weather, light winds and clear skies are a necessity, and any deviation from these conditions can turn a days fishing into an afternoon stroll with a fly rod. So when I saw sunny skies and light winds from the north forecast for April 20th, I knew it was a day I wanted to get on the water. Of course, I failed to account for the substantial rain that had fallen the week prior and was a bit disappointed when I arrived to water the color and consistency of chocolate milk…
Determined to make the most of these poor conditions, I began my regular circuit. Heading east from my starting point, the plan was to prospect a large, shallow flat before proceeding on to deeper runs further along the shoreline.
The fish were seemingly absent from the now muddy flats, however. Or at least they remained invisible to my eyes without evidence of wakes, ripples or tailing fish.
Moving on, I sighted a few common carp in distant pockets of clear water among massive beds of vegetation. However, these fish proved so skittish that the mere sight of my fly line in the air would cause them to spook before my fly ever touched down. Given the number of bass anglers encountered on my recent trips, I have no doubt the skittish fish had been made such by one too many spinnerbait launched in their direction these past few weeks. Still I persisted.
Two hours in, however, I had only sighted a handful more fish and had only a single overzealous bluegill to show for my efforts. Recognizing change was needed, I doubled back to my start in hopes of prospecting a new stretch of shoreline.
A little change goes a long way.
Nearing my starting point, I spotted my first two gar of the morning along a small stretch of protected water I had bypassed at the start. In the past, my default response to this scene would have been a hasty exchange of flies. Swapping my Clouser’s Swimming Nymph for a flashy streamer. However, those past attempts had largely been met with rejection.
Instead, I elected to stick with small, orange nymph. Seemingly too small to warrant the attention of the large, toothy predators, I had been surprised on a previous trip when a large gar had snapped at my nymph as it passed. Curious if luck would repeat itself, I flipped the fly in the direction of the smaller gar and was immediately rewarded with the same snap of its jaws. Though I failed to drive the hook home, it proved my previous experience may not have been dumb luck.
Turning my attention to the larger gar, I repeated the process. Cast. Strip. Snap. Set. This time the hook caught and the water exploded. A short battle later, I slid the 32″ spotted gar into the grass alongside my rod. One of three species down, the day was not a loss.
Pausing only briefly to discuss my catch with a passer-by, I continued my search for my remaining targets. Though no grass carp had been observed this morning, a number of common carp had, and I was intent on at least landing one of the latter before calling it a day.
Navigating a stretch of shoreline overrun with fat, bread fed, ducks, I spotted a large shadow moving away from the shoreline in 3′ of water. Hopping on a rock for a slightly elevated view, I took care to ensure no one stood behind me and placed my fly two feet ahead and six inches to the left of where I thought the shadow was heading.
Uncertain my size 8 fly would even be visible in the murk, I paused momentarily as the fly settled toward the bottom. Two short strips as the shadow approached, and my line tightened.
A quick strip set, and the fish took off like a rocket. Having lost previous fish to broken tippets, I had left the drag relatively loose, and this large fish took advantage. In the few moments it took to first palm the reel, and then adjust the drag, the fish was in my backing. The battle was playing out in open water, however, and I was happy to provide the fish with as much line as was necessary to tire it out. Three long runs, a gathered crowd and about 10 minutes later, I slid the defeated fish into the shallows. Measuring 27″ to the fork, it was my personal best on the fly rod.
Two species down, I was content with the day, but continued on in hopes of completing the hat trick.
Mud on my face
Working my way further west, the shoreline began to turn sharply south and the elevation rose. At times six feet above the water line, my vantage point was significantly improved. However, the prospect of landing any fish decreased significantly. The fish were there though, and, after spooking a number of common carp, I landed my second spotted gar of the day.
Eventually doubling back, I spotted a torpedo-shaped silhouette hovering below the surface as the parking area came into view. While it could have been a large common carp, my guess was the silhouette belonged to the first grass carp of the day.
Making what was easily my best cast of the day, I made a 60′ cast and placed my nymph within 6″ of the figure looming below the surface. Though my eyes never registered any movement, my line drew tight as I made my first strip.
Where as the previous carp headed for the depths when hooked, this fish stayed higher in the water column, and I quickly glimpsed enough of its back to confirm it was in fact a grass carp. Though larger than my earlier common carp, this fish succumbed within five minutes following a few spectacular bursts of energy. Sliding down the embankment, I settled on a flat stretch of ground where I felt I could safely pull the fish ashore.
Foolishly (at least in hindsight), I took hold of the leader and attempted to slide the large fish up the 4″ lip between water and solid ground. To my chagrin, the hook gave on the second attempt and the fish slid back into the shallow water.
Dropping to my knees, I momentarily pinned the fish before it shook free. And as it righted itself, it propelled itself away from the shoreline with a single swipe of its large tail. And in doing so, soaked me from head to toe in muddy water.
Slightly defeated by my failure to secure a photo of the fish that would have completed the afternoon’s hat trick, I returned to my car. My mud soaked visage drawing more than a few glances along the way.
Still I had successfully landed all three of my targets, and could head into next month’s tournament with added confidence in my ability to successfully target all three.
Now if only I could wash off the stink of LSU Lakes mud…