As carp on the fly grows and more and more fly fisherman start to chase these fish in more and more places it stands to reason that many new techniques will pop up. We are going to get better at catching these fish. We are going to lean how to catch them in different conditions. We are going to find new bodies of water. All of this makes sense, but there is one thing about carp that we must remember at all times.
They don't want to work for their food.
Granted, some carp are predatory. Some carp chase gobies and crayfish (god I love Lake MI carp) and scuttle after nymphs in the shallows. Some carp can easily be caught with big flies and a solid strip set, but most carp are omnivorous. They eat what they can, always adhering to the concept "as many calories as possible with the smallest output necessary."
So I say "stop moving your fly so much." As a general rule on my home water, I don't move the fly at all. I cast, drag and drop so the fly falls into position on the dinner plate and then wait for the fish to find the fly. I have found this far more effective than stripping or moving the fly into the same position...no idea why, it just seems to work. Once the fly is there I wait...and wait, and watch. If I simply can't wait any longer I will give the fly a tiny twitch, just sort of shaking the line or giving it a 1/2 inch strip to make the fly move a touch...then I let it sit again. If that doesn't work I will resort to really short strips, but most of the time my home carp eat the fly when it is dead still on the bottom (or falling into position).
This year when Wendy Berrell and I chased predatory carp we found that keeping this concept in mind upped our catch rate significantly. Not every carp was ready or willing to hunt down and eat a two inch long bunny leech...some just wouldn't pursue. But...when we simply dapped or dropped the same fly on them and let it sit on the bottom, we often got some head turn "Columbia river" style takes. As the trip progressed I messed around with smallish nymphs and finally a hybrid. They all worked when presented without movement. On the last day, I stuck and landed 13 carp on a size 8 hybrid, all just by leaving the fly and letting the fish find and eat it.
As much as I love watching the chase, when I really want to catch some fish, I let the fly sit. Sometimes it pays to simply stop moving your fly.
It has been quite some time since I have picked up a fly rod. Life has been busy, and I simply haven't made it to a river much of late. I intend to remedy that soon with a run to the coast, or maybe some trout on the Deschutes...until then I look at pictures and dream of warm weather. I had an MRI the other day for a suspected torn rotator cuff (negative...phew) and spent the 15 minutes in that horrid tube day dreaming of lake MI and the big C...good outings store up good thoughts and you never know when they will come in handy. A few weeks and I will be back on the water...until then, a few of my favorite "non hero" pictures.
Mr. P and I figure that between the two of us we have walked roughly 290 miles of the Columbia river...on both sides. Granted, we may have skipped some stretches but ultimately that is a relatively true statement. I tell people all the time that if you walk a half mile of river in the middle of July and DON'T see a carp...you aren't looking. We have a target rich environment.
With winter bearing down on us though, I find myself wishing I could find the carp right now. Where do they go on the big c? No idea really, though I assume they run deep, find a temperature they like and hang out in a gigantic carp ball. That would be quite a sight. One thing I have figured out is that I am much more likely to find them when the temperature is warming than when it is cooling. A 52 degree water temp on the drop...empty flats and bays...52 degrees on the rise, well, you have a shot then. If you know what to look for.
Basically, you want three things. First, you need a stretch of water that is totally out of the current. Much of the Columbia is slow, but almost all of it moves at some pace...find the areas that are the most stagnant and you are 1/3 of the way to an early season river carp. Second, sun. You need a place that will soak in the rays...no shadows, cliffs, weird topography that limits the light...you want that stagnant water soaking up the rays. Lastly, you want a dark, softer bottom to absorb that light. Anyone that reads this knows that most of my season is spent stalking cold, cobble and gravel bars, but when you want to find them in late February or early March you gotta play the game. The glory shots will come in July...find the mud, find the sun, and avoid the current and you can find early season river carp.
Wendy Berrell and I had been riding a pretty good high. We smacked Lake MI around and were laying into the carp left, right, back and forth. Our bay of choice was literally frothing with fish...targets everywhere...and some were hungry. This fish was highly memorable. For the most part, we had been spotting fish and casting to specific cruisers in relatively shallow water. The depth, and color of the bottom made visibility perfect, and when we found a player, the cat and mouse game of stripping and killing the flies was intoxicating. As the bay narrowed a bit, I slipped to the deeper edge...still only waist deep but gone were the perfectly clean visuals of the knee deep water, replaced instead by groups of moving black masses...carp, milling free from the spawning frenzy to circle out and then back into the scrum. I couldn't clearly see individual fish, nor mouth nor fins or scales,but I could see hordes and groups moving through the deeper channel. On the big C...this is a zero sum game...but on lake MI...they eat meat.
I threw the rabbit monstrosity above well ahead of one group, giving time for the heavy dumbell eyes to pull the fly to the bottom. When the marauders were a few feet away I hopped that fly right across their path...skittering, moving, jumping and stopping every few inches. I could see in my mind as the rabbit pulsed and the fly jigged with each strip and rod shake. Out of the middle of said pack of predators, one big dark shape broke a 90 and began to follow. Strip, strip, pause...strip, pause...strip, strip, BIG strip and then kill the poor fly and leave it helpless on the bottom as the darkness surged forward, unable to resist. The rest was a matter of one final strip, good tippet and a strong drag.
God bless the meat eaters.
I haven't fished in quite a while...just haven't been ready to dive I to salmon and steelhead, and the carp are around in such small numbers that it has been hard to get excited. I finally went out today, shamed into hitting a local pond by a constant barrage of texts and images from Dan Frasier and Wendy Berrell...I just needed to see a carp!
So...I went to a local pond that I usually avoid. Once upon a time, this was my go to local spot. My kids both touched carp there when they were babies (JJ was just six weeks old and in a front pack) and I still head there with the kids to let em catch a few fish on bait.
But when it comes to a fly, these might be the most well educated carp in America. This is a small pond...urban, with a decent, but limited population of carp. Over the years I figure I have caught literally every fish in the pond multiple times and they know what is up now. If they see an outline of a person...gone. A waving fly rod...poof. A splashing fly...zippo...back to the depths. It is a punishment to fish there.
I saw three fish. Two were crawling in some serious shallows, and when I flipped a heavily hackled black fly (the hackle to make it land soft) to the lead fish, both fish spooked and blew mud all over the place in their haste to vacate the area. The third fish was a big one for this pond...maybe 9 lbs. all I could see was the tail, it's head was buried deep in the murk. I snuck into position, and ever so carefully dapped a weighted soft hackle on the fish's head. When the fly broke the surface tension, the fish blew.
Tough go...I already long for the "easy" Columbia river carp!
2013 started with a bang, but ended with a whimper. I caught my first carp in February this year, and in early march I was torturing Dan Frasier of Carp Pro with fish by fish text updates on my way to a 26 carp day. An auspicious beginning indeed. Most of the year was great, and I likely will do some recaps throughout the winter and offseason while slumming (kidding) for winter steelhead and salmon.
But all good things must come to an end, and for me at least...I think the 2013 carp season has run its course. The recent rains have raised all the rivers, dumping cold water into my beloved Columbia, and while the temps of the main river still hover around 60, the steeply declining graph is a killer for a shallow water sight fishing addict. I could extend the season by looking in some ponds, or chasing small carp around office complexes, but it just isn't what I am after. I want the gravel fish...the tailers and slow cruisers and marauders you find when the sun is high, the water clear and the river warm. These are the top fish...the fish that challenge, then frustrate, but ultimately reward you with blistering runs and golden hues. The book is likely closed on such creatures for 2014.
I went out today in search of one last carp in the gravel. I walked two known big fish haunts, and one area I fish soley for the sheer numbers of 7-8 lb fish that typically abound...but in miles of walking, I saw three carp. Total. I nearly had the storybook ending though. The first carp was 8 feet deep, and I only saw him as I stood on a tall boulder, and I never even took my fly off the guide. Carp two and three were together, and materialized out of nowhere. At first I saw a cloud of dust, then the tail of a 10 lber vigorously feeding in deeper water. Then I realized that the big pile of weeds on the surface next to the ordinary fish was actually a monstrous carp, it's tail breaking the surface as it fed nose down in water that rose to my waist. This was one of the two or three largest fish I had seen all season...it was meant to be...I would make the cast, she would eat, and I would clip off my flies in triumph and head home.
Instead, I made the cast and the fish surged forward toward my flies in a cloud of dust. I had to guess as I could no longer see her head, and I guessed wrong, setting the hook with authority and sending both carp fleeing to the depths of the river. I kept walking, but all I saw was a pod of chinook in a creek mouth. I half heatedly threw a hybrid at them and somehow the oldest, nastiest, moldiest fish ate the fly. No carp, and a moldy salmon.
So 2013 ended with a whimper...
We were walking crap water. Deep and rocky...but big rocks. Boulders and stones too big for carp to easily nudge them aside...the window to spot a fish was maybe 5-6 feet wide, then the water dropped steeply down to maybe 8-10 feet. Crap water, but also big fish water.
"If we see one, it will be a nice fish." David said, and I nodded in agreement and turned my eyes back to the front...this was my kind of water.
A few seconds later I froze and pointed. Big fish in the shallows, quartering away from me and just laying there like a pig in mud...roughly the same size too. I slipped my flies loose, stripped out some line and took a couple of careful steps to get into position.
The fish's scales were the size of quarters.
The cast was a good one, and I dragged and dropped the trouser worm slightly in front and to the shoreline side of the fish, the hybrid trailing behind. The fish slowly swam forward a few inches, watching as the t-worm fell, and then made a sudden, sharp lunge to the left and ate the lighter, still sinking hybrid in mid column. Fish on!
Immediately the carp rolled up to the surface and I could see the hybrid stuck firmly in the corner of the mouth. I pumped my fist...it was a solid hook up and looked like it wouldn't pull loose. Then the big carp surged forward and darted down the drop off, heading toward a boulder and quickly wrapping the line around a rock. I ran to my right and found an angle to free the line and the fish took off again, swimming deep and far and I started walking down the bank after the big fish. David moved into the bay, looking to double up and I watched my reel spin and listened to the music...a smile on my face.
Then it happened. I felt something rubbing on the line and then everything stopped...the line was still tight and the rod bent over double, but no more fly line left the reel and I knew it was over. I walked this way and that, trying to free the line (and hopefully the fish) but it stayed stuck to the bottom, unseen in the depths. I threw a bunch of slack on the water and waited, but the floating line stayed still. Eventually I pointed the rod and pulled.
All I got back was half of a leader, frayed and destroyed.
I catch my share of 20 plus lb carp...19 in 2012, and 18 so far in 2013. Still, I don't take those big fish for granted in any way. Basically, everything has to go right in order to land a 20. First, you have to spot the fish, then stalk the fish, get the angle, make the cast, get the eat, detect the take, set the hook, handle the first run, keep the fish clear of weeds or rocks, pray your knots hold...and lastly, hope your fishing partner doesn't blow the net job. If any one of those goes against you...forget it. If you kick a rock during the stalk, get carp blocked by a bass as the fly sinks, or have a beaver spook the feeding 20 (happened Saturday) you won't catch the fish. Simple as that. I am lucky, I get lots of shots at big fish, and I catch a few, I often write about those fish...but this is what usually happens (and happened Saturday):
I was walking one of my favorite gravel bars, a place I have caught many 20 plus lbers, so I was on high alert, and it paid off. At first all I could see was a tan dust cloud, about 80 feet down the bank. I got dry, and hugged the shoreline brush as I snuck closer. At 60 feet I could see the fish, a big, black volleyball head poking out of the light sediment cloud, white mouth opening and closing. It was grazing, facing into the steeply sloped bank, almost horizontal as it fed right on the drop off. I took a moment to check my knots, and hooks. I was fishing two light flies which would be perfect in this situation. I needed to get close enough to get a cast that would send the flies tumbling down the drop off, right to a waiting monster. I am no great caster, and with my right arm pinned by the bushes, I knew I needed to get close, so I started the stalk.
The good news, by keeping tight to the brush I didn't have to worry about my profile as long as I moved slowly enough. Making a stalk bent over in a crouch is hell on my back! The bad news...there were 40 feet of baseball sized cobble between me and where I wanted to be in order to know I could lay the flies right where I wanted them. I started moving, one slow and careful step at a time. 50 feet, then 40, 30, and miraculously, 20 feet and the fish still fed, unperturbed.
Having long since stripped enough line off of my reel, I made a cast, keeping it high and above the brush as the flies sped behind me...hooking the brush now would mean the end of the shot. The cast was good, but the instant the flies touched the water the fish stopped feeding. I froze as the flies sank, too far to get an eat as I had planned a drag and drop, but the fish was suddenly on high alert, not ready to eat anything. The big fish backed up, turned left and slowly swam up the bank. With a smaller fish I would have likely fired off another cast in an attempt to get the flies out in front, but that would have spooked this big girl for good, so I waited. The fish swam about ten feet, turned to the bank, and started to eat again.
I made a short, ultra careful stalk, one foot slowly in front of the other. Then I made another cast, this time putting the flies right in the zone rather than planning on the drag and drop. The second the flies hit the water the fish stopped feeding, turned and headed up the bank again. I froze, and let the fish settle, about 20 feet up the bank.
The same slow, careful stalk, only before I started moving I clipped off one fly, leaving a single, lightly weighted hybrid between me and a 20 plus lb carp. I somehow got into position again without spooking the fish. I could see the huge head, slightly wagging from side the side. The tail, like a fan waved and pushed and a huge bucket mouth flashed underwater as nymphs and plant matter met their demise. I watched for a few seconds, the made a short, but very accurate cast.
The second the hybrid hit the water, the big fish stopped feeding...backed up, did a 180 and swam off into the depths.
Most of the time, not everything goes right.
One year ago today, we lost my dad. He went his way, fresh off of a day on the river, his boots still wet, and his heart full of laughter. I think of him often, and miss him dearly. Thanks for everything dad...will do my best to make you proud!
My dad was a hero. I don't mean a hero in the sense that most dads are heroes for their young sons and daughters, though he certainly was that as well. I mean he was an honest to god all American hero. My dad flew Cobra gunships in Vietnam. He was the kind of man that stepped forward when everyone else stepped back. He volunteered for the missions that no one else wanted. My dad was the pilot the Blues and Scouts wanted flying cover when the shit hit the fan. They knew he wouldn't flinch. He would fly into danger to help them get clear of danger. Once upon a time my dad wasn't John Bartlett, he was "Bloody Bart". He was a hero.
When I was four my dad took me bear hunting. I shouldn't be able to remember much, but I do. I can clearly see the marshy field from our spot on the edge of the tree line. I recall the color of the twilight, and I can feel the rough denim of my dads jeans as I slipped my hands into his back pockets to keep up with his long legs. Mostly though, I can hear the boom of his 30-06. We shot a bear that night, and as I sit here writing my ears are still ringing. I feel as if they have been ringing since my mom called Tuesday night to tell me he was gone.
How many young boys can say they have walked the wild of the Kootenai River? My dad took me. He was the engineer on a work train out of Libby, MT. As such, he spent four days inching along the tracks while the crews cleaned and repaired sections...one tie at a time. In the morning, he would run me out with him on the big locomotive and drop me off somewhere on the river. There I spent the day...me, my fly rod, a half dozen royal coachman's and the trout of the Kootenai. As evening approached I listened for the whistle of the train and waited on the tracks for my dad to come and get me.
His heart had been failing for years now. Last year the doctor told him his ejection fraction (the measure of how much blood your heart is pumping) was less than 20% of a healthy person. Rather than ponder all that he could no longer do with only one fifth of a heart, my dad shot back at the doctor and the world "IT IS A GOOD THING MY BALLS ARE FIVE TIMES THE SIZE OF MY HEART"!
My dad lived his life. He loved his life. He went at everything full throttle and never slowed down. He is gone now, and the world is undeniably a darker place. I am not a religious person, but much like my dad I believe in a higher power. And just like him, I see that power in the wind through the trees and the waves in the water. So I know where to look for him. No one that met him could avoid being touched by him, so he surrounds us all. I see him in Elia's quiet determination. I see him in JJ's fierce competitive spirit. I see him today when I am down, and I will see him in myself tomorrow...when I get back up. I know where to find him and the next time I am walking my favorite flat, I know I can count on him to give me a little extra ripple on the water so I don't spook that big fish. And if I listen real hard after I blow the shot...I bet I can hear him laugh.
Dad, we thank you, we love you, we miss you.
Personally, I find these guys much tougher than spring fish. You basically always have to feed the Big C fish the fly, but in late summer, you really need to feed em. The good news, lots of sun, good visuals. The bad news...weedbeds. Bottom line...the Hybrid still crushes!
Gravel fish are the best...and toughest.
My quest for 20 fish over 20 lbs might fall short for the second year in a row. 19 last year, stuck at 18 right now (though like an idiot, I didn't actually weigh a fish that was pretty clearly 20 lbs when fishing with Dan Frasier and Travis Hammond. Just held it up and dumped it back in the river like a bass. DUMB!). You can feel the cold weather approaching, and the bigger fish are starting to enter the shallows less and less...combine that with a lack of fishing time as the season winds down and it doesn't look good.
I might have to start slumming with salmon and steelhead soon.
Carp on the fly is a visual game...if you can't see the fish, good luck catching the fish. I don't claim to be the world's best angler, trust me, I know my limitations. I cast like crap and tie flies like a 10 year old but if there is one thing I do well, it is spot fish. Those that have come out to fish with me usually leave convinced that the reason I catch a decent number of large carp is that I can see em...at distance. Then I plan an attack, put on the stalk and hope my mediocre casting skills don't completely abandon me at the wrong moment.
So how does one spot carp? My basic approach is simple...I scan the water, side to side and then back toward my body. I start looking pretty far out, usually around 100 feet and I slow down my scan as I get closer to my body. At distance, I am mainly looking for obvious things...tails, nervous water, etc. as I get closer I search for more detail...them I pick my eyes up and start back at 100 feet again.
The trick is that I am never looking for fish. Instead, I look for three very specific things, in order:
As I walk I look for any patch of water that is out of place in terms of color. In my water, this usually means a darker patch, but can also mean a gold color, a tan color, or the crescent line of a white mouth. Once I have spotted some color, I study it to determine shape. In general (especially at distance) I am looking for lines. Carp, are often linear in shape in the water...the line of the back and dorsal specifically can be a dead giveaway. If something has triggered my attention with both color and shape, I immediately stop, and watch for movement...either of the entire fish, or a tail etc. While number three seems pretty obvious, the amount of carp colored and shaped rocks in the Columbia is astounding...not to mention the occasional tire.
The entire concept of "looking for fish" seems really simple, and at times it is. The vast bulk of fish that I spot just simply appear...suddenly and big as the daylight from a spot where there was nothing one second before. Without these moments, carp on the fly wold be even more challenging. But invariably I find I see more fish, and even better targets when I stop "looking for fish" and start my countdown. I take the gifts when they come, but I hunt out the fish that are a little better at hiding.
Conditions were miserable. Cloud cover, high water, even a little rain made the fish tough to spot and the normally nearly imperceptible Columbia River takes were even tougher. Then the winds came...big winds. Targee was a great sport and we kept stalking and looking and only his considerable skill allowed a few fish to be put in the net, but no monsters. The big slabs of Columbia river gold eluded us, but it only takes one.
We slipped into a sheltered bay, mercifully out of the wind and the eerily dead calm water was a welcome relief from the whitecaps. The sun stayed hidden, and visibility was maybe a couple of feet. The bay looked fishy, but we simply couldn't see. Then I spotted a bit of nervous water, waist deep and just barely noticeable. I crept closer, the soft bottom masking my footfalls. At 30 feet all I could see was a mirror of clouds. I crept closer. At 20 feet the mirror was even more pronounced, but there was clearly a fish there. Based on the nervous water and the depth, it had to be tailing, and it had to be big. I crept closer. At 10 feet I could see a clear line of mud, but no visual of the fish. I took one more step, then stopped. The clouds persisted, the wind crashed through the trees, unable to disturb our bay and I stared. I willed the mirrored water to give up their secrets, and slowly...extremely slowly...a shape began to appear. At first it was just the tip of a tail, waving slowly under the surface. Then a line of the back, and the mass and bulk of a body. I stared, and I stared but the clouds won and I just couldn't see the head. I looked over what I could see, estimated size, and flipped the hybrid toward where I thought the head would be. I counted...one...two...three...four...five...and lifted the rod. Nothing. I dropped the flies back in, a little closer this time and counted...one...two...three...four...five. Then I lifted the rod and the big fish bucked and exploded, shattering the mirror and sprinting toward the whitecaps.
I can't wait! I will be there, but not as a competitor this year...going to hang out, talk carp and have a great time! Hope to see a bunch of you in Kennewick!
Makes me wish I lived near Knoxville. Word on the street is Carp Aficionado may be there...Celebrity attendees! Good luck to all, watch out for that Ty fellow...
Solo days this year have been infrequent. I pretend to grumble a bit about that and tease that my # of 20 lbers this year would be bigger if I wasn't sharing shots, but the simple truth is fishing alone hasn't been the same since Dad died. It has been almost a year now, and every time I find myself on the water alone I struggle. Quite simply, I lose focus and just wander. I look for carp, and cast to tailers, but it isn't the same.
I fished a spot dad knew well today, and as usual I could feel him with me. He was there as I stalked a fish, and I know he laughed with joy when the fish took the fly and cursed when the weedbeds cost me a big one. At first, having him there is a comfort and wonder. I am really not fishing alone when I can hear his words and listen to him tease me about a bad cast, but as the day wears on it gets harder. Honestly, I think I am just doing it wrong. Rather than simply knowing he is there, I am carrying him along, holding tight and not letting go and when alone on the river we both loved so well it is just...so...heavy. At the end of the day I am exhausted.
But I keep trying. I have faith that eventually I will have a solo day where instead of carrying dad with me and wearing myself out I will look to my left or right and see him there, walking along beside me. The weight and emptiness will be gone and dad and I will laugh about past takes missed and fish lost while we walk and look for more. Deep down, I know that he can't walk beside me until I let go and the weight I feel when on the water alone is something that I can simply set down. I am just not ready to yet.
Miss you dad.
Even the best laid plans can be waylaid by 30 mph winds. Adam and I had been trying to put together some time on the water all summer, and finally managed a day this past weekend. Everything fell into place, except the whitecaps and breaking waves.
There were a few fish around, but as usual when the waves are pounding, the fish were spread out and a little harder to find. The ones we did find were eating...cruising the shallow edges, marauding in the waves like pirates. This really is quite a sight, sneaking up on a gravel bar to see a dark black shape darting in and out of the waves, feeding off of the froth and confusion. Very exciting, until the 30 mph crosswind blows your cast 8 feet to the side. Presentation, so critical on the big C challenged us all day.
We did stick some fish...Adam hooked a half dozen or so, but they all came unbuttoned, none hung around for a photo. I managed to hang onto a decent number of fish, all taken on a hybrid with most of the takes being of the darting, slashing, wave surfing, mind blowing type that I only see when the whitecaps are around. Truthfully, I love these tough conditions. It really brings out the best in the carp and REQUIRES the best in the fisherman.
At the end of the day Adam and I were smiling and laughing despite our wind blown and sunburned faces. The best laid plans don't always turn out as intended, but when those plans involve a friend, a fly rod, and a river...they always turn out well.