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.