Fly fishing for carp is arguably the most accessible opportunity for anglers here in the Denver area, along the Front Range and in many other places around the country. You don’t even need a car. From neighborhood ponds, to local reservoirs, to the Denver South Platte, you can find carp almost anywhere. In fact, you might have a harder time finding a pond or lake around here without carp.
On top of that, fly fishing for carp gives you the opportunity to hook up with fish that can easily approach 20 pounds. Many anglers travel the globe for fish like that. Pursuing carp on the fly has increased in popularity in recent years. But they’re still an underdog fish, considering their accessibility, size and challenging nature.
To take a dive into the world of fly fishing for carp, we spoke with our friend Daryl Angler of Nervous Water Flies. Daryl is an Umpqua Signature Fly Tyer and carp fishing enthusiast. In case you missed it, go check out our recent video, where Daryl shows us how to tie the HVRT Carp Fly.
In speaking with Daryl, he had some excellent advice for anglers who are interested in pursuing carp on the fly…
WHY CARP ON THE FLY
There may be no other fish within 10 minutes of your house that’s as fun to catch on a fly. And there are definitely none bigger.
“The impact of showing someone that I can go out and catch a carp as long as my leg in the reservoir that’s 10 minutes from their house is eye opening to them,” Daryl said. “They see a fish that size and their first thought is that they need to book a trip to Mexico. Who thinks of a fish that large in a pond up the street? That’s the beauty of fly fishing for carp. They are the fish that’s overlooked.”
Daryl asked us, “Would you go after a fish that could blow up your reel up and take you into your backing?” You bet. “Would you go after a fish that will be difficult to catch and really challenge you?” Of course!
“Carp check all those boxes as anglers,” Daryl said. “But the minute you mention that it’s carp, the tone changes. People look at them differently than other fish. And I’m not here to change anyone’s perception on carp. But I would love to see them change their own opinions on carp.”
One of the great things about carp is that they are so accessible. Keep a rod in your car and hit a place on your way into work, on your lunch hour or on your way home.
“People always say, ‘wow, you fish every day,’ but I’m not fishing for four or five hours every day,” Daryl explained. “If I’m on the way into work and have an extra half hour, I know I can hit a pond and have a shot at getting a bent stick before I get into work.”
“When fishing for trout I never once had my heart beat out of my chest,” Daryl added. “Even dry fly eats, or sight fishing nymphs in clear water, I never had that feeling. But then going out and fishing for carp was different. Sure, it took me a month to figure it out and finally catch my first fish. But to approach a giant tailing fish and put a fly out there, my heart jumped out of my chest and my rod was shaking. It’s that exciting.”
According to Daryl, there’s a lot of unnecessary cloudiness surrounding carp on the fly. But he assured us that when you clear a lot of that away, it’s rather straightforward.
“Carp are a funny thing. I think there’s a lot of misdirected focus and energy on certain things around carp,” Daryl began. “One of them is how ‘smart’ they are. Look, I’ve got two thumbs and a brain. So it doesn’t matter what they know, I’m going to win. Two thumbs and a brain puts me eons ahead of any fish. So if I don’t get in my own way, I should be pretty successful.“
Yes, carp can be extremely spooky. You won’t catch fish every time you’re out. But that’s part of the fun.
“Cut yourself some slack,” Daryl said. “You’re going to make mistakes. Every ten times out, you’re going to fail eight or nine. And that’s just the reality of it. As you get started, know that it’s ok to fail. And when you do fail, be ready to pull out the why and how. So that next time you show up, you improve.”
According to Daryl, one of the hardest parts about trying to catch carp on the fly is learning to read the fish. For example, when people say that these fish are smart, they’re only saying that they have learned behaviors. Learn those behaviors and you’ll learn to catch carp on the fly.
“The fish’s ability to have a learned behavior pattern is what makes it a smart fish,” Daryl told us. “It’s still going to stick its nose in the mud and sample sticks and rocks. They’re not smart. But their ability to acquire a learned behavior based on repetition, that’s on us. We have to figure out when to present flies and when to leave them alone. When they see the same presentations and the same bugs day after day, they will learn to avoid certain things, and that’s on us.”
Learning to read their movements and understand when to present a fly to a carp is a big key to success. We’ll get into that more below when we ask Daryl about casting to carp. But as you get started, go into it with confidence. Even though it will take patience, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.
GEAR, FLIES AND RIGGING
Carp fishing is going to be different everywhere you go. But Daryl suggested that a safe range is to start with anywhere from a 6-weight to an 8-weight fly rod.
“I love fishing my 6-weight, but you can’t guarantee that it’s always going to be a medium to small-size fish eating your fly,” he told us. “When I started catching larger fish, I found that landing those fish humanely with a 6-weight was very difficult. So I usually use a 7-weight or 8-weight. I can pretty much do anything with my 7-weight, but when I’m specifically going for the big dogs, I bring my 8-weight.”
When it comes to leaders and tippet, Daryl suggested finding a system that works for you. Try different products and setups and find something that makes you feel confident. There’s a range of gear that’s going to allow you to be successful. And that’s where you can add your own personality to your approach.
“I typically use a 7-foot or 9-foot leader with the bottom two feet cut off and replaced with two feet of fluorocarbon tippet in the 10 to 12-pound range,” Daryl said. “Now that’s just me. I always have tippet on hand, ranging from 8 to 15 pounds. But I just use the 10 and the 12 the most often.”
“If I’m fishing dries, I’ll use the 9-foot leader with 8 pound fluorocarbon tippet,” he continued. “But I find it very advantageous to use the shorter 7-foot leader when I know that everything is going to be close to shore. And in most carp fishing situations, the fish are going to be within 10 or maybe 20 feet of the shore. In those situations where I can just dab the fly or use a pendulum swing to get the fly out, that 7-foot leader is ideal.”
When selecting flies, Daryl says to keep it simple and use what makes you feel confident. In fact, one of the reasons Daryl’s HVRT Carp Fly is so successful is because of that confidence factor. Most of us coming from the trout fishing world are familiar with the classic gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear. It’s a familiar bug.
“The HVRT is basically a Hare’s Ear that’s been converted for carp,” Daryl explained. “Folks are familiar with that bug and they know how to fish it, so they’re not as intimidated by having to tie on some whacky, non-real-life-looking carp fly.”
“My flies would compliment all those flies in a very good way, giving you a good range of weight and sink rate,” he said. “There are a lot of other solid patterns out there. But don’t overwhelm yourself with all the choices. Keep it simple and find a handful of flies that give you confidence.”
When attaching your fly to your tippet, Daryl reminded us to always use a non-slip loop knot rather than a clinch knot. The loop knot allows the fly to move more freely. For a quick tutorial on the non-slip loop knot, see a quick video here.
“Make sure to practice your knots and that your knots are solid!” Daryl emphasized. “The last thing you want is to finally hook a big carp and then lose it, only to discover a pigtail at the end of your leader.”
Daryl’s final piece of gear advice is to bring a large enough net.
“Most folks don’t have a big enough net to safely land these fish,” he said. “Most of us have a trout net, but that’s not going to get the job done. Get a big net with a big rubber basket. Give yourself a chance to net the fish humanely. I’m not a big fan of beaching these fish just because they’re carp. You wouldn’t beach a trout or a bass, so don’t beach a carp. So get a net that’s big enough to handle these fish.”
READING THE FISH
One of the most important parts of successfully fly fishing for carp is reading the fish. When you spot a fish, don’t just run out there and throw a fly. As Daryl explains, knowing when not to throw a fly at a carp is one of the most useful things you can learn.
“Usually the first sign of a feeding fish is when its head is down and its tail is up, so look for tails,” he explained. “When you see head down and tail up, you know that’s a happy fish and that it’s eating. All you have to do is sneak up and present a fly.”
Daryl added that sometimes, carp will intermittently put their heads down and then lift up. These fish will slowly move along the surface, go down and peck and then come back up and look around. They may not be eating as actively as the tailing fish, but they’re still looking for food.
“After that, the most important thing you can learn is what isn’t a feeding fish,” Daryl added. “For example, a fish that’s moving fast is not interested in eating. If I were walking down the street rather fast, you wouldn’t pick me out to ask for the time. I’m clearly in a hurry to get somewhere. You’d probably ask someone who appears more approachable to ask the time.”
Daryl says to think about a fish’s behavior in that way. A fish that’s moving fast doesn’t want to eat. It’s not interested in looking at your fly. When you present a fly to a fish that’s not interested, you’re only contributing to that learned behavior we mentioned above.
Daryl used another analogy to explain these different carp behaviors.
“The carp that’s moving fast is the person that parks at the mall outside the food court and walks through the food court to get where they’re going,” he said. “They want nothing to do with the food court. They’re just cruising through to get somewhere else. That fish wants nothing to do with your fly.”
“The fish that’s coming up and then going down and pecking, then coming up and going back down and pecking, that is the individual who doesn’t know what they want,” Daryl continued. “But they’re hungry. And they’re looking at all the different stalls along the food court. Maybe they’re just looking for something they want to eat.”
“Then, in the food court you have the people who are actually sitting down to eat. Those are the fish that are tailing. They are actively eating. So break down what you’re seeing in the water logically – as crazy as it sounds – to how we see things as humans. Hopefully that analogy will help you remember these things a little easier.”
PRESENTING THE FLY
“I’m not kidding here, but presenting a fly to a carp is the easiest part of this whole thing,” Daryl told us. “This is the part you can easily practice. If you present to a fish and you spook it, you immediately know you either need to be quieter or farther away. You’ll make those adjustments. Within the first three to five attempts, you’re going to figure out how to sneak up and make that presentation.”
When you approach the water, you’ll have a few different presentation options at your disposal. Daryl explained that you can use a pendulum swing, a drag and drop, or you might simply dab the fly out there. In some situations, you might be using a roll cast or even a normal cast. It all depends on where the fish are. In most cases, you’ll be finding those fish within 10 or 20 feet of the bank.
“When you see a fish, take a minute to observe its feeding pattern,” Daryl suggested. “Is it pecking and moving? Is it zig-zagging? Or is it just staying in one spot? If you see a fish and you present a fly right away without knowing what’s going on, that fish is likely to move and your fly isn’t going to land in the right spot.”
Daryl explained that once you establish what the fish is doing and how it’s moving, draw a circle around that fish. Imagine points six inches in front of the nose and six inches behind the tail and draw a circle around it.
“That area is what the fish is responsible for,” he said. “It’s relying on its lateral lines, smell, and all of its senses. If its head is in the mud, it’s using its lateral lines and its fins to make sure the rest of that circle stays clear. That circle is accounted for. Therefore, if you put a fly in that circle, even if you sneak it in, as soon as they realize it’s there, they are going to blast out of there. Because they are confident they’ve cleared that space. I’ve found that if you sneak one into that zone too close, you’re going to scare the crap out of them.”
“Remember that all fish are different,” Daryl continued. “Some fish will like it six inches in front of their nose and others like it two feet away where they can go investigate. No two fish are going to react exactly the same. So instead of stressing about trying to put your fly in a two-foot target that’s always moving, just observe how that fish is moving, where it’s moving and put that fly anywhere in the entire lake except that two foot circle around the fish. In my mind, that’s easy math. And it takes the pressure off.”
Daryl added that anytime you see two or more fish eating together, take advantage of that situation. When multiple fish are competing for calories, you can use that to your advantage. If something drops in the water that looks like food, who’s going to be the first to get it? One fish might not be in a hurry to go investigate. But two fish creates more urgency.
“No matter the situation though, when I observe a fish’s eating pattern, I’m usually looking to put the fly anywhere from a foot to two feet out in front of that fish,” Daryl added. “And of course you’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes you’ll drop it right on their nose. Are you going to spook them once in a while? Of course! That’s carp on the fly. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Sometimes I might stop for a half hour after work and not even see a fish. You just try the next spot or hit it the next day. Again, that easy access combined with the challenge is part of what makes fly fishing for carp so much fun.”
FIGHTING AND LANDING CARP
You’ve found feeding fish and you make a great presentation. What’s next?
“I’ll let my fly hit the water, lay my fly line down and in many cases, use my fly line-leader connection as my indicator,” Daryl told us. “The moment the tip of my fly line twitches, it’s game-on. As the fly is falling, just watch that line-leader connection for a twitch. That’s a great tactic when visibility is poor or whenever you can’t see the fish. Of course we’d love to be fishing perfectly clear water all the time. But sometimes you can’t see the take.”
Daryl advised us to use a short, compact strip set to set the hook. Of course when things get exciting, it can be hard to stay calm. But try not to overdo it. With your line hand, just bring the line tight. In most situations, that’s enough to set the hook.
“When fighting fish, I try to keep them within 20 feet,” Daryl continued. “When at all possible, I don’t let them get to my backing if I can’t help it. Because the farther that fish goes, the more dip you’ll have in your line. When that fish gets too far out, you’ll have some inevitable sag in your line. At that distance, it takes longer for you to feel when they make a move and longer for you to adjust.”
“So instead of letting them take a long run, I try and give them multiple controlled smaller runs,” he explained. “Let them go back and forth. Once they get 20 feet from me, then I’m going to tighten my drag and work to bring them back in. If they need to take another short run, let them do it. But the further they get out, the more chances they have to shake that hook.”
Landing big fish is always easier with two people. If you have someone to help you net the fish, you’re in a much better position. If you’re on your own, make sure you have a long-handled net with a big basket, as we mentioned above.
Daryl offered one final analogy for anglers who are interested in fly fishing for carp.
“If you’re going to get into carp on the fly, look at it like pizza,” he said. “Everyone getting started is going to have dough, sauce and cheese. After that, whatever you decide to make and put on your pizza is up to you. That’s your own personal journey and approach to fly fishing for carp. Remember not to overcomplicate it. My pizza may have different toppings on it than yours, but at the end of the day, it’s still pizza. Ten different anglers might have ten different ways of fly fishing for carp, but we can all be successful because we’ve found our own ways to do it. Don’t get trapped into particular ways of doing things. Don’t think there’s one way that you have to do it.”
Daryl also reminded us that it’s not a competition. Fish when you can. Enjoy the whole process without the need to compare yourself to anyone else.
“There’s a little pond ten minutes from where I work that is full of little five to ten pound carp,” Daryl added. “That pond has been great for me in seasons when I’m busy and can’t get out to fish otherwise. Whether I have a crap-ton of work to do around the house, be a dad, be a husband or whatever, I can still get out for 30 minutes over my lunch hour. If all I did was trout fishing, I wouldn’t have the chance to fish most days. But carp allows me to get out and actually cast to some fish on a regular basis. Always keep a rod in your car. When you get the opportunity, pull over and see if you can find some tails.”
“Nearly every pond in this damn state is going to have carp,” Daryl concluded. “There’s no need to ask anyone for their spot. Get out there on your local ponds and find fish. A big part of the fun is finding these little spots. Have fun, chase some fish and make mistakes. Mistakes mean progress. And you never know what a 20-minute stop and your local pond can bring. One of these days, you’ll find yourself on the other end of a 15-pound fish. A lot of people travel internationally to catch fish like that. And you did it in a quick stop before or after work. There’s a lot of fun to be had out there!”
We’d like to extend a big thanks to Daryl for spending time with us, and sharing his insights and passion for carp on the fly. If you need help getting started or if you have further questions, please ask us! Visit us at the fly shop in Littleton or give us a call at 303-794-1104. We’d love to help you get out there and start fishing for carp on the fly.