Long disregarded as a trash fish by anglers in this country, carp, an invasive non-native, is slowly earning the respect of a wide range of anglers, including bow and fly fishers.
A friend who guides in Wyoming has an Instagram feed filled with photos of fly-caught carp, which he calls “poop” fish. He uses a pole boat to stalk carp in shallow ponds where he sight casts to cruising fish.
This flats fishing is made even more difficult because of a unique adaptation of carp. Modified bones in carp vertebrae grow to connect the swim bladder with the fish’s inner ear. The swim bladder functions as a kind of amplifier so it can “hear” sounds as well as sense vibrations in the water.
Cruising poop fish are quite finicky, and that seems to be part of the appeal. They require gentle presentations usually with small subsurface flies. The fun ensues when a carp wraps that fleshy suction cup of a mouth around your bug and hauls butt.
Unfairly written off as a gamefish, carp are scorned as table fare as well. The common carp has oily, darker flesh, probably a little too fishy for American tastes.
That contempt isn’t shared in the species’ native range across Europe and Asia, however. Carp aquaculture began in China more than 2,400 years ago and close to 25 million tons of fish are raised each year. Carp are also a popular food fish in central and eastern Europe.
In England, recreational and competitive carp fishing is a major sport. All carp are rather odd-looking fish, sort of fat and bulbous, but especially the larger fish. One famous British carp, Heather the Leather, weighed 52 pounds and was probably caught more than 75 times. Leather carp are oddly attractive fish, scaleless and bulgy in all the wrong places.
Heather was found dead in 2010, when she was estimated to be more than 40 years old.
Mirror carp are another odd but popular sport fish. The fish have scales, but only in spots, and where they are present, the scales are huge, the size of playing cards. Mirrors grow to 60 pounds, and are closely related to the common carp most widespread here.
Carp were scattered across the United States, stocked indiscriminately at a time when biologists didn’t pay much attention to the unintended consequences of moving fish around. I suppose we had to first become aware of these unintended consequences before we could start fretting about them.
But move carp about we did, and these especially hardy fish, which are capable of surviving in oxygen-free water, are now found everywhere. It was probably bow anglers who first took advantage of this nuisance fish, likely due to the carp’s habit of cruising on the surface in large schools.
Bow anglers shoot from elaborate rigs with platforms that extend from the front of the boat. Where night fishing is allowed, the setup includes floodlights to illuminate carp on their nightly prowls.
Fly fishing for carp is more recent. The fish are plentiful and fishable at times river trout fishing is in the doldrums, and carp fight hard, so it’s no surprise someone figured it out.
I took my first, unsuccessful carp fishing trip recently. I had planned to fish the Big Horn River for trout, but forgot my wading gear so I drove to Yellowtail Reservoir instead. Okabeh Marina is in a steep canyon so there’s limited shore access. I did find a few schools of carp cruising about the launch ramp, and fruitlessly tossed nymphs and even a dry fly at them. They weren’t interested, and as the afternoon wore on, returning boaters crowded the ramp to the point it really wasn’t pleasant or safe to keep fishing.
I’ve long scorned carp, but I feel a new obsession coming on.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.