Out of Bounds

Carp: A Love Story

Carp are like a butcher’s cut for fly fishing guides, a hanger steak of tight lines enjoyed on their days off

By Rob Breeding

Part 1: ignorance.

I was an impatient child. One morning, on a fishing trip to Big Bear Lake, in the mountains not too far from home, Dad motored our rented aluminum boat across the bay to his favorite spot. I don’t know why it was his favorite, but that’s almost always where we fished, off a point right across the bay from the marina.

We never caught squat.

As we headed toward another dismal day bobbing in the boat waiting for trout that never arrived, we came upon a large school of fish swimming near the surface. They were large, 3- to 5-pounders, distinctly golden in the clear water, with prominent large scales.

I recalled a flyer back at the marina. Coho salmon had recently been stocked in the lake, and fisheries biologists wanted to hear from anyone who caught one.

Dreading the moment we’d drop anchor and begin our long, fish-less slog, I seized on the school parting before the boat as my chance to derail Dad’s plan. 

“Salmon,” I shouted. “Let’s fish for them.” 

I nodded in the direction of the old man’s tackle box. It was a Waterloo, blueish green with a white handle. The box opened from the top, allowing three rows of lure trays to blossom out either side. The trays held a variety of fish catchers: Hula Poppers, Super Dupers, Litterbugs, a collection of spoons of every size and color and other hook-wielding stuff lost to time, or more precisely, the liquidation of Dad’s belongings by his wife after he died.

Between trips I’d go out in the garage and open that box to have a look. I was fascinated by the odd shapes and colors of the old lures. I imagined fishing with them and wondered what species might chomp down on one as it swam past. Surely not the stocker trout at the point. 

That tackle box was dank and musty, and my nostrils eagerly took in the funk of it when I flipped open the latch and splayed out those lure trays. The smell came from greasy plastic worms, the rotten rubber skirts of the Hula Poppers, a few slimy rags and a grime-covered Mitchell 300 spinning reel that left rust marks on the bottom of the Waterloo. A tangle of brittle mono snarled the reel’s spool.

These lures were alien, relics of fishing adventures I’d never known. The tackle box had belonged to Dad’s dad, who died in a car accident a year before I was born. The lures suggested Grandpa was a more serious fisherman than my father, but I can’t be sure. Dad didn’t talk about Grandpa too much. 

Though the Waterloo was always in the boat, the only gear Dad retrieved from it were pre-tied bait leaders and jars of salmon eggs. The jars leaked a bit, contributing to the Waterloo’s aroma therapy.

It was a moon shot, but I again nodded toward the blue-green tackle box. 

“Maybe there’s something in there that will catch ’em.”

My impatience was matched only by my ignorance. The fish were carp, of course.

“They aren’t salmon,” Dad said, somewhat sourly. 

He continued his mission to the point and another dismal day. There weren’t many fishing trips after that. I became an even more impatient teen, uninterested in fishing. Dad found a spot where he caught those stockers from shore, undistracted.

Big Bear has since become a bowfishing destination, and the old trash fish has taken on cult status in fly fishing circles. Carp are like a butcher’s cut for fly fishing guides, a hanger steak of tight lines enjoyed on their days off. The rough fish won’t be confused for a filet, but when a 10-pounder takes you into your backing, tender and buttery are the last things on your mind.

Next week: There’s nothing easy about carp fishing.

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