Sight Fishing For Carp

Carp are biting everywhere, and the bite just turned on.

David Cannon | July 1, 2009

Buck Ernst, of Comer, shows off a Savannah River carp landed on a fly. Last month the action was pretty slow, but by July the carp should be active and ready to bite.

Many anglers will save their nickels and dimes all year for the chance to sight fish for tailing redfish or bonefish on flats in saltwater. It’s a complete rush to find fish feeding in water so shallow their backs are exposed. What’s more, both of these species are challenging to catch, can grow to some decent sizes and are excellent fighters.

So why is it that another fish that shares all of these same characteristics is labeled a “trash fish?” The common carp is comparable to both of these highly sought after gamefish, and what’s even better is that no matter where you live in Georgia, you’re probably not far from a carp fishery.

A friend that was featured in the “Dark-Thirty Trout” story in the June issue of GON, Rex Gudgel, recently introduced me to an avid carp fisherman, Buck Ernst, of Comer. Buck is a former champion bull rider and a contractor by trade. But make no mistake about it; Buck lives to chase fish. And he’s not picky about what he’s pursuing. It just has to be a little bit of a challenge and a fish that’ll bend a rod.

When summer gets into full swing, Buck can be found on either side of the Hartwell Dam near the town of Hartwell, either on flats at Lake Hartwell or in backwater areas on the Savannah River below the dam. And when he’s there, he’s got one thing on his mind — carp.

When we were setting up a trip to fish in mid-June, Buck told me we were probably a little early for carp, but by the time the July GON is in mailboxes and on the shelves, the fish should be really active.

A few days before our trip, Buck and Rex scouted out the area in preparation and only saw two carp in a few hours. So when Buck, Rex and I met on an early Saturday morning at the Big Oak Park boat ramp, plans had changed.

“We can hit the lake and check out some of these flats, but we may not catch a thing,” Buck said. “Or, we can put the boat in below the dam, and we’ll probably see some fish on the flats in the Savannah River.”

He talked about the only two carp they saw a few days prior and said the only reason they saw them was because they went right over them with the boat. All of the recent rains had the water murky, which can make sight fishing impossible.

As any sane people would, we chose the spot where Buck felt we would see more fish. So, we hopped in Buck’s truck and drove a few short miles to the Smith-McGee boat ramp on the Savannah and launched the boat.

After checking out a few flats and finding no fish, Buck said it just probably wasn’t warm enough yet for these fish to feel the need to move out of the main river and onto the flats. So we decided to cruise downstream a bit in search of new water.

As we were cruising, we started seeing a few fish breaking the surface. We got closer, and we discovered they were carp sucking algae out of the surface film, swimming with their heads completely out of the water.

Rex Gudgel uses a push pole to silently direct a skiff across the carp flats on the Savannah River.

At this point, the sun was starting to get high in the sky, and there was no breeze. It only took us spooking a few fish with casts to realize this was going to be some technical fishing, at least until a breeze picked up. And, though the plan was to stick to the spinning gear and artificials like a PowerBait PowerCraw in pumpkin seed and chartreuse that day, there was no hesitation to pull out the fly rod as conditions warranted as much stealth and delicacy as possible.

“One great thing about these fish,” Rex said, “is you can go after them multiple ways. You can throw the spinning rod and artificials for them, you can use doughballs when sight fishing isn’t possible, or you can even catch them on the fly when they’re too spooky to fish for any other way.”

With Rex on the poling platform of his 17-foot flats skiff, Buck started casting to the carp feeding on the surface. Buck was fishing with an eight-weight fly rod with floating line, an 8-foot leader tapered to 8-lb. test and a fly called a Rubber-Legged Dragon that was black in color and had bead-chain eyes to sink it a bit.

After a few fish showed interest but wouldn’t commit, Rex found a bonefish fly that was green and white and, because of its silhouette and color, could possibly pose as some of the vegetation on which the carp were feeding. Buck tied it on and cast it to a cruising fish. The fish showed the same initial interest as the others that had refused earlier, only this one kept coming.

Before we knew it, the fish bolted toward the fly, then sucked it in. Buck raised his rod and yelled, “There he is!”

“All right, Buck!” Rex shouted.

“These fish are so much like redfish,” Buck said as he fought the carp. “They don’t make long, blistering runs like a bonefish. They fight like bulldogs. They’re just strong fish that’ll make shorter, really strong runs.”

As the fight came to the end and the fish started making those last few struggles closer and closer to the boat, Rex said, “They even look like redfish in the water. They’ve got that big head and their body has that torpedo shape just like a redfish.”

After a great fight, a solid 4-lb. carp was brought to hand. Then Buck said something that made it obvious why carp anglers get so addicted to it.

“We’ll get on some bigger ones,” he said.

For anglers going after most freshwater fish, a 4-pounder is pretty nice. But when your quarry is a fish that can easily make it to the 20-lb. mark, a 4-pounder is just run-of-the-mill.

Once a few photos were taken and the fish was released, Buck handed me the rod and said, “Alright David, it’s your turn.”

The first two or three fish I cast to were spooked by some less-than-stellar casts and took off. Then, a fish moved up from the main channel of the river and up to a sandbar less than 30 feet from our boat. This fish was enormous. It was about 3 1/2 feet long and probably a foot wide.

“Oh my… that fish is huge!” Buck said. “Put it about 5 feet in front of him and let him find it.”

On my first and only cast to this monster carp, which looked like it could have been the subject of the TV show “River Monsters,” I cast about 10 feet too far, and the fly line went right over his head. And for that old pro, it was all he needed to know that it wasn’t a good time to eat. Just as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared.

“I’ll probably have nightmares about that terrible cast tonight,” I said.

“Yeah,” Buck agreed with a smile, “that one’s going to stick with you for a while.”

After casting to a few more fish on the main arm of the river with no success, Buck suggested we explore behind some islands on the river.

“Let’s head to those flats over there,” he said, pointing to a cut between two islands.

It was about 11 a.m., and Buck said the water might have heated up enough by then to encourage some carp to move onto the flats in search of food.We used the trolling motor to get as far onto the flats as possible, then it became too shallow. So, Rex hopped up on the poling platform and began skillfully pushing us along. We explored the north end of a flat on the east side of the river first but only saw one carp. In fact, this carp was hunkered down in some algae and wasn’t moving until Rex eased his push pole over and gave it a bump in the tail.

We turned around and began working the flat south of the cut where we entered and immediately began seeing fish. Buck clipped off the green and white fly and tied on a tan crawfish fly pattern.

“If the fish are feeding on these mud flats,” Buck said, “I like to tie on something that is close to the color of the bottom we’re fishing over.”

The sun was high overhead, but there were just enough thin clouds to put a little bit of a reflection on the water.

“If there are any clouds overhead, it makes it really difficult to see these fish before they see you,” Buck said.

Sure enough, we would see fish at about the same time they would spot us, and they would take off as soon as I started to cast. We assumed the fish could see the moving rod and know something wasn’t right.

Meanwhile, Buck picked up a spinning rod and began scouting with a crawfish imitation, but he was spooking fish, as well.

After scaring off about 20 fish, Rex spotted a few from his high vantage point on the poling platform. These carp were on the east bank of the flat and were cruising about 65 or 70 feet away from us.

“Make a long cast to those fish over there,” Rex instructed.

I did as Rex said and he said, “Oh, that one’s coming toward it.”

“Let the fly just sit there for a minute,” Buck said.

After letting it sit for a few seconds, Buck said, “Okay, now just barely bump it.”

I did, and the next thing I knew, the line was being pulled off of the reel and the rod had a deep bend in it. After about five strong minutes of fighting, my first carp on the fly rod was brought to the boat. As much of a bad rap as these fish get, that one fish made me a believer that these carp aren’t so common.

After casting to a few more carp with no takers, we headed back to the main part of the river and motored downstream to a large flat that was right in the middle of the river’s corridor and only about a foot deep.

As we came up onto the flat, Rex poked it with the push pole and said, “That’s a pretty solid bottom.” Before we knew it, Rex had a rod strung up and was in the water wading the flat. I wasn’t far behind but hunted the opposite end of the flat while Buck continued to troll around the edge of the flat in search of fish.

On one edge of the flat, Rex hooked a nice largemouth, but it quickly spit the hook. I started moving toward him and found myself wading toward a school of about 50 or 60 carp that were spread out along the edge of the flat and the channel feeding. I was able to get good shots at most of these fish that were either traveling alone, in pairs or in threes, but couldn’t get any of them to eat. It sure was heart pounding, though, having that many fish ease up to the fly and look like they were interested.

“Come back a month from now when this water’s warmer,” Buck said, “and these fish will be way more active.”

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