Spawning Carp On A Fly Rod

Widely known as a trash fish, the common carp is gaining respect as a game species among fly anglers.

Nick Carter | May 1, 2007

This 11 1/2-lb. carp put up quite a fight on a fly rod.

Nine times out of 10, when someone reels in a carp in the state of Georgia, the landing is followed by the phrase, “Aw, it’s just a (insert expletive here) dirty ol’ carp.”

But, there is a small contingent of anglers in the state who hold this hearty invasive in high esteem. They value the carp for its size and its ability to rip line off of a spool. They defend it tenaciously, when prompted, likening it to other non-natives that have taken hold in the region — like striped bass, rainbow trout and brown trout.

These guys place the common carp on a pedestal, comparing their methods to those who chase bonefish on the coastal flats in the islands. And, their methods are surprisingly similar, right down to the gear they use and the flies they throw. Yep, that’s right, they go sight fishing for carp on the fly.

This measly trash fish is “movin’ on up,” and it’s skipped over the bass-boat set to barge its ugly snout right into the world of cigars, fine scotch, high-dollar waders and bamboo fly rods. Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the carp is certainly gaining respect as a game species.

Mark Ellis and Jeff Gillespie of Atlanta are two die-hard carp fishermen — on the water at the crack of dawn poling Mark’s custom-built canoe through the mudflats of the Chattahoochee’s oxbows. They eagerly await the spring and early summer carp spawn, and look down their noses at the dainty little stocked trout that share the river with these bottom-feeding brutes.

“I’ve been fishing for trout all my life,” Jeff said. “I was looking for a challenge, and this is it. A carp will fight you all the way to the boat, into the boat and back out of the boat. Anybody that’s ever fished for bonefish, I’m surprised they don’t fish for carp.”

“It’s the same; it’s almost identical,” Mark added. “You’re looking for the same things and fishing the same flies.”

Jeff and Mark call Lawyer’s Lake, a shallow Chattahoochee mudhole at Azalea Park above Morgan Falls Dam, their home water. There is a string of three or four little oxbows in that section of river, but they also fish ponds around the city. They said anywhere there are carp and mudflats, the fish can be caught on artificials if conditions are right. They look for water temperatures in the high 50s and low 60s, with air temperatures in the 80s. When conditions are perfect, hundreds of carp can be seen finning around in less than two feet of water at Lawyer’s Lake.

“You go up on those flats, and you can smell it if they’re in,” Jeff said. “It smells like fish.”

Groups of smaller males will pester the large females, bumping them, jumping and making a big commotion in the water, but these are not the fish Jeff and Mark target. They are looking for fish that are feeding voraciously, making up for all the energy spent during the spawn.

“You look for the ones that are hoovering,” Mark said. “You look for mud billows in the water. The fish are sucking up mud and pushing it back out, looking for food.”

When a carp is “hoovering,” it’s hungry and will eat just about anything that catches its attention and looks, feels or smells edible. But they are not easy to catch on artificials. They spook easily and notice if something is out of the ordinary. Jeff called it hunting for  fish and said anyone that hunts will understand the analogy.

“You want to cast way past ’em because that lets the fly get down to the bottom. Then you bring it back to ’em and pull it past them,” Mark said. “Make it look like an insect trying to escape, coming up from the bottom — not like something falling out of the sky.”

The fly selection is pretty much limited to large, heavily weighted nymphs or streamers, although a carp will take a dry fly occasionally if there is a massive hatch coming off. Bonefish flies like Charlies in muted colors work well, and carp also can be caught on a size 10 Woolly Bugger in either black or brown. For spinfishing, Mark said a small, crawfish-pattern plug or Texas-rigged rubber worm, cut down to about 4 inches, will draw bites when dragged through the mud across the bottom.

Mark, a fly-tying instructor who has an online book of his favorite flies, has developed a pattern specifically for carp fishing. He calls it Ellis’ Hook-Up Nymph. It’s essentially a black flashback Hare’s Ear nymph tied on a size 8 or 10 hook, with a bead head and rubber legs. There are two small pieces of heavy monofilament projecting from what would normally be the fly’s back to make the hook sit with the point facing up.

The Ellis’ Hook-Up Nymph is a fly Mark designed for carp fishing. It is similar to a typical Hare’s Ear Nymph, except this fly rides higher up in the water.

The shape, toughness and sensitivity of a carp’s mouth has a lot to do with fly selection. A very sharp hook is a necessity, and one that rides in the water with its point facing up usually serves for better hook sets. With all the nerve endings in a carp’s mouth, Mark said it can feel the rubber legs on a fly. He has noticed that he gets more bites and the fish hold onto a fly longer when it has rubber legs.

Because of the spooky nature of the fish, a long, 9- to 12-foot leader of 3x fluorocarbon, equivalent to 6-lb. test line, is necessary for presenting the fly without spooking the fish when the fly line falls on the water. For the same reason, Mark and Jeff like to make long, 40- to 45-foot casts to an area the size of a garbage can just beyond the feeding fish.

“As many fish as we catch, we probably miss 80 percent of the ones we go after,” Mark said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll blow it sometimes.”

“This fishing will humble you real quick,” Jeff added.

After having carp repeatedly whip him on a 5-weight fly rod, Mark has switched to a 6-weight, which is comparable to a medium- to heavy-action bass rod. He said he needed a little more backbone to handle the size and power of a carp. Jeff fishes a heavier 7-weight because it is stout enough to handle the big fish, and allows him to make long, accurate casts more easily.

Typically, they don’t catch fish that weigh less than about 4 pounds, and the average fish weighs about 5 pounds. The heaviest fish Mark has landed at Lawyer’s Lake weighed in at a whopping 20 pounds. Mark and Jeff have both battled fish about that size or bigger, but it’s very challenging to land a fish that size on 6-lb. test.

“Where else are you gonna go and what are you gonna fish for in freshwater that’s that big and will take a fly?” Mark asked.

That may be the best thing about carp fishing. Because of their hearty nature, carp are everywhere and just about anyone can find a good, nearby carp hole. If you can get past the stigma of stinky, dirty old carp, there is a wealth of heavy, hard-fighting game fish out there ready to take a lure.

You can find them on the “Hooch,” but why chase fish that are already being pressured. They’re in most major bodies of water in Georgia. Keep an eye on your local mudhole, and when you see the carp “hoovering” in the shallows, they’re ripe for the picking.

“On the one hand, it’s good that they get a bad rap because there’s nobody out there fishing for ’em. On the other hand, it’s kind of discouraging because of the way people view them,” Mark said. “They’re in the same water as trout, and they’re eating the same things as the other fish, yet people call them disgusting. It’s not like they’re out there eating tin cans. They are able to survive in dirty water where nothing else survives, so they are associated with dirty, disgusting water, and it’s just because they’re so hearty.”

Jeff took his argument a step further — maybe a step too far.

“They’re actually kind of pretty when you think about it. Well, their heads are kind of ugly, but the rest of them can be pretty. They can have great color on their tails,” Jeff said. Moving past the arguments on the aesthetics of a common carp, these brutes probably deserve to be thought of as a game fish. They do take bait other than a doughball, and they can make a drag scream for mercy.

After having the opportunity to battle one, I might come to consider myself a carp convert — as long as no one tries to convince me they are good eatin’.

Visit to get a PDF copy of Mark’s book of flies “The Ellis Index, Book I ‘Enhanced Basics.’”


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