Carp were once considered a trash fish by fly anglers and left to be caught by conventional carp anglers but then everything changed.
I’m not sure what made carp fly fishing take off in the first instance, maybe a hot summer pushed trout anglers to scratch their itch by chasing carp on the fly until the water cooled down enough for trout again? Or perhaps the lure of catching a 40 lbs plus freshwater fish on the fly was enough to lure anyone to fly fish for carp.
For whatever reason in started, carp fly fishing has taken off, and now pretty much every fly fisherman wants to catch a carp on the fly, but it’s not that easy. Carp are pretty smart fish, and very spooky so you’ll need to fish for them a little differently than trout, all of which is covered in this ultimate guide to fly fishing for carp.
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What species of carp should you target when fly fishing?
There are five main species of carp found in the US and of the five species, there are two species that are usually targeted on the fly – grass carp and common carp.
Grass carp can grow up to 100 lbs and to 60 inches in length and feed mailing on aquatic plants, hence the name. The common carp also grows up to 100 lbs but will only hit around 40 inches in length.
Considering how big these fish get, you can see what fly fishing carp is no joke. If you managed to hook into a big carp of 40 lb plus, it’s going to take you and your fly gear for a serious ride.
Where should you target carp on the fly?
Carp are found pretty much in all bodies of water where the water is warm enough which includes the lower reaches of streams and trout rivers, most lakes and ponds, and in the slower and slack waters of creeks too.
When it comes to fly fishing for carp, you can’t just go carp fishing in any lake or river that has carp in it. To catch carp on a fly you’re going to need to see the fish first, so it’s like sight fishing for bonefish.
The best areas to catch carp is to go on fly fishing saltwater flats, along the edges that carp like to patrol and clear water so you spot carp with ease. Places like Lake Michigan or the South Platte River in Colorado are excellent places to catch a carp on fly.
What time of year is best for carp fly fishing?
Unlike bonefish, carp do not spend all year sitting in the shallows feeding, they move into deeper water when the water gets either too hot or too cold for them.
Luckily, water temperatures rarely get too hot for carp so your best chances of seeing carp feeding in the shallows are between mid-spring to early fall when water temperatures are up and they are looking for their primary food source along the edge of lakes and rivers.
Which carp are worth casting a fly to?
Once you have worked out where and when it’s best to carp fishing with your fly rod, it’s time to start to learn which carp that you see, and you will see them, are worthing casting to and this done by observing their behavior.
- If you see carp splashing on the surface, they are not feeding carp looking for food, they are most likely spawning, so don’t bother making a cast at them
- When you a group of carp, or a single fish moving quickly, they are not looking for food so don’t cast to them either
- Sunbathing carp that sit near the surface to warm up will sometimes take a fly but your presentation needs to be perfect and stealthy
- A group of carp or a single fish moving slowly are worthing throwing a cast to
- Tailing carp with their heads down and tails up (just like bonefish) are your best chance as the fish are feeding heavily, make sure to cast at them
What fly gear is best for carp fishing?
Your trout gear isn’t going to cut it when it comes to carp. They are far too strong and powerful for a trout rod, reel, and leader, so you’re going to need something a little heavier.
What is the best fly rod for fly fishing carp?
When targeting carp you’re going to want to use at a minimum a 6 weight rod but this is only if you’re catching smaller fish below 10lbs say in the rivers of Colorado.
If you want to go for bigger carp of the 20 lbs plus range, you’re going to need a rod with more lifting power and something like an 8 weight rod is best.
Make sure to pick a rod that you enjoy casting and can nail your presentations with as carp are spooky fish and you’ll need your line and flies to land delicately.
You can also see our posts below for more selection of fly rod weights:
- Best 3 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 4 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 5 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 6 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 7 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 8 Weight Fly Rod
Do you need a serious fly reel for carp?
When you hook a carp it is going to make a long first run and take you into your backing without a doubt. They are much stronger fish than a trout and you will want to have a reel with a solid fly reel drag system that you can apply pressure with, similar to the drag you’d use in saltwater when going for bonefish.
You should also make sure you can fit a minimum of 100 yards of backing line onto your reel, and 200 yards is better.
Check out our posts below for more selection of fly reels:
- Best 3 Weight Fly Reels
- Best 4 Weight Fly Reels
- Best 5 Weight Fly Reels
- Best 6 Weight Fly Reels
- Best 7 Weight Fly Reels
- Best 8 Weight Fly Reels
What fly line is best for carp?
The fly line you’ll need for carp isn’t anything special just make sure it’s a weight-forward floating line that matches your rod and casts well. You’ll be casting flies at spooky fish that feed in the shallows, so make sure that line floats well.
What size and length should my leader be for carp?
Carp are smart and spooky fish but they are also pretty big so you don’t want to go to light on your leader. You should start with about 9 feet of tapered leader and then add 3 feet of 3x tippet to the end of it, so around 10 lb tippet. If you get refusals from fish, lengthen your leader and go up to 4x to see if it makes a difference.
See our post here on How to Make A Tapered Leader for a more in depth instruction.
What fly patterns do I need for carp?
Many anglers take to fly tying to create specialist carp flies to match the food sources carp prefer but a lot of carp patterns are actually quite similar to the flies you would use for trout.
Picking the right fly pattern for carp is all about matching the hatch and carp generally feed off the bottom or sub-surface which means a pattern that imitates a nymph, crayfish, or a worm is a great choice.
Carp will also eat off the surface from time to time, taking spinner mayflies, ants, hoppers, beetles, and even mulberries off the top of the water, but most of the time, they will be feeding off the bottom so it’s more important to have a good selection of patterns that sink but in different weights as they eat at different parts of the water column.
You should have the same fly pattern in unweighted, weighted, and heavyweight options. Unweighted flies are perfect for fish sitting near the surface, while weighted flies with a bead chain are will sit mid-water or on or near the bottom which is perfect when fish are tailing.
Heavily weighted flies with brass or tungsten are for those times when you need to get the fly to the bottom quickly in 5-6 feet of water.
Flies you should have in your box are Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Clouser Swimming nymph, wooly bugger, san juan worm, leech patterns, dragonfly nymphs, scuds, and crawfish, plus a mulberry fly or two. They prefer colors like olive, brown, rusty, orange, and black too.
Tactics For Fly Fishing For Carp
Presentation is key when fishing for carp as these fish are spooky and smart. Any kind of noise, or if you line a fish will see it rushing off to another part of the lake or river. They really are a bit like freshwater bonefish in how subtle you need to be, how spooky they are, and how you fish for them.
Cast close to the fish
For a carp to see the fly it’s going to need to be within 3 feet of the fish. You will need to cast your fly in front of the fish so as not to line and spook it. Then you need to let the fly drop down and it’s often during the drop that the fish will follow the fly and eat it.
Drag And Drop
A popular method when fishing for carp with a fly is to drag and drop. This means casting when ahead of the fish and then stripping in until it’s within the feeding zone of the carp and then letting the fly drop, hoping for a take.
Static Dry Flies
If you see a fish feeding on the surface it might be time to whip out the dry flies. You’ll need to cast your fly near to a feeding fish and then leave it and slowly retrieve it just to stay in contact with the fly.
You can check out our post on the Best Fly Box for Dry Flies and Nymphs here.
When fishing a mulberry fly you actually want to make a plopping sound when the fly hits the water, as this is a sure signal to a fish that the mulberry has fallen off the tree. Cast close to fish that are eating off the surface and expect a quick take if the plop works.
When you’re going after carp in a river, you can nymph just like you would for trout as long as there is enough current moving, and it can work with dry flies too. You might not hook a carp every time as pretty much all species of fish in rivers eat nymphs, so be prepared for a mixed bag.
How to set the hook with carp
When a carp does finally decide to take your fly, it’s best to set the hook with a strip instead of lifting your rod. Carp have soft mouths and lifting your rod can pull the fly out of their mouth quite easily.
It’s actually quite hard to know if a fish has eaten as the take can be very subtle, especially on the drop, so if you feel any kind of tension then be sure to set and see if you connect. If you miss a fish, don’t pull your fly out of the water, let it drop, and go again, often they will come back.
How to tie a mulberry fly?
Tying a mulberry fly is super easy if you have the fly tying gear at home already. Mulberry flies are usually tied from spun deer hair but you can even use things like foam which allows you to shape the fly into something that looks as realistic as possible.
If you don’t have a fly tying vise or a fly tying bobbin at home you can tie bandit mulberry fly on the water. All you need is a medium craft pom-pom that’s purple and some super glue. First, thread the pom-pom onto your hook, then add some super glue to the shank and slide up the pom-pom to the eye, job done.
What is the best fly to catch carp?
There isn’t a single best fly for carp it all depends on where and when you’re fishing and then you’ll need to match the hatch and imitate what the carp are gorging on, just like every kind of fly fishing.
If you’re going to a lake with a mulberry tree next to it, and mulberries are in season, chances are that a mulberry fly will work best. As long as you have a range of flies in your box, particularly the ones mentioned above, then you’ll have the right pattern for most days.