Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Top 10 Tips for Fly Fishing for Winter Carp

Written by Brian P. Shepherd

Roger Daltry of The Who famously sang "there ain't no cure for the summer time blues."  Well, I would argue that there is: fly fishing for carp.  But what about the blues that come about during the doldrums of winter?  Fly fishing for carp in the winter time can be as rewarding as fly fishing for carp in the warmer seasons (cold fingers not withstanding).  Carp, just like any species of fish, need to eat each day to live.  While they may be slightly more lethargic that at other times of the year, carp are opportunistic feeders so a dead-on presentation of the right fly pattern will pay dividends.

Assuming you do not need further convincing about why you should target carp in the winter, here are my top 10 tips for making those cold outings successful and to ensure you do not regret foregoing a more aesthetically pleasing quarry.

1. Seek out rivers and streams that have a fairly consistent flow rate.  Consistent flows help keep the water from icing up and of course keep the food sources moving down the conveyor belt. The Denver South Platte is a first choice here but the Denver Metro area has any number of canals, small creeks flowing into lakes, and agricultural drainage ditches which, believe it or not, hold carp.

Deep sections of creeks under plunge pools are great winter
hang-outs for carp.
2. Look for deeper plunge pools or deep pools and tail outs.  Not so different from what you might do for trout, huh?

3. Low and slow is the name of the game.  Carp never seem to be in much of a hurry when feeding on a mud flat or at the bottom of a plunge pool so your patience must be at an all time high and often you need to resist the urge to move your fly to get their attention.  In winter, carp are agonizingly slow, even when on the feed.  Get your fly down deep and leave it there.  As a fish moves on your fly, you likely need to wait a bit longer before setting the hook.  General rule, if it looks like a carp has moved on your fly don't be too quick to set the hook as he may just be hovering over it deciding whether it is worth his time.  Unless you are certain he has eaten it, I recommend slowly raising the rod tip and once you encounter resistance set the hook.

4. Undercover ops is standard operating procedure.  Given the angle of the earth relative to the sun in winter, you will cast long shadows (of course the only thing you want to cast is your carp fly).  Any carp angler knows all too well that an errant shadow can torpedo an otherwise perfect opportunity to target to a feeding carp. Utilize any cover you can to avoid being seen or throwing a shadow on the water.  Also, flows will likely be low and therefore the water may be quite clear.  All the more reason to operate under cover.

Dress for the occasion - though the red stripe on the shorts is optional.
5. Match the hatch.  Wait a second, I thought we were chasing carp, not targeting picky trout who cannot make up their mind between a size 26 or size 28 top secret midge (my favorite trout pattern by the way).  Keep in mind that in winter, crawdads go into hibernation and carp may not be used to seeing them tumbling through the water column so your backstabbers may not be the ideal fly for winter carp (though crawdad patterns can certainly lead to success - see next tip).  Given that carp are opportunistic, they will target midge larva, pupa, and emergers just like trout. You may even get a hatch or two of tiny blue wing olives if the conditions are right.  In many streams, caddis pupa and stonefly nymphs are also on the menu for carp.  Whatever the case, try some soft hackle hares ears, red chironomid pupa patterns, or little brown stonefly nymph patterns.  Add some weight and throw on an indicator if it helps.  You will be pleased.

If you don't catch any carp, you can always collect red chironomids and bring them home for observation...because that is something only a fly angler would do.

Carp will flush crawdads out of their winter hideouts and
getting some much-needed protein.
6. Find undercut banks and ledges just beyond the plunge pools.  The constant churn from plunge pools may help erode some of the substrate underneath rocks or along the banks.  Carp will target these areas as potential places to dig up some creatures that otherwise thought they could live in peace for a few months.  This is where smaller crawdad style patterns such as the backstabber may come in handy as carp may flush these little guys out of their winter hibernation areas.  You will likely see a lot of tails sticking out from under the ledge, but wait for them to poke their heads out occasionally and be prepared to immediately execute your best suspended dap presentation.

You never know what will be the hot pattern in the cold winter waters.  Come prepared with a variety of tried-and-true carp patterns such as backstabbers, hares ears, and soft-hackle style nymphs.

7. Present yourself (and your fly) well.  Presentation is key in winter as much as it is in the warmer months.  With the slower flows and less turbid water, you need to take care not to startle the carp when presenting the fly.  So dropping the bug on a carp's head is not in your best interest.  When up close, you will want to do a suspended dap presentation.  With lighter flies such as soft hackles, the fly will sink slowly and likely be less alarming.  If the water is clear, he will see it.  Even so, give yourself a foot of space between the carp and where the fly lands.  If using heavier nymphs or depth-charges, use your rod to gently guide the fly on a slow descent to the zone.  For situations when a suspended dap will not be effective (e.g. if your targeted carp is more than 10 feet away) definitely do a drag and drop presentation (which can be executed using the pendulum cast).  Cast the fly a few feet beyond the fish and SLOWLY move it into position.  Be careful not to line the fish as you are moving the fly to the feeding zone.  In some cases you may need to cast directly to the fish so that the fly lands in the zone.  I suggest using that method only if it is truly the only option.  In slow clear water, even the subtle splash or sound of a small nymph hitting the water can spook the carp.
8. Getting refusals and "wave-offs"? Try downsizing your tippet.  Yes, I agree it is scary to pursue large, cagey, and incredibly strong fish on light tippet.  But here is the deal - even when using 3X fluorocarbon, carp can and will see it in very clear water no matter what Rio says.  I cannot count the number of wave-offs I have gotten this winter.  I am convinced that when my tippet catches a bean of sunlight as the carp is moving on the fly the game is over.  If the carp are pulling up at the last second, try 4X fluorocarbon and hope that the carp does not run for heavy cover when you hook him.  Also, instead of downsizing you may want to simply lengthen your tippet section.  If using shorter leaders and if the thicker section of the leader is below the surface film, carp will most certainly see that.

9. Time your outings to coincide with upswings in air temperature.  Here in Colorado we are lucky to have the occasional warm week here and there in the winter.  During warming trends, the nighttime lows are usually a bit higher than usual.  After two days of warmer temps and nighttime lows in the 40s, you can count on the carp getting a burst of energy and will likely be on the feed.  The warmer temps may trigger activity with various aquatic insects so keep an eye on that as well.

10. Be persistent and never give up.  Fly fishing for carp is challenging as we all know.  But it is not impossible, even in the dead of winter.  In the face of failure (which is not unusual when chasing carp) stay focused and practical.  You can catch carp on the fly in the winter.  As with anything else, it is trial and error.  Figure out the pattern, write your own rules, and make it happen.  And no matter how large or small the carp that you catch in winter, you will have fun.

Baby carp on Montana Hybrid

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Catching carp on the fly in the winter? It just can't be true

Written by Brian P. Shepherd

As an economics graduate student years back, I spent a lot of time studying the theoretical underpinnings and mathematical reasons for various economic assumptions and why they hold true, ceteris paribus.  Conversely, I spent an equal amount of time studying the reasons why these various economic assumptions do not hold true (yes, that is a contradiction, we are talking about economics after all).  Before listing off any number of economist jokes, my point here is to introduce the idea of conventional wisdom.  As in economics, life in general, and fly fishing for carp (you knew that was coming), we all have a number of assumptions about what we expect to happen based on previous observation or experience.

As it relates to fly fishing for carp, the conventional wisdom holds that it is doggone near impossible to catch carp (on the fly or other methods) when the temperatures drop and stay low for months on end. This assumption, admittedly, is fairly reasonable to a certain degree, however it is somewhat misleading.  I would be so bold as to say that catching carp on the fly in the winter time is, simply put, only slightly more challenging than during the warmer months.  It is far from impossible.  You want proof?  Look at the graph from my carp log below.  The pictures might help too.

In my next post, I will give you my top ten tips for catching carp on the fly in the cold winter months, though given the weather here in Colorado lately, the tips may not be useful to you until next winter.

No, this is not the Denver South Platte.
Yes, 12 months in a row of carp on the fly!

Recycled from earlier post but how often do you see carp and snow in the same picture?

Forrest Gump pose.

Loving that baby craw nymph.

Is winter over?  Only time will tell...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

So, you want to tie carp flies? First, break all the rules. Then write your own.

Written by Brian Shepherd

To be honest, I am probably a better fly tier than I am a fly angler. Truth is, I spend more time at the vise than I do on the water.  That is probably true for most fly anglers. All that said, fly tying is in many ways equally as fun as getting them in front of the fish.  As you tie classic trout patterns such as the pheasant tail nymph, the parachute Adams, or Clouser minnow you get excited thinking about the thrill when your indicator stops suddenly, or a trout sips your dry fly off the surface, or your streamer gets whacked on the swing.  For many (myself included) the excitement increases when you get back to the vise and think of ways to tweak, adjust, or otherwise improve your patterns to achieve greater success on the water.  With many trout patterns though, your creativity is typically limited to the extent that the pattern fails to resemble any stage of aquatic insect life (attractors are of course an exception).  To be clear, I love fly fishing for trout and I love tying trout flies.  But we are talking about carp here.
With most carp flies, you do not need to fret over whether your hackle fibers are too long (or too short), you do not need perfectly evenly spaced wraps of wire on the abdomen, nor do you need bifocals in order to thread a micro bead on a size 26 midge emerger hook.  Not at all.  What you need is permission from yourself to say, "hey, I know my carp and I know what they like. To heck with all the rules with fly tying.  I am going to create, experiment, and catch a ton of carp on the flies that I tie - even if I never get approached by Umpqua."
Here are my recommendations for getting into carp fly tying.  These are based on my own experience and what worked for me. 
1. Go to and type in "how to tie carp flies" and skip the rest of this post.
2. Pick up some Gamakatsu bonefish hooks or Carp-Pro hooks.  You will be thankful for the indestructible nature of these hooks as well as the wide gap to keep the carp buttoned-on.  Get some size 8 and 10 but also get some of the big fella size 4 hooks too.

Carp hooks need not be large.  But they better be strong.

 3. Create hook-point up or head-stand style flies using bead chain or dumbbell eyes.  I use headstand looks on crayfish patterns as well as nymph patterns.  Bead chain eyes provide a touch of weight and enable a slow back-and-forth action when falling through the water column (think of dropping a piece of paper from high up).  Also, the hook-point up feature will prevent snags along the bottom.
Bead chain or heavier dumbbell eyes help keep that hook off the bottom and enhance the action of carp flies.
4. Marabou and rabbit zonker strips are your new best friends.  The undulation and tantalizing "breathing" that these materials do in the water are enough reason to list them here.  Warning: marabou and rabbit fur are very buoyant and will only sink slowly even after being heavily saturated with water.  When using larger portions of these materials, you want to make sure you are adding proper amounts of weight.  Otherwise your fly will sit just under the film.

5. You know those mottled India hen saddles with feathers too big for conventional trout patterns that you have had in your bench since two Christmases ago?  Yeah those.  Time to do some collaring soft-hackle style!  Hey, you don't even need to strip off the webby stuff at the bottom of the stem.

The natural tans, browns, and orange colors on India hen saddles are ideal colors for carp flies.
6. Learn a few of the standard carp patterns (such as the backstabber, chubby chaser, mcluvin, Barry's carp bitters, or Montana hybrid) given to us by the pros: Jay Zimmerman, Trevor Tanner, Barry Reynolds, and John Montana.  Try them out and you will see why these guys catch a ton of carp.  Definitely read / watch anything and everything these guys put out. 

7. Tie your patterns in natural colors such as black, brown, green, orange, and yellow.  Tie up a few bright obnoxious colored patterns as well.  While I err on the drab colors, carp continue to surprise me.
Yes, that is John Barr's "Barr Flies" book.

8. Put new twists on the old.  Tie hares ears using wide gapped hooks.  Add a stub or two of rubber legs.  Use extra long saddle hackle for legs.  Rabbit fur and marabou are never a bad idea either.  The hares ear was by and far my most successful carp pattern in 2015.
There is no limit to how you dress your hares ears.

Most of my carp patterns do not even have names. 

9. Do not be overly concerned with proportions.  While proportions are somewhat important when tying carp flies, a fly that is slightly out of proportion is far more problematic on a trout stream than on the mud flat.  Do you best but don't be too critical.
10. Get out on the water and use them.  Observe how they move in the water.  How do the carp react to them?  Have fun.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

When the Ice Melts Away the Carp Will Play

Written by Brian Shepherd

It was inevitable that at some point slow moving creeks, such as the one I where I target carp in the cold months, would succumb to the low temperatures and freeze over.  With the recent freeze of Big Dry Creek, my lone winter carp spot was rendered useless.  I had abandoned still water in October once the colder temperatures drove the carp out of sight and into the deep.  In late fall, Big Dry Creek became the last bastion of hope (close to home) and the carp took flies up to the week before Christmas.

Nothing precludes you from fly fishing for carp like 2 inches of ice on your favorite creek.
Then it got cold, really cold.  In the days of deep cold before the ice-over, the carp all but disappeared.  It seemed futile to even go out there when they would not even reveal themselves.  I knew in my heart it was over for a while.  I even considered hanging up the carp gear (and pride) for a few months and thought about shifting my focus to fly fishing midge hatches for browns and rainbows (which is always fun by the way).  Then we got a few days where the mercury got up to 40 degrees or just below.  Whatever it was, it was enough to melt off some of the ice.

Any veteran carp angler will tell you that there is always a chance of catching carp when you can actually see the carp.  I might add that open unfrozen water helps too.
Reason #457 why I love Colorado.

You talk about some seriously cold fingers after releasing these fish into water that is a touch above freezing.
The crap selfie...sometimes you get a good shot but more often than not it is a carp shoot.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Four Seasons

Written by Brian Shepherd

I recently logged my lone carp for December 2015 (last picture below).  With about 2 weeks left in the month I hope to add a few more to the tally.  At the very least, it is now 9 consecutive months of catching carp on the fly.  Though it is technically not winter yet, I think it is fair to say that I have gotten carp in all 4 seasons as well.

Spring carp getting his tan on.

Summer porker.

Fallin' for it in the fall.

Man, it's getting cold.

Throwing picks!

Written by Brian Shepherd

Here in Denver we have seen the Broncos defense dominate opponents this year by creating an incredible amount of turnovers.  I guess it is fair to say that the Broncos offense has also created a lot of turnovers...  Defenses gravitate towards the football and do everything in their power to take it away from the offense through interceptions, strip-sacks, or fumble recoveries.  The quarterback's job is to move the ball effectively through a combination of running and passing plays.  A quarterback cannot control another player's ability to protect the football, but a quarterback is ultimately responsible for ensuring that his passes land in his receiver's hands - not in the hands of defensive backs.

Sometimes you get picked off by the prey when chasing the predator.
In the water column of your local lake or stream, multiple species of fish are constantly competing for the same food sources.  Bigger and stronger does not necessarily drive the outcomes regarding who gets the food (though I am sure it helps).  More often than not it is likely more about quickness and situational awareness.  Anyone who has ever fly fished for carp has inevitably been "picked off" a few times by another species.  In some cases you are not even aware of it until you set the hook.  You might think that your target carp just moved on your fly - you set the hook only to see an 8-inch largemouth fly over your head and into the cottonwood behind you.  The commotion that happens in the water often puts the carp off and you are no longer on offense: you just threw a pick-6!

Getting picked off by another species of fish (or anything else such as crayfish and snapping turtles) can be frustrating, but, like any NFL quarterback, you will throw the occasional interception.  It should not be a game-changer though; just take a time-out and plan your next series once you get the ball back (i.e. when you find other carp who are willing to play).

Sometimes throwing picks can be interesting - especially when a monster bull head eats your fly.

Not the carp I was after but not a bad deal either.

Was really going after a grassie but this fella undercut the route and picked me off.

OK, I really should not complain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Up Close and Personal

Written by Brian Shepherd 
A sniper typically targets the enemy from a safe distance to ensure that detection is impossible even after the shot finds its target.  A Navy SEAL or Army Ranger may need to target the enemy from an uncomfortably close distance while still ensuring he is not detected until the target is neutralized.  While stealth and zero detection by the enemy is key, the margin for error is slightly lower for the SEALs and Rangers who may end up in close hand-to-hand combat situations. With fly fishing for carp, you need to be both a sniper and a SEAL as you will have opportunities at carp that are 30 - 40 feet away as well as those right under your nose.

In my carp experiences, I am a better SEAL/Ranger than I am a sniper.  More than 80% of my carp have been caught at close range (within a rod's length or up to 10 feet).  This is where the suspended dap presentation comes in handy.  More to come on fly presentation and the situations that dictate your presentation method.

The result of stealth and making sure not to step on dry sticks or cacti when lining up for the shot.

Take advantage of the natural environment when looking for cover.  Camo face paint might be over the top but would be pretty fun.

Distances shown in the graph are my best estimates.  It is obviously easier to estimate shorter distances.  For longer distances, I estimate them in terms of rod lengths give or take another foot to account for the distance from rod to body.  Not an exact science but you get the idea. 

Like golf, sometimes it all comes down to the short game.