Regardless of your experience level the cruising carp can be one of the most baffling and frustrating patterns to fish. They are very common, mysterious and frequently passive to the point of appearing brain-dead. Once you understand a subset of cruising carp called circulating carp though, things can move from frustrating to fun.
This summer I had a chance to really get down and dirty on one lake for a three week period during post-spawn in early summer. One of the dominate behaviors for that entire period was cruising carp (with some spawning mixed in) that were actually circulating carp. And these circulating carp were actually changing modes in a somewhat predictable pattern. Since I had the opportunity to put allot of time on the water I was able to really study them and figure out quite a bit.
Below is a sketch of an interesting section of water on this lake.This is a clear lake with a fairly steep gradient from shore to deeper water. The boundary water is mostly gravel, sand and broken slate. There is a lack of good spawning water so the population is fairly limited but with decent size. Crayfish are extremely abundant. The patterns I observed lasted for a three week period in late June as the spawn was tailing off. This pattern of behavior turned off like a light switch July 1st and I do not know when it started.
Next is a sketch with some typical carp-paths I would observe during a day’s fishing. As you sit on the bank to the right of the cat-tails about every minute or so cruising carp will come down the shoreline in groups of 1 to 3 following the orange line. There will rarely or never be a carp traveling in the other direction and this goes on for hours on end.
Sometimes cruising carp are just going from point A to point B without a care in the world, but after a couple of hours I was thinking to yourself…are there an infinite number of carp stacked like cordwood at the other end of the lake going to fill up a hole in the this end? Of course not, these carp are traveling in a giant circuit or “circulating”. I was able to follow some single groups and the circuit at this lake at this time of year is about a ½ mile long round trip! Why would a carp do that? In this case there is no doubt. They were grocery shopping.
Pretend you are observing the rare and exotic McTage fish at the grocery store. First comes the vegetables aisle. His eyes are glazed and the cart goes straight. Next is some fruit. That seems to get his attention a little. The cart weaves a little and some produce hits the cart. Then you get to the caffeine / junk food isles. There is a distinct change in behavior. This guys head is on a swivel on the lookout for the best tidbits. Lots of deliciousness finds the cart and he is constantly reversing direction to get what he missed. If you want to catch a McTage you gotta find the junk food aisles!
When you have an abundance of cruisers on your hands you could just be unlucky and have some fish that are really just out for a stroll – it happens. Or they could be grocery shopping and you need to find the carp junk-food isle. Below I added the different “grocery aisles” in this particular area.
- Veggy Aisle: Featureless Sand / gravel bottom with a slow transition. Carp cruise through rapidly and in a straight-forward manner. There posture is businesslike and boring. Fish will either ignore the fly or spook from it. Some stop and mill about but they really appear to be socializing and react in the same way. It is one of most populated sections on the lake with some of the easiest fish to find. And if you just fished here I am not sure you would ever catch a fish.
- Fruit Aisle: The transition to deeper water moves closer and there is a mucky bottom with emergent weed-bed in the hollow this creates. As fish move into this transition their posture subtly changes. Their path gets slightly more erratic and fish may pause and dip there heads occasionally. Some even stop to tail for a few seconds. Fish on the secondary red path appear to have forgotten the grapes and have come back around for another shot. Nearly all of these go into momentary tailing before moving on.
- Women’s Personal Hygiene Aisle: There is a very deep hole in this little bay with very steep sides. As the carp move into this section they turn off like a light-bulb. They are even more passive than in section A and just get in and out.
- Men’s personal Hygiene Aisle: There is a cut bank here with a small shelf and some tree cover. Every once in a while a group of 3 or 4 carp break off to this location and sometimes go briefly on the feed. When they do it is a mixture of brief tailing and bank fixation. They must have been out of toothpaste.
- Fly-fishing section of the magazine Aisle: There is a point intersecting with a weed-bed. Some fish break from the main path to cruise through that intersection. These fish immediately go into a brief seek and destroy aggression levels and will even chase a fly. They must be hoping there is a 10 year old copy of the last issue of “Warm-Water Fly Fishing” magazine hidden away (RIP). Ah heck, it was so far in the past I can’t even remember the correct name or when it ended L.
- Unknown: There is a slight change in bottom consistency here. The bottom is finer and almost chalky in consistency. On just one day for just ½ hour (that I know of) the cruisers all detoured here briefly on the way through and it was tailer central. Otherwise it was a dead-zone the entire three weeks. Definitely a limited-time-only 75% sale on something.
- Kitchen Utensils: There is a long sand flat of fairly fine consistency and with very slow gradient. Looks great. Is deader than a doornail. The occasional cruiser comes through but either there is no food or they aren’t interested.
- Discount Bins: The far end of the same flat in G is a completely different story. There is more broken slate and medium sized rubble mixed into the bottom and inspection shows that there is an overstock sale on baby crayfish hiding. The crayfish are well hidden in the fine rubble, probably hard to catch and placed away from normal traffic. There are, however, experienced shoppers cruising through every 15 to 30 minutes. These deal-seekers are rare but they are 100% feeding, ultra-shallow and are in partial seek-and-destroy mode.
- Unknown: There are constantly fish leaving or returning to the main cruising path through this region. It is slightly deep (about waist deep) with a muckier bottom. Fish seem to stop frequently as they pass through but it is hard to tell if they are feeding or just taking a break and it is hard to get a presentation to that depth.
- Similar to I.
- Similar to I.
This probably doesn’t help directly on your particular water, but it does give ideas on some of the ways to find the hotspots in a circulation. Fishing in B,G and H is the first option, while it is worth periodically checking in on D and F. The rest is pretty much felchwater. On some lakes when I find distinct feeding zones they apply for just a couple of weeks. On some it lasts most of the season. Either way they frequently carry over to similar parts of the season the next year.
What does it all mean?
1. First off, don’t waste too much time casting to passive fish. If you have spent some time in a spot and are getting no positive feedback move on. You will never find the junk-food isles if you spend all day fishing in the veggie isle.
2. Although fishing different bodies of water is fun and gives a broader experience base, it pays off to have a body of water or two that you really get to know.
3. Look for areas with breaks or abnormalities in circulating patterns and body posture. Take some time to watch what is going on in these areas and investigate them with different presentations. Maybe these fish are carb junkies stopping off at the bakery. Or maybe they know there are free samples on Isle 3.
4. Look for bottom changes and depth changes and watch how the carp react to them.
5. If you are allowed, at some point you should wade in the water you are investigating. The sometimes subtle changes in structure, depth or bottom type that may trigger changes in behavior as fish cruise through aren’t always obvious from shore.