Sunday, May 29, 2011

Apathy of The One-dimensional One-species Specialist

For many years I have had a passion for catching anything and everything on a fly rod.  Words such as trashfish and bottom feeder have held no meaning for me.  Being told "you can't catch that on a fly" felt like a challenge even when it was just plain good advice.  In those years I caught 43 species on the fly and felt intense pleasure with every one of them. 

Yesterday I was out fishing with a friend and was stunned to discover just how far I have moved towards a one-dimensional one-species specialist.  Late in a fruitless outing we arrived at the same lake were there have been grassies tailing lately.  Either the carp gods were not with us or the low pressure front had put them down but there was nothing to be found.

No big deal.  This lake is an excellent LMB fishery.  Tie on any number of carp flies and work it blind and I almost guarantee a decent bass or two.  Unfortunately I found I had absolutely no interest.   Zero, zilch, nada.  When Mike caught a decent 14" LMB blind casting I could barely muster a twitch of the eyebrow and a smile.  I made a couple of half-hearted blind casts but for the most part the hook never left the keeper.

It has been 7 months since I have caught anything but a carp.  It has been 10 months since I could even muster up the energy to try.  It may be time to shake it up a little.

Friday, May 27, 2011

CARPTORIOUS: Working Hard For the Carp

As May rolls towards an end I am surprised to look back and find I caught about the same numbers of carp on the fly in March and nearly as many in February.  Fortunately what May has lacked in numbers has been more than offset by size.  Today was a prime example.  I worked hard for most of the day with nothing to show for it, but after several changes in venue I finally found happy feeding fish late in the outing.  The action opened with a spunky 23" specimen which took the Leather Headstand Carp Worm fly on a blind strip.  The action closed with this 20lb-3ounce (29") piggy which grabbed a Primordial Crust fly on a dead drop with an awesome visual take.  By piggy I mean full on pre-spawn river-carp obese.  Pretty sure no 29" lake carp would ever top 20lb!

I have been my own worst enemy this spring due to a stubborn insistence that the front range still-waters are going to get totally awesome any day now.  Unfortunately it seems that every lake I focus on for a week or two shows promise of getting going and then disappoints. 

The first lake I visited this morning certainly dissapointed.  Yesterday afternoon I had an opportunity to scout it for two hours.  In that time 5 very large carp charged the fly but I missed them all because I was fishing from the top of a cliff with tons of slack in my line.  This morning I returned full of hope and energy to find that the carp were not.

The second lake I visited looked like it was going to kick into high gear several weeks ago when I made this post.  Since then the water has gone from off-color to chocolate felch.  I gave it a serious go, and there were fish tailing, but I just couldn't get them to eat my carp flies and had to move on. 

With less than 2 hours left in the outing I arrived at the river.  To my surprise I found perfectly clear water, optimal flows and feeding fish.  Within 10 minutes I had already missed 3 sweet takes.  Within 20 minutes I had the first fish to the bank.  Within 45 minutes I had landed what may very well be my heaviest carp to date on a fly.  Why had I wasted the rest of the day pounding my head against the still-water?  I don't know.  What is sad is that I am pretty sure I will do it again next time! 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Grassie that Didnt Count

The Good:  I had much to be grateful for on this day.  Getting a day pass from the Mommasita was wonderful.  I love my lady, she treats me so good.  It was hard to find feeding fish today, but any day were you catch some carp on a fly is a good one.  Even if it is just one 23" common.  Late in the outing my friend Mike called me up with a line on some grass carp.  It was a generous move for him to take me to this spot and for this I am extremely grateful.  There were at least six large grass carp feeding furiously in a relatively small area and within 20 minutes I had hooked and landed a big one (32lb, 40").    

The Bad:  Unfortunately, after winning an epic battle with said grassie I was dismayed to discover that my large olive MMF with the eyes cut out with pliers on the spot (best grassie fly I could come up) was just too light and had not gotten down as deep as I thought.  These carp were tailing with an amazing amount of forward velocity.  As a result the rapidly moving fish had tailed right under the fly and was hooked right in front of the tail. 

I feel like a bit of a shit for being bummed out after all the things I have to be grateful for.  Therefore I am going to just let it go.  It happens, we will get em next time.  I really don't need to be obsessed with another species thank you very much but I am pretty sure that Mike and I will be back.  With a box of carefully weighted grass carp flies of course!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Landing Carp On The Fly Rod

Carp are very strong but they rarely throw a hook and they are not nearly as talented as salmon or steelhead at finding random items in the water to break you off.  Your success depends on the size and strength of fish, amount of current and time of year but I strongly believe that you should expect to land an average of 65% to 80% of your valid hook-ups.  Based on my log I seem to land around 90% (ponds), 80% (lakes) and 70% (rivers) of non-foul-hooked fish.  Everybody has the occasional streak of bad luck, but if you consistently lose allot of carp you might be doing something wrong! 

Hitting Foul 
People commonly mistake foul-hooked fish for valid hook-ups.  It is obvious what happened when you bring back a scale but it is good to learn to how to call your own fouls.  The hookup often feels odd, coming with a weird thump and at a time that just does not seem right.  Fish hooked in the dorsal fin, pectoral fin or elsewhere on the main body are bullish and hard to turn with little or no pulsating sensation in the rod.  Fish hooked in the tail seem unreasonably strong with a rapid frantic pulsating sensation.  More often that not the hook just mysteriously pulls out under minimal pressure when you least expect it. 

You expect to foul some fish when you are fly fishing for carp but if you are snagging lots of fish you should change up your presentation.  Snagging is rough on the fish, doesn't count as real fishing and when it happens you have blown any shot at that carp and any of his pals that are close by!
Are You a Pushover?
You may not be fighting carp effectively.  In order to land large carp at a high clip you should learn how to let your rod, drag system and spool/knob do their jobs.  The rod is used to absorb shock, apply pressure, align the pressure and gain line.  The drag system is used to make sure that you do not exceed the capability of the leader and rod.  The spool/knob systems only job is to retrieve and store line that you have already gained with the rod.

Four important concepts for getting everything working together are authority, side pressure, using the butt of the rod and pumping the rod.

Authority:  Are you in control or is the fish in control?  For smaller or lethargic carp you should be the boss from the get-go.  For bigger and hotter carp they may be the boss for the first run or two but then you should take over. 

Side Pressure:  When the fish are fairly close (<50ft) you should be maintain as much side pressure as possible.  This does not mean that you have the rod to the side and low, although that is one of your tools.  It means that you are always adjusting the orientation of your rod so that you pulling to the side and maybe just a little towards the tail.  Side pressure is the most awkward and confusing direction for a fish to resist and it tends to wear out the fish much faster.  Just standing there with the rod bowed in the same orientation at all times lets the fish find the direction that makes life easiest.  To help explain I made this ridiculously amateurish graphic!

When you have turned the fish or it voluntarily switches direction that is usually a good thing.  This means that the fish is tired of being pulled in an awkward direction and is making a play for something easier.  You have asserted yourself, at least temporarily.  In the famous words of Cartman from South Park "You will respect ma atoratayyyyy".  Now you can change the angle of your rod or even switch it to the other side to keep the pressure on and maintain this new-found authority.  

When a carp has made a long run and is far away it is more difficult to apply side pressure.  In rivers you can sometimes follow the fish up or downstream.  In lakes the fish has effectively taken control for a while.  At this point you adjust the drag here and there but otherwise you sit back a little, let your drag do it's job and wait for your turn.  When the fish slows down or turns that is your signal to take a shot at being the boss and recovering some line.

Using the butt of the rod:  Your maximum authority occurs when the rod tip is relatively low and you are bending the rod near the butt section.  It may seem counter-intuitive but when the rod tip is high over your head and bending at the tip your rod is no longer effective.  My seven year old could do better than the next graphic, but here it is:

Pumping the rod:  In order to use this technique you must first set your drag and trust it to work in conjunction with the rod to protect your tippet.  While starting in position A from diagram 2 keep your off-hand away from the the knob and try to gain line with the rod.  Your drag sometimes slips during the process resulting in not gaining or even losing line and that is fine.  At the best that means that all the hard earned money you spent on a fancy reel is not wasted and you are applying the maximum safe pressure without breaking your leader or rod.  At worst you need to tighten the drag a little and try again.  Once the rod tip is nearing point B your spool/knob gets to do it's only job which is to retrieve and store line.  While slowly letting the rod tip move towards the fish reel in the line.  When properly done you are smoothly reeling the rod tip down the line towards the fish while maintaining constant pressure.  Repeat and rinse.

I usually fish an anti-reverse (AR) reel which works a little like a spinning reel in that the knob is isolated from the spool through the drag system.  Those who are used to fighting big fish with a spinning reel or AR fly reel have probably already learned to pump the rod or gotten really really fit.  Why really fit?  Because you can knock yourself out and turn that knob as fast and as furiously as you want but if the tension in the line exceeds the drag setting nothing happens or the line even goes out!  This annoys the heck out of you the first time you use an AR but it forces you to learn how to fight fish with the rod and trust your drag.  
Getting All Knotted Up 
Nearly all of us, including myself, could do better with their knots.  If you are breaking off many fish, the most common culprit is your tippet connection if you use tippet.  Avoid a tippet connection by using a straight tapered leader, or learn one of the 100% class-tippet knots such as the Bimini Twist.  If you frequently break off directly at the fly you can practice the fine details of your fly connection or switch knots.  You can and go with heavier line, but most of us do not take advantage of the full capability of our tippet as it is. 

Timing The Take
Sometimes you may be slightly early or late on the take and get shallow penetration in the carp's lips.  The fish also sometimes misses a little on accident or on purpose and does not fully engulf the fly.  This seems to be a little more common in rivers where the current adds extra complexity to the process for us and the fish.  Both are more likely to miss the mark just a little bit when current is involved.  This still happens to me fairly regularly. Unfortunately I know no easy fix beyond perseverance and experience.

Not Using a Net?
Until last year I preffered to beach carp and did not even carry a net.  I have changed my tune a little.  I now think it is a little less stressfull for me and the fish to scoop them up.  Using a net helps your landing rate at least a little bit, particularly at the end game, but it can be difficult to find a net that is large enough for carp and easy to pack around.

Tore Up From The Floor Up
For some reason a really hot carp will sometimes just tear you a new one from the start.  Sweet. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

CARPTORIOUS: Still-water In a Land-Slide

I had some help this Friday with my internal conflict between the river and still-water.  The river was very good to me last weekend but one look at the flows Thursday night and it was obvious.  Find the still-water action or stay at home and pick my nose.  It was still-water in a land-slide.

I had to try lake A first which I currently love to hate.  Love because it is a crystal clear lake with a shale bottom, scenic beauty and some very large carp.  Hate because it is has become clear that it is only good between the last week in May and the first week in July.  %$^&#$.

I have a whole different love/hate relationship with lake B.  Once again the carp are large but that is where the similarity ends. Shallow feeding fish are available throughout the season but because it has a mud bottom and is fed with urban runoff the water varies unpredictably from off-color to chocolate milk to algae covered felch.  You are almost always fishing to dust plumes and bubbles.  If you are lucky you get a momentary glimpse of a tail or a shadow.  The carp frequently seem to be grazing mindlessly through the muck and even if they are able to find your fly they often seem disinterested.  This makes finding the zone, refining the presentation and detecting the take much more difficult than usual!

I have put fair bit of time on lake B and so far it has been a struggle.  Relative to past experience Friday was a huge success with two very nice carp landed and a large Koi hooked briefly.  The first (nicely sized at 12lb, 28") was landed on a size 8 black / olive Backstabber on the first small strip after dropping the fly by it's head. 

The second (a hefty 15 1/2lb, 29") took a size 6 olive Primordial Carp-Stew on small slow 2" strips cast in the general area of a dust plume with a shadow in the middle.

In both cases park-walkers rushed to see what was putting such a bend in my rod and were kind enough to take pictures.

I wish I could provide some profound insights into how to fish the front range mud-pits (AKA reservoirs).  If I had them to give I would, but Friday was strictly a matter of perseverance.  Darker flies (olive and black) presented very slowly and patiently seem to be beneficial but there is so much more to learn!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

CARPTORIOUS: Love-Handles!

Maybe it wasn't all April's fault since it was my own fools mission.  In April I made a decision to lay off my local river a little and focus on finding early still-water action in metro Denver.  I could have caught as many 16" Carp in ponds as I wanted but that loses it's appeal pretty quickly.  I did manage the occasional shot and landed one fish in a bigger lake but not enough to make it worth the effort.  Live and learn.

This weekend I hit my favorite lake very early but once again there was nothing doin.  To heck with it.  I was crawling off the early spring still-water wagon a beaten and desperate man.  When I fall off the wagon I fall hard.  I raced to my local river and proceeded to have one of my best days there yet.  Five landed, several more near misses and this very large (for me) 17lb carp sporting love-handles of all things!     
Love Handles!
The action started quickly.  Partially hidden behind a boulder the size of a refrigerator I was able to flick out a foam worm and twitch it along in front of a bank-cruiser.   I would twitch the fly forward 6" and he would follow eagerly.  On the fifth or so twitch he had had enough and charged the fly.  This was an interesting fish.  Very nice sized at 12lb, very strong and another one of those lip-less mutants I have been catching in one area.  As you can see, my first ever attempt at a timed grip and grin went poorly!

Where is my Head...where in the heck are the LIPS...would he have gone 12-1/2 with lips????
After that I quickly caught a couple of smaller (22") fish.  On the first I peeked my head around a bridge abutment and there she was tailing hard only 3' away.  I flicked the foam worm underhand into the zone, stepped back, counted one-thousand and set the hook blind.  On the second I cast the foam worm blind into a slow pool and let it drift on a tight swing.  After a half second or so the drift started to go weird and surreal as the line started moving upriver.  Hello...sleeping-jackass...that usually means a fish doesn't it?  No harm no foul as the fish was landed with the fly firmly in the corner of it's mouth.

After that the wind got vicious.  Gusting to at least 30mph.  I had 3 more awesome visual takes but on all three the wind was doing crazy things with my fly-line.  Every time it gusted at exactly the wrong time and pulled the fly out of the zone early.  Two of the fish actually started tailing furiously right where my fly had been just moments ago!  That was EXTREMELY frustrating.

In response I moved locations 1/2 mile downstream to a small deep hole behind a dead-fall under a bluff.  I had excellent cover and was protected from the wind.  I was able to fish within 6' of a group of circulating carp for over half an hour with them none the wiser.

These fish really did not dig the foam worm that others a half mile upriver had attacked passionately.  I cycled through 4 or 5 different nymph and crayfish style patterns with similar results.  They would either spook at the fly or ignore it altogether.  I eventually cycled back to the leather worm.  On the first cast one of the circulators broke ranks and dipped as the fly plummeted for the bottom.    I set the hook and immediately knew this was a big fish, at least by my standards  Of course he made a move for the dead-fall almost immediately but I was loaded for bear with 8.5lb flouro, good knots and an 8 weight.  I asserted myself, tightened the drag and walked straight down river with the fish in tow.

Crazed Chipmunk With
The Kings Own Fish
This time the timed picture went considerably better as I took a practice shot ahead of time.  I did everything I could to get these done quickly but I need practice before I do more of these shots.  Hard on the fish!

It turns out I should have chopped my head off on all the pictures since I look like a crazed chipmunk.  I had a wisdom tooth extraction earlier this week and am still swollen.  I caught one more 24" fish on the leather worm with a drag and drop presentation and headed home.  Very happy but also exhausted and starting to ache where that wisdom tooth used to be.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hare's Ear Nymphs For Carp

We have all heard the saying about flies being designed to catch fishermen instead of fish.  Generally I believe that is not such a bad thing.  Purpose built carp flies such as the Backstabber by Jay Zimmerman, Mark's outrageously beautifully carp flies at This River is Wild and my own creations sometimes bring a little extra confidence and that is priceless.  Are these flies imbued with a magic mojo that appeals in a special way to carp and triggers a take?  I don't care.  Catching a carp on a carp-specific fly brings me confidence and intense pleasure.

Every once in a while a reality check is good though.  When the carp seem to want something small and subtle I usually go straight to a Hare's Ear Nymph.  If I was good enough at keeping a journal I might even find that my most productive carp fly of all time is the Hare's Ear in multiple variants.

I have caught Carp on many different recipes of this infinitely flexible nymph pattern.  Throw in a gold bead and you have a weighted fly with a little flash.  Add a black tungsten bead and you are ready to dredge the depths.  In colored water sometimes adding a flash-back can't be beat.  Do you really need a little bit of that carp-specific luvin feeling?  Some fine Rubber legs do the trick.  Are the fish ultra-shallow and super spooky?  A very simple un-weighted variant in natural colors without even gold rib could be the ticket.  

I usually stick to size 10 to 14 and my most productive colors have been olive and the traditional tan.  

The Hare' Ear Nymph.  It turns out that nearly everybody has a couple carp flies in their box!