Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fishing from Reservoir Dams

Reservoirs.  Can't live with em, nowhere to fish around here without em.  Here on the front range nearly every piece of standing water bigger than a puddle is man-made.  In many ways that sucks because these man-made structures fish to their nature.  Un-naturally that is. 

The problem with many of our smaller front-range reservoirs is that they are just shallow clay/mud bowls with very erratic water levels and little or no vegetation.  While they work fine for the spawn and produce plenty of baby carp, the ecosystem isn't capable of turning those baby carp into big bad mammer jammers.  In the end you get lots of little carp. 

That is where dams come in.  Most of these reservoirs are impounded with rip-rap dams and frequently the key to finding the biggest of these smallish carp is to head straight for the Dam.

Smith Reservoir Dam
Smith Reservoir Dam;  Surgeon Generals warning, Back-casting is hazardous to your health

Case in point is Smith Reservoir.  That would be the first (and perhaps last) time I have ever mentioned a lake by name.  I am not too worried about it for two reasons.  First of all I have never seen anybody else fly fishing for carp there so no worries about ruining somebodies prized spot.  Second of all Smith is nothing to write home about, the carp are tiny.  I would say that in general the the carp I have found in Smith Reservoir probably only average 3 to 4 pounds!

Here is a birds-eye view of Smith.  I have highlighted the long rip-rap dam in blue and added the approximate average size of carp that I have found in different sections.  The carp off the dam are several pounds heavier on average, but not all sections of this long dam are created equal.  While I occasionally spot one or two fish getting close to double digits on the long section of the dam on the West side, as far as I can tell these fish are difficult if not impossible to catch.

Smith Reservoir carp locations and weights
Smith Reservoir birds-eye view
So what specifically are you looking for on these rip-rap dams?  To understand that you need to understand some of the difficulties. 

\On most if not all reservoirs the deepest part of the lake is somewhere behind the dam.  If the water drops off too quickly (lets draw the line somewhere around 3 feet with typical clarity) it is nearly worthless for a fly-fisherman targeting carp.  Carp rarely feed in the actual rip-rap.  They prefer to feed just outside of or in between boulders and rocks in the mud and sand where it meets the bottom of the dam.  The deeper flats behind these dams often hold the biggest carp by a large margin, but the only time you will see them is when they are on top sunning and relaxing.  Those are not the carp you are looking for. 

Another problem is the height of the dam.  Your elevation from the top of the dam is both a blessing and a curse.  While you can see the fish much better than usual presenting the fly and getting a hook-set is a pain because of the downward bow in your line created by the elevation.  At about 10 feet above the surface the effect starts to get painful.   

The final problem is profile.  When you are standing on top of the dam you stand out like a sore thumb and the carp tend to be extremely aware of your presence.  This is mitigated somewhat because most of these reservoirs have a jogging path across the top.  You stick out like a sore thumb but there are about 100 sore thumbs an hour which helps.  Oddly enough you may start to notice that carp are more apt to spook when you stop walking!  For this reason I will sometimes keep walking by an acquired target and then come back crouched low.

So what are you looking for in a productive rip-rap dam section?  Look for sections where;
  • The lake bottom meets the dam at a depth of 1 to 3 feet deep with a shallow drop-off.
  • The height of the dam is less than 10 feet (roughly) above the surface.
  •  Foot traffic might actually help.  Just don't hook the foot traffic.
So if you are exploring a new small reservoir don't forget the dam.  This is not to say catching carp off a dam is easy because it actually a royal pain in the ass but this is where you will frequently find the bigguns.  Or at least the less small ones. 

Fighting a small Smith Reservoir carp on The fly rod
Fighting a 5.5lb Smith Reservoir Carp.  Beast!


  1. McTage,

    Concur with it all, but I am OK with small carp. I also can tell you about displaying yourself and having feeding carp I can not reach, as a drop of 6" can not be traversed. Sounds like a personal problem I know. Good tutorial, like the no name mantra. You have Far more fly carpers than I do, by the # of hundreds it sounds like.


    1. wow! I feel lucky to live next to the erie canal in NY.
      If you are interested in fishing "carp ally" I will be happy to give you a place to stay.

    2. Gregg - It is funny that Denver seems at times to be the epicenter of the revolution since CAG rates CO in the bottom quartile for best carp fishing in the country. We seem to have an abundance of disenchanted trout fishermen.

  2. A - I will keep the offer in mind. The article was not to say that we only have small carp of course, just in some reservoirs. Not nearly as many mammer jammers as many other parts of the country though.

  3. Hey mate, that was a pretty good read!

  4. David - Thanks man. You have carp down under?

  5. GREAT info, McTage. My main carp fishery is a reservoir and as you know has smaller carp. They average around 4-5 lbs. This reservoir has the rip-rap dam, but I've largely ignored it and spend most of my time cruising flats. Reckon I'll be changing that approach going forward. Thanks for posting this.

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