Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fly Fishing For Carp in Rivers: Ambush or Attack

I think I need to start to evolve and diversify my overall approach to the river.  I am familiar with two very different basic approaches on fly fishing for carp in rivers, but in the last year I have gravitated to one.

Lets call these two approaches "Ambush" and "Attack".  I enjoy them both, but I am a little better and certainly more experienced with the ambush method which is really a philosophy.  This year in the carp slam one of the main things I learned from Ty was that looking at the river in terms of ambush fishing has slipped from preference to habit to the point where it is holding me back.

Throw down some crappy graphics and I think we can use this small run I have fished a couple of times lately as an example.

This run has four critical sections.  Section A is the main current seam and the current is ripping.  Between the current ripples, depth and bottom structure they are hard to see.  There are fish holding in this seam, typically using rocks and weeds to break the current but I don't spend a whole lot of time trying for them.  Perhaps this is where indicator nymphing would come in handy if I was into it.

Section B is interesting.  We did see some very positive carp up in the extreme shallows on the left hand side when I was there last Friday.  Fish feeding with their backs out of the water are relatively rare in my river but if you find them and can keep a fly out of the weeds you are in business.  Whether you fish these carp from ambush or attack mode is strictly a function of which side you find them on.

Section C is a sand trough that slopes slowly from section B to the depths of the run.  Carp do not hold here but if you are lucky you will find a fairly steady stream of carp circulating up onto the sand from the current seam.  They will typically move up onto the sand on the bottom half of the run and make their way slowly to the top where they will hold briefly at the top of section C before planing back into the current seam and dropping back to start the cycle over.  Although negative and neutral carp will circulate in this fashion, some of the most positive carp in the river do too and therefore you are on the lookout for this behavior..

Section D is the current break on the right side of the river created by the bank.  The structure creates a narrow window of minimal current that carp can use to rest or feed.  Carp will either be holding in this area, circulating front to back or continuously dropping in and out of the main current in several areas.  Although you will occasionally find carp tailing against the bank, the most typical mood is neutral.  They aren't looking for food but won't kick it out of bed for eating crackers either.

This run can be approached in two very fundamental ways.

Attack:  If you are attacking this run you will fish it from the middle or left-hand side of the river.

You have absolutely no cover and stand out like a sore thumb.  Your only hope for not scaring the carp is as much distance as you can get and still achieve a good presentation.  Figuring out the best place to stand in order to achieve both is really the first key to this method.  Crouching helps as well but I usually find that if you want to have enough vision to really sight fish that you usually have to just stand tall and accept the risks of detection.

When I get this to work it is almost always on some form of downstream presentation that is not a simple swing.  A simple swing seems too fast and un-natural.  You might very well cast well ahead of and past the carp and swing it into the carp's path but once it is there if at all possible you want to "kill" the velocity of the fly with a mend, a change in stripping pattern or by just feeding some slack with a rod motion or angle.  You can also cast directly into the carp's path or cast past but not well ahead of the carp and get it into position with a long fast strip.  It all depends on the currents you are dealing with and the skittishness of the carp.  If that explanation seems inadequate that is because the whole process can be complicated.

Regardless the end goal is some combination of a slow seductive swim, short small hops, a truly dead fly or a nearly dead fly with twitches in the zone.  All are options that you have to experiment with if you actually get past the art form of killing the fly which is far from easy.

  • When you do hook a fish they are already aways from the run.  You have a decent chance of landing the fish without freaking out the entire run.  If the carp are extremely positive this gives you the chance to catch more than one carp in the run.
  • You may have to roll cast or single handed spey cast but regardless most of the time you are actually getting to cast which is fun.
  • When they are on the sand and positive you are putting yourself in a position to have a very good day.
  • The balancing act between not getting made and being in position for an excellent presentation is difficult to judge and you will scare many many carp for every one that somehow fails to see you.
  • The presentation itself is difficult for all but the most aggressive carp.
  • If you don't find the right carp in the right mood you are way out of luck.  Even if you find fish in the correct positions it is hard to gauge their true mood and it is easy to waste time fishing to negative carp in this area of the river. 
In summary this method has always seemed like a bit of a boom or bust scenario.  In my opinion you are going to get skunked frequently, but occasionally you are going to go gangbusters.    

 Ambush:  In contrast if you want to ambush fish this run you are going to go run straight to the right-hand side of the run.  Actually you are going to creep your way straight to the right side.  Ambush fishing is 100% about stealth.

Cover, silence and slow motions are key.  Every motion is considered, every possible piece of cover is used.  If you can make the cast and see the take behind that 2 foot tall shrub you damned well better be crouched behind it.  If you can be sitting directly above the carp on a cliff and just dapping your fly on it's head even better.  

Even your casting methods are modified to use slow gentle motions (lobs, pitches, short slow roll casts) that are less likely to be detected.  On this particular run I was able to fish it with my body entirely hidden in the bushes with nothing but my head and my rod sticking out far enough to flip the fly in a 10 foot arc in all directions which is optimum.  

Sometimes you will poke your head out of the bushes to find a tailing fish, but more typically you will find fish ranging from slowly cruising to sitting still or holding in slight current.  You must be close because the carp are likely to be neutral.  You cannot afford a splashy presentation which requires the carp to move very far from the fly.  The presentation has to be prefect and you rarely have much more than a couple of feet of fly-line out.  As such your goal is to get get into a position to be able to present a fly that is absolutely as close to the carp without scaring them as you can achieve.  
Your presentation will almost always be a dead drop.  Sometimes a super heavy fly that forces the carp to commit and dive works best.  Sometimes a slowly sinking fly that triggers a vacuum take (where they open their mouth and flare their gills to suck the fly from a distance) works better.

  • You are much less dependent on finding carp in a great mood.  Because you are close your presentations are more suitable to coaxing or triggering a take.  
  • Because you are less dependent on finding fish in a positive mood you are less likely to get skunked.    
  • The takes are easy to detect and the hook-set is almost always a vertical trout set directly into the rubbery upper lip.  In my experience you land a higher percentage of the carp you hook because of this.  
  • Nothing else in the fishing world is more like hunting.
  • When you do get a take you often get an extremely good view of it and seeing the take in fine detail is addicting.

  • When you hook and land a fish you are hooking them in or close to the holding waters. It is rare to hook and land more than one fish from ambush
  • You will almost always have access to carp.  You will not always know if they are on to you and you can waste significant time fishing to carp that know you are there but cannot be bothered to really be afraid of you.  Of course they can't be bothered to eat either.
  • The carp you have access to will tend to be neutral at best.  This means that you may cast to many carp before you find the one willing to eat your fly.
  • You almost never get to do a real fly cast and it turns out that casting is kind of fun.
  • This form of fishing can feel like it lacks glitzy and glory.
This approach seems to have less variance (nerd term for more consistent).  I almost always catch some carp when I am sticking to this method but I rarely catch allot of carp.  Occasionally you want to catch allot of carp.

Both methods work, both methods should be in your arsenal.  I just need to balance them out a little better.


  1. Very nice instructions! By neccesity I'm an ambusher. Realize small river fish are rare for me, but that is what I do with the one I do have, as well as my ponds.


    1. Its a good thing ambush fishing works! Do you have a hard time getting into position without being made and if so how long does it usually take for new fish to show up while you are still?

    2. That's a good question. Most often I am not hidden but at least I'm low. No, they know what I'm about even if I'm very carefull. But, if I've chosen a good spot fish unaware of my arrival will pass by within mere minutes. Now, close to the edge I still am suspect, but if sighting is good I can cast before the gig is up. If the water is typically turbid actually all the better if you are me.


  2. Great post! It's extremely interesting and you've explained the possible scenarios pretty well. I am more willing to use the "attack" method but I have to admit that the "ambush" method could be highly lucrative sometimes.

    1. Good to know Jorge. Do the presentations I am describing sound like what works for you in general?

  3. Better yet, I'm a waiter. As in I wait for fish. I suppose that's closest to ambushing. In my ponds with ultra spooky fish who detest people sometimes that is the way to go.


  4. Very interesting stuff. Most of my fishing is stillwater, but I found myself thinking of a certain river in Michigan as I read this. Miles and I were mostly in attack mode that day. A little different scenario there than the one you show, but the pros and cons were definitely the same.

    This will be one of those posts I print and keep in my notebook for later reference. Dang good info, McTage.

    1. Yeah, that river you fished in MI would be really tough to ambush because it is extremely overgrown. I am sure it is possible in areas but not much where you were. Sometimes the way you can fish them up by the damn gets a little ambushy in that you area sneaking up close from behind. Downstream it is superb attack water though.


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