Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ten Keys to Carp On The Fly in the Winter

Until sometime in the past five years or so even the most hard core of us fly carpers would put aside dreams of big lips and gold scales in the winter.  No longer. Nowadays, many of us from all across the country treat fly fishing for common carp as a year round endeavor.  It turns out that because of their amazing temperature range, carp are one of the most viable winter fly fishing species not named Trout!    

So, how can you catch common carp in the winter?  Here are the top 10 keys:

1:  Faith (AKA hardheadedness):

The first key is to just believe that it is possible.   I can't stress enough how important faith is.  If you don't believe, you won't commit.  Chasing carp in the winter may be viable, but it is not necessarily always easy.  Commitment gets you past the steep part of the learning curve, when it will often seem like it just isn't going to work.  

I know, I know, the requisite level of faith can be hard to come by.  After all, fly fishers as a society have thought of carp as a warm-water species for a long time.  Well, they are not.  Because they have the widest temperature tolerance range of any North American freshwater sport-fish they defy shallow labels such as "warm-water" or "cool water".  Common carp are whatever they need to be, which is why they have managed to populate nearly every puddle of water below 7,000 feet in the nation. 

Perhaps I can help you believe a little.  Consider these facts:
  1. I myself have caught a carp every month for three years running.  Actually I have only missed one month in the past 5 years!  Although we have some unusually warm days here in Denver, due to our elevation we are typically considered to be in the same "cold" climate zone as the upper 1/3 of the United States.
  2. I have personally caught a carp while it was snowing.  I know of several people who have done the same.
  3. I have seen carp tailing under shelf ice.
  4. Carp live and thrive in 11 Mile Reservoir in Colorado - which sits at 8602 feet in elevation.  
Does this sound like a warm-water species?  Stop thinking of them as such and it will go a long way in bringing you faith.
2.  Running Water Helps.  Allot:

Most of my winter carp on the fly happens on the Denver South Platte River for two reasons.  First of all, most of the still-waters freeze in the Winter around here.  Second of all, even when they don't, it is much more rare to find an active winter carp in still-water than running water. 

It seems as though carp in still-waters can huddle up on the bottom and essentially hibernate.  In rivers though, they have to swim, and if they gotta swim they gotta eat!!  As a matter of fact, in the most productive areas of the Denver South Platte they actually put on weight during the winter.  Lots of weight.  Several pounds at least.

As far as I can tell, no matter what your climate, if you have carp living in running water that does not freeze over you can catch them in the winter.

Update:  A friend pointed out that the river can't be too large.  In large slow moving rivers like the Columbia, carp can just find a deep dead hole to hunker down in just like in stillwater.

3.  Warming Trends:

You may be surprised to know that the trend in the weather is often more important than today's high temp.  Winter Carp are much more likely to be happy and feeding if you are in a warming trend.  The first nice day in an big upswing works, but the day after that is usually better!

4.  Not So Low Overnight Lows:

You will be shocked to know that the over-night low is often ALSO more important than today's high temp.  The reason is that no matter how nice of a day it is, the water is a massive heat sink and it takes time to warm it up.  If the over-night low was 42 it takes a whole heck of allot less time to warm it up to active levels than if it was below freezing.

It seems like once or twice a winter we will get an over-night low in the high 40s or even low 50s here in Denver followed by a nice day.  On three occasions I have caught it, it has been one of my best fishing days of the entire year every time.

5.  Above Average High:

Carp are very adaptable, and they seem to adjust to their circumstances.  What constitutes a nice day seems to rely heavily on what is average for your location and time of year.  If you live in Texas and it is 50 degrees in the winter the carp are probably fairly unimpressed.  In Denver, I can tell you first hand that they are pretty happy with the situation.  In South Dakota you are in for a banner day if you can escape the biblical amounts of snow melt.  

In the depths of Winter here in Denver I usually draw the line at about a 42F high.  I have caught them colder but that seems to be the point where it gets ridiculously difficult.  I also personally start to turn into a total whiny-baby wuss if it is much colder than that.

6.  Big Ol Nasty Crayfish:

Well, NO.  Absolutely NOT.  I mean, I know crayfish flies are fun to fish, and the "carp only eat crayfish" mass delusion is at least as strong as the "carp are a warm-water fish" mass delusion but CMON!!!! crayfish are dormant in the winter, give it up.  I catch most of my Winter carp on Soft-Hackles, Leaches and Worms.  Egg patterns are also reputed to be ridiculously extremely effective.

7.  Down-Size?

Down-sizing your flies may or may not help in the winter.  Most people agree that it does, but I find that I don't actually bother most of the time and my most productive fly over the past two Winters has been a rather meaty size 6 Chubby Chaser Leech.  

8.  Stop Moving Your Damn Fly Already!!!!!

I don't move my fly very often anymore regardless of what time of year, but learning to present the fly and leave it rest for a moment or ten has made a big difference in my Winter catch rates.  Carp are rarely interested in chasing down dinner this time of year, stripping your fly is even less productive than usual.

It has gotten to the point where I find that I will actually leave my fly still for a full second or two. As I described in this post, I often find that a carp will take my fly after a long, almost uncomfortable pause.

If you do finally decide that your target has not noticed your fly or is otherwise uninterested you may want to give the fly a small twitch.  A very very small twitch.

9.  Find the Warm Water

Any river (and some lakes) has local areas of slightly warmer water.  Carp are very very good at finding these local hot spots.  Or not so-cold spots as it may be, because just a degree or two can make a very big difference in carp activity.  Examples include:
  • Water treatment plant inflows
  • Power Plant Discharges 
  • Freshwater Springs
  • Sewer Discharges
  • Dark bottoms subjected to sun-light
10.  Faith

Did I say faith twice?  Huh.  It might be important.


  1. Good info but I'll see you the end of March.

    1. To eavch their own I guess Bill. I can't wait for March either wsy.

  2. Great post! Hopefully, I can get on a few here this chilly winter in MA.

    On another note, do you sell hats, shirts, or decals with your Fly Carpin logo?

    1. Good luck! Nah man, I don't have any of that. I try hard not to turn my hobby into a job. Stickers would be awesome though.

    2. Yeah, I understand. Would you mind if I printed out the logo and put it on my rod tube? I think it's an awesome logo.

  3. At least with the fish I have here... I find that in the cold winter months their senses become dull. They are far less spooky, it really takes a lot to scare them. That being said, it also takes a lot to get their attention. Big bright attractor flies work best for me.

  4. Ah, running smaller water, that thought haunts me here, if we have some it has trout and whitefish,absolutely not carp. Lucky you.


  5. Interesting post. I live and target Carp in Central California all winter. It obviously does not get anywhere near as cold as Denver. I for the most part look for the same fish all year here becouse of the mild climate. Mild sunny weather like we are having now (mid 50s lows -mid 70s highs) is prime time for numbers but does not seem to bring many bigger fish up into skinny water. Have a good year!

  6. Great info. Winter has not been good to me so far. Miles would say "weak sauce" since I live in Georgia. Of course he's right.

  7. Winter? You have a damn t-shirt on McT!

    Yeah...weak sauce Ty.

  8. Great advice, it may motivate me to try a local stream around here with a few, though not many carp. Regardless, its the only thing not frozen over right now and I for one could use some carp action.

    1. I just caught on Friday afternoon. Doesn't matter, I could use some carp action too. Never enough Atlas.

    2. I just caught on Friday afternoon. Doesn't matter, I could use some carp action too. Never enough Atlas.


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