I'm a closet fly fishing carp-a-holic. Many say that just won't do, not for the national communications director for the country's oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization. We're all about trout here at TU, they tell me. How can we honestly support the notion of fly fishing for one of the most onerous invasive fish in America?
Well... when you connect with one in skinny water and watch it take your backing knot (you know, that afterthought of a knot you tied the day you attached that new $50 fly line to your reel) disappear through the tip-top of your 7-weight, you'll get it.
Carp are invasive. They make a mess of otherwise healthy trout habitat. They eat anything. They broadcast spawn in soupy cyprinid orgies in waters all over the United States.
And they pull. Hard.
And, because they've been so successful in the United States (they were introduced as a food source in the late 1870s, when a young nation was industrializing and needed a ready source of protein), they're just about everywhere. Only Alaska has escaped the carp's assisted migration all across America.
Of late, fly fishers have begun to take notice. In fact, just this week, the New York Times' own Chris Santella did a piece on fly fishing for carp and how American fly anglers are embracing it as a legitimate exercise of their fly fishing equipment. TU's President and CEO Chris Wood is quoted in the piece, noting that he and his sons fly fish for carp during the mulberry "hatch" in Georgetown, just across Key Bridge from TU's home offices in Arlington, Va.
Truthfully, carp are noxious invaders, and they're tough on all native fish species, not just trout. They're true omnivores--I've seen them sip fluffy cottonwood seeds from the surface of a deep reservoir in eastern Idaho, and I've watched them chase crawfish in a backwater canal on the Columbia. They can be aggressive or completely docile and "habituated." Who hasn't thrown bread crumbs to ducks in some urban pond only to watch carp come up and grab a mouthful at times?
They can really muck up a trout stream as they root through the mud for worms and crustaceans. They also likely feed on young trout. But, as with just about any issue involving trout conservation, the healthier the habitat, the less susceptible a watershed is to invaders. Carp like mud and soft bottoms. Most healthy trout streams--spring creeks might be a notable exception--have hard, gravel bottoms. When habitat is compromised, even just a little, invasives like carp can take hold.
And carp are incredibly hardy. They thrive all across the country, from the canals of south Florida to the icy waters of Blackfoot Reservoir in Idaho's Caribou Highlands. They live in the Henry's Fork, the South Platte and the Colorado. They can live in the nastiest, muddiest urban impoundment and in the coldest, clearest mountain river.
Perhaps that's why they're catching on with fly fishers... they're everywhere.
And, of course, they're great sport. The real attraction of carp, at least in my opinion, is the pursuit. In shallow water, they actually tail like redfish or bonefish, and they can be very wary. Where I fish for them here in Idaho on the Snake River, they are quick studies, and require an angler willing to adapt to different conditions, different tactics and different flies. One day, they can be voracious, eating just about anything. The next, nothing seems to tempt them. In short, they're ... challenging.
Given the recreational benefit fly fishers are beginning to derive from carp, I predict more and more anglers will venture to the water in search of these under-appreciated fish. In time, I predict they'll earn more respect from the fly fishing faithful--perhaps even the same respect fly fishers have for them in Europe, where carp are likely the preeminent game fish.
And that's nothing new, really. In his book, "The Compleat Angler," Izaak Walton described carp as "The Queen of Rivers, a stately, a good and very subtil fish ..."
That's quite an endorsement, don't you think?