DURING my short-pants days I was expected to fish for such socially
acceptable species as might be mentioned in polite company. But
soon as I had collected enough so-called game fish to supplement
family and neighbor's larders, I was free to fish for sport and
no questions asked. It was then I pursued carp.
Along with my first pair of long pants there came the obligation
to get in step. So as not to disgrace myself or my family. I abandoned
It took me a long time to overcome the prejudice instilled by fresh
water society and come full circle back to carp. Even after my avocation
became my vocation, I rarely ex tolled the virtues of this Asian,
which immigrated to the states via Europe.
Readers, I discovered, considered it beneath their dignity to read
about- that fish!
But perhaps salt-water anglers' efforts to take all manner of ocean
fish, edible or not, on flies gave me
the necessary courage to explore in depth the possibilities of catching
carp with the same tackle and lures I use on trout.
The attempt has been successful. One week last August while every-
one else in our fishing party took to the big boats in pursuit of
small- mouth bass, I waded Lake Michigan shores and caught several
hundred pounds of carp on dry and wet flies and on nymphs. My five
companions. and their wives got eight bass. The largest weighed
1½ pounds. I didn't beach a carp under 3 pounds, and several
weighed more than 15.
Those carp ran me ragged, and when 4 the water became too deep for
me to follow, they tore off. One panicked in the shallows and leaped
like a tarpon. Another, hooked near a nerve in the eye, went straightaway
with nearly as much speed as a Bahamas bonefish would.
Next day my companions went back out in the big boats but came back
carrying carp. In a bay of Adventure Island, three miles out from
Wisconsin's Fish Creek, they ran into a herd and disembarking, hung
some twenty fish on black gnats fished wet. They were jubilant.
That night, after a dinner of baked salmon recently taken from New
Brunswick's Miramichi, we watched a movie on salmon fishing in the
Maritime Provinces. Alter the movie the talk was not about Atlantic
salmon but about carp.
I had made some converts. Or had I? It is one thing to fish for
carp secretly, or among close friends; it is another to admit it
to strangers or stroll down a pier with a trophy over your shoulder.
In Wisconsin even small boys are apt to say, "That's only a
dumb old carp!"
Breaking the fresh-water social fishing barrier is as hard as trying
to break the sound barrier on roller skates. The carp, a much respected
food fish in the Orient and parts of Europe, got itself ostracized
in this country when it overran warm-water lakes and rivers eliminating
other fish, destroying duck habitat, and even racing muskrats for
juicy water plants. Though this should have been the signal for
all anglers to concentrate on depleting populations, it had an opposite
effect. Anglers dubbed the carp a watery pig and crossed it off
Of course, even after I joined the scorners, I still occasionally
hooked carp on spoons, plugs, and flies. But they were unintentional
meetings. On rare occasions, I would steal off for a day of carp
fishing, but since the waters I visited contained too much vegetation,
I came away convinced that carp could not be taken consistently
on any thing but canned corn or peas, dough balls, or worms.
was quite by accident that I began to suspect carp might be taken
with surprising regularity on flies. One calm and shiny day I was
fishing Rowley's Bay near the tip of Wisconsin's Door County. The
bass had gorged all night on a mayfly hatch that left highways slippery
with an inches-deep layer of lacy-winged insects. I was probing
the bay from a leaf like, 10-foot skiff so as not to spook fish
in the shallows. But there were no bass lifting, and I was about
to cross back to the dock when I spotted surface activity in deeper
Thinking the bright sun had pushed the bass back from the shores,
I slipped the skiff toward the eye of the bay and, standing off
just within range, dropped my artificial mayfly among the feeding
fish. The school slurped floating insects from around my offering
for several minutes before I got a taker. I set the hook, and when
the fish came to the end of the line, it spun my tiny duck boat
before breaking off.
The fish spooked, and I had to wait a few minutes before they surfaced
again a couple of hundred yards away to resume feeding. I switched
to a leader testing 8 pounds, substituted a popper for a fly, and
skimmed over. The size and disturbance of the popper brought instantaneous
time I turned the fish and ultimately slid it over the gunwale.
There wasn't any place for it except between my legs, but I got
the hook out and slid the carp, a 10- or 12-pounder, back into the
By this time the school had put at least 300 yards between us. but
in the feather-light skiff I was among them in minutes.. The first
fish on dragged the boat a short distance before deciding it was
time to come in. When I'd run that school ragged it quit feeding.
But I found other herds, and though I do not know how many .carp
I boated that day, I do know that I ran out of poppers and was using
dry flies before the fish quit feeding. Encouraged by a day of such
sport as I've seldom equaled in fresh or salt water, I secretly
began seeking out the species. Twenty miles from my home in south
eastern Wisconsin I fish for smallmouths in a stretch of the Fox
River below a dam. It was here that I began perfecting a technique
to take carp consistently on nymphs.
In many ways the technique is similar to that used on trout. Rather
than casting at random, I fished only to tailing carp. I dropped
the nymph a half dozen feet (or a dozen, depending on the current)
upstream so it would be rolling the bottom when it came alongside
the feeding fish. My timing had to be perfect. If I struck a fraction'
of a second after the carp touched, it would have rejected the nymph.
Once I got the timing down, it was relatively easy to hook fish
and, in the current, I always had a considerable fight on my hands.
At my home place called Little Lakes, water from my trout pond feeds
into a mill pond containing carp. In July the carp work upstream.
Here there is rarely a hatch of consequence, and the carp live mainly
vegetation. Nevertheless, I soon discovered that a wet fly of a
dark pattern fished slowly just beneath surface took carp if worked
care fully off a light tippet.
My carp fishing extended to other watering places, and it wasn't
long before I had to agree thoroughly with those scientists who
claim the carp is the smartest of all fresh-water fish. Often it
was necessary to go to a 1- pound-test tippet to hook fish consistently.
But hooking them was no guarantee of a fish in hand. Often, if they
couldn't run for it, they were so boisterous they snapped the leader
or, like brown trout, rolled them selves up in it until it broke
from sheer weight.
I have found the most exciting carp fishing with flies in the clear
waters of Lake Michigan. With shores largely devoid of vegetation,
the cruising schools feed actively on emerging and floating flies
and on bottom-crawling nymphs. They even roll rocks to get at the
nymphs housed beneath.
As an example of the kind of action you can have if you forget your
rough-fish prejudice, take the after noon I spent on Lake Michigan
catching between forty and fifty carp on stonefly and mayfly nymphs.
Almost invariably the carp rolled on the strike and I was given
a bronze warning flash. But to strike on the roil was premature.
It was necessary to watch intently where line met leader and lift
sharply at the twitch to set the hook.
After I'd taken some dozen carp, I had an audience. One man and
his several children carried the fish to a washtub in their car,
making trips as long as I caught fish. The man said he wanted the
carp to stock a pond he had just dug.
finally had to stop fishing when a dozen small boys, amazed at this
sudden fish wealth, crowded around to get their assortment of lines
into my "fishing hole." Hooked carp were wrapping line
around their legs, and fearful that I might snag a child, I quit.
That evening my wife and I drove along the high road of Peninsula
State Park to watch the sun set in the bay. We had just parked when
a hatch set off a flurry of feeding a hundred feet below. Judging
by the number and size of the rises, I guessed alewives were taking
the flies. But I had to find out, so taking a flyrod I always have
ready, I slid down the steep bank and put out a spent wing I'd grabbed
from the box.
A fish took at once. It was a 6-inch smallmouth. All the feeding
fish were tiny bass. I was about to turn away and climb the bank
when I noticed a vigorous disturbance. As I watched, a tail as wide
as a shovel began waving to and fro as a gigantic carp fanned to
maintain its balance while doing a headstand and taking emerging
flies as they popped off the bottom.
I put on a mayfly nymph and, estimating the length of the carp by
the breadth of its tail, tried to put the lure precisely where the
fish was feeding. Some delicacy was required to keep the line and
leader from spooking the fish.
My fly was taken, not by the carp I had been fishing for, but by
a 3-pounder which I led ashore as quickly
as possible to keep it from spooking the herd. Competition from
emerging flies was intense, and it required considerable casting
and concentration to get another taker. When it did happen I was
no more ready for the ensuing violence than I am at this instant
for an atomic explosion. Making waves like a boat, the carp headed
straight for the Strawberry Islands, and I had about as much chance
of turning it as I had of stopping a steamer.
But I was ready for the next fish, and before it could level off
I put on the pressure. Keeping it off balance by bringing its head
up, turning it sharply, pressuring it until it panicked into a shoreward
run, I finally had it flopping beneath my feet.
It was dark by then, so I wet several bath towels and wrapped the
great fish for a ride back to our cottage at Leland Thorp's Fish
Creek resort. It just fit in the water-filled bathtub, and after
thoroughly frightening the cleaning lady next day, I showed it around
before turning it free.
We planned to leave at noon, but first I drove to the inlet where
the 3-pounders lived. It took a good fifteen minutes to perfect
my timing, but then I quickly took seven carp, which I filleted
and subsequently made into spicy, jellied canapés to eat
cold before meals or as a midnight snack.
The edibility of carp has often been argued but not, I suspect,
on the grounds of taste. Here is a case in point: As a youngster,
I and several other self-named River Rats, once earned money by
selling small carp: to an Armenian restaurant owner didn't know
a pike from a perch, sol we told him they were bass. Every Friday
he put a huge sign in the window announcing a special on black bass
dinners. His customers enjoyed the fish immensely until a game warden,
intent on stopping the sale game fish, discovered the ruse an told
the restaurant owner he being bilked. Friday diners complained when
the bass entree disappeared from the menu.
Though I have four spring-fed ponds with all manner of trout and
other fresh-water game-fish species, I still eat carp smoked, pickled,
fried, and baked. That is more than I can say for the innumerable
bonefish I have taken along the Keys and the shorelines of the Bahamas
Islands. It is more than I'd expect from the hundreds of baby and
big tarpon taken in Everglades' ditches and Central American rivers.
So, what's in a name? Shakespeare should come around these days.
If a new name is all that's needed to give the much-maligned carp
a little status, I'm all for calling them copper-colored bones.
Maybe that would encourage the attention they deserve.