Those Copper-Colored Bones
For those of you who'd rather fight carp than catch carp try them on a Fly . You may switch!!

By Mel Ellis

 


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 carp altogether.


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 their list.


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.

It 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 water.


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 results.


This 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 bay.
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.

I 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.