or Chris tests the strength of his 5 weight fly rod against a monster carp
Spoiler alert: I caught a carp! I finally accomplished one of my last fishing goals of the season, and I wasn’t even fishing for those cow-like fish. If you’re interested in the story, keep reading. Otherwise, you can scroll down and take a look at the fish.
As is my ritual on the weekend, I planned to get out fishing for a while on both Saturday and Sunday. I fish often, sometimes everyday, but longer distance trips are usually out of the question during the week. Although I work at home, even if I leave my house at 5:01pm, there aren’t too many fishing holes I can get to before the ridiculously early sunset that is now happening around 6pm. Not to mention rush hour. So during the week, I fish local; Salt Creek, the greenie pond, other various ponds… The weekend is for the “big adventures.”
Lately I’ve been obsessed with fly fishing. I’ve tried to explain it, but always fall short. There is no rhyme or reason to it; if I simply wanted to catch fish, there are much easier ways to do it. Hooks and crawlers. Spinning rods. Anything seems less complicated when compared to the mass of tangled line and hook that is my fly rod.
Saturday afternoon I was out, standing in the middle of the river, fishing a stretch I know well. As soon as I first set eyes on the spot, I was astounded by the water level. It had to be up at least six inches from last week. That may not sound like much, but entire areas that were simply rocks and plants last week were filled with minnows this week. I could see them being chased in these shallows, perhaps by smallmouth bass. Some of these little fish jumped 6 or 7 inches clear out of the water! Whenever I see that happening, I think about asian carp jumping, and how carp are the “largest species of minnow.” It kind of makes sense; that’s what minnows do when they get freaked out.
Almost immediately, as is my custom, I broke off my leader. For those unfamiliar with fly fishing, instead of a reel full of one kind of fishing line (like normal spinning gear), a fly fishing outfit has different kinds of line. There is backing, which is tied to the reel. Then fly line, which in my case is neon green, weighted line that also floats. The reason it is possible to cast almost weightless lures in fly fishing is this weighted line- you don’t cast the lure or the fly, you cast the line. Then at the end of this line is tippet and leader. I am not entirely clear how this is supposed to work, but I think generally there is a tippet that is tapered; Meaning the end that connects to the fly line is thicker than the part on the fly-end. As far as I can tell, people either tie their flies directly on this tippet, or they tie on yet another length of line as a leader.
The whole setup has something to do with physics, “transferring the load,” “loading the tip;” and of course not spooking the fish. Since I can barely fly cast to save my life, and I’m not generally fishing for trout, I try and simplify the whole thing. For me, it’s frustrating enough without having to worry about 10 kinds of fishing line and all the knots that go with them. On my fly rod, I’ve got backing, then fly line, then I tie a 1-5′ leader of either 4 pound monofilament line (normal fishing line) or Power Pro (braided fishing line). That’s it. Keep it simple. Sometimes I tie on a snap swivel to make fly changing easier. I’m aware that is somewhat blasphemous.
On my spinning gear, when I break off a lure on the rocky bottom of the Fox, I loose the lure and perhaps a few inches of my fishing line. When I break off a fly, I usually loose not only the fly but my entire leader. I’m still learning the knots one uses to tie the lines together, and clearly have not perfected them.
So just a few minutes into my fly fishing expedition, I needed to retie my leader. Normally, tying knots while standing in the river is no big deal. I’ve been doing this for more than a whole year. But this new knot I learned, the one that lets you connect your leader to your fly line; that one is hard, man. I think it’s called the nail knot. Instead of simply tying it and being done with it, you must use something in the shape of a nail to help tie it. It is impossible otherwise.
I don’t carry a nail with me, nor do I keep a “nail knot tool.” I probably should. Instead, I work with what I’ve got. So while I grumbled and swore at my lost leader and the fly I lovingly tied earlier in the day, I pulled out my hemostat to use as a nail knot tool. Hemostat is another one of those fancy fly-fishing words, I think. It’s the fancy name for little scissors that don’t cut, they grab. Like what surgeons use.
After what seemed like 20 minutes, I was tied back on and ready to fish. I alternate between mono and braided leader; it seems to me the thin and supple braided line has a tendency to wrap around my rod in ridiculously tiny knots, but is super strong. Mono doesn’t knot as much, but is much more prone to breakage. It’s a tradeoff.
So I kept fishing, I think I was using mono, throwing wooly buggers and clouser minnows. Those are streamers, flies that swim under the surface. I used to think fly fishing meant only using flies that floated on the surface, but that is only part of it. Lots of flies, like streamers and nymphs, are fished under the surface. Trout only get 10% of their food from the surface anyway. But I digress.
I saw fish everywhere, chasing minnows, even a few jumping. I tried bright-colored flies, dark flies, light flies, heavy flies… Nothing. It was casting practice, which I certainly need. It’s one thing to practice casting a piece of yarn into a frisbee in my driveway, as my neighbors watch, confused; But I’d much rather “practice” when there is a chance an actual fish will take my fly.
I practiced for quite a while, often falling far short of my target; often knotting my line in strange places. Often coming within a few inches of my face, hearing the whizz of my weighted streamers fly past my ears. I “clousered” my rod a few times (smacked it with my weighted minnow flies). Later on, I snapped off my leader and again had to tie another one on. As frustrating as it is, I know that practice really does make perfect. Every time I tie one of those complicated nail knots I get better at it; quicker. I used to need lots of light, quiet, and focus to do it; now I tie them all the time standing in the middle of the river, the relentless current pummeling my thighs while fish jump around, teasing me.
Sam called, wondered if I was out fishing. We decided to meet up and do some fishing; I fished my way back to the car, loaded up my gear, and headed north. We met at a much more urban stretch of water where he’d had some luck lately. He said he’d seen some carp sipping topwater, that maybe I should try casting some flies in their direction. It was a good idea, and I would have loved to catch some carp, but I just ended up catching the pile of branches they were swimming around.
I switched to spinning gear (since my fly rod is a 6-piece travel rod, I can disassemble it and carry it in my backpack) and threw jigs and cranks, but there were no fish willing to participate. Sam had one for a second on topwater, but that was all the excitement we got.
After our short outing, I had my first experience drinking beer, in a bar, in waders. I have to say, it was great. Thanks for the beer Sam!
The next day, as is my Sunday tradition, I was once again headed out to fish. After a quick stop a L.L. Bean, which we have visited so often the folks there know us, I was headed back to the river. As I drove, I thought about something one of the guys there said. He was telling me about a fishing spot, but he advised me to watch out for the people shore fishing. The folks fishing for catfish and carp, the “meat fisherman” as he called them. There was a bit of disgust when he said that, as if their style of fishing wasn’t as good or pure as “our” style of fishing (i.e. fly fishing). He’s a good guy, I don’t think he meant any harm, but I wonder where that sense of “this kind of fishing is better than that kind of fishing” comes from.
I got to the river, to a spot I don’t know too well but have fished a handful of times. I wanted to explore some water with the fly rod. Maybe catch some fish. I suited up, assembled my rod, and tied on a clouser minnow I’d made earlier in the day. Although I was a L.L. Bean where they have plenty of beautiful flies for purchase, I just can’t make myself spend $4 on something I know I will loose immediately on the bottom of the river. Especially when I can make it myself for, well, not $4. Probably not $4, I haven’t really done the math. But at least I don’t feel too bad when I loose it. I can just make more.
I worked my way out into the current, wading up to my chest, the water dangerously close to the top of my waders. After it was too late, I realized the water was flowing through my fishing vest pockets, filling my fly boxes with water. I was pretty sure that was a big fly fishing “no-no,” but hey- they’re going to get wet eventually. Now they are “pre-wet.”
Finally I got to some shallower water, and worked the entire shoreline around an island. It was a beautiful day; 70°F, sunny with some clouds; not much wind. I was completely comfortable in my neoprene waders and a short-sleeve Nintendo t-shirt. Trying to cast into a nice current break, I caught my fly in a tree that snuck up behind me when I wasn’t looking. I snapped my line off trying to get the fly back and set to work tying on a new leader. I could see the fly I tied, sitting in the tree just out of my reach.
I saw another angler fishing a chatterbait; a fast topwater lure. In some ways, we were fishing opposites- he was fast and loud, I was creeping along, hoping that pulsing bucktail or marabou could quietly trick some fish. We exchanged some words, talked about the water levels, and he moved on. I stopped for a bit to retie my leader, since it broke off on another tree.
The sun was about an hour from setting, but it was already darker out. It was nice to avoid the glare of the sun. Now I was wading upstream, up the backside of the island, trying to find where there might be fish. I broke off my leader and tied a new one.
I saw some fish at the surface, in the distance, and decided to head there. I’d caught at least one fish there before, so I knew at leaast they had been there in the past. Of course it meant nothing for today, but it was something. I cast upstream, trying to be stealthy, trying to get my flies in just the right places…
I am constantly amazed at the complexity of knots I’ve been able to make while fly fishing. I can consistently make the most intricate, mind-bogglingly complex knots simply by waving my rod around, trying to cast. If there is a stray gust of wind, or if I stop paying attention for a moment, suddenly my line knots itself around my rod and my fly hangs there in the wind like an overcooked noodle. When I bring the rod in for closer inspection, I look at the knot. It looks like somebody spent hours and hours learning to perfect this particular knot; the line weaves in and out of the fly line, through the guides, creating a dense web of fishing line. A very secure knot.
I have no idea how this happens. After spending 10 minutes standing motionless in the river trying to untie this masterpiece of a knot, I give up and simply cut the line. But even that isn’t enough; I have to unknot the cut line! In a flurry of frustration I splash over to the nearest gravel bar, put my rod down, and cut more line. I swear profusely. I plead with the river gods “Why!!? Why!!?” I say like a little kid who got his toy truck taken away.
Eventually I have yet another length of leader on the end of my line, and I am again casting. Trying to be calm. Remember to “load the tip.” I still think that sounds dirty, but it’s a fly fishing phrase.
There are fish surfacing near the shore, so I slowly creep to a distance from which I can cast. With my limited casting skills, that isn’t far.. So I was pretty close. I had a brown clouser minnow with a red yarn body on my line, and I cast it toward the shore.
I let it sink, then I stripped the line (pulled it in with my left hand) to make it “swim” along the bottom. I did this a few times, and then..
..The unmistakable feeling of a fish on the end of my line! I was shaken out of the daze I had been in, and was now in fish-catching mode. There were head shakes, it swam upstream, then downstream. It felt big! I wondered if it was a smallie! And then, PING!
The sound of my monofilament leader snapping.
I knew what happened; I inspected the end of my fly line where there used to be mono. The strength of the fish simply snapped the 4 pound test.
Knowing what I had to do, I was miraculously able to retie a new length of line onto my fly line and get back to casting in record time. There was a fish who took my fly. I was onto something. Maybe I could repeat this. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. This was why I was out here.
I tied on a similar clouser minnow, this one was all brown. I cast it out, let it sink, and slowly swam it back to me in short strips. I cast again, hoping for a replay. Hoping the fish would somehow forget that grabbing a brown hairy thing results in an uncomfortable stabbing sensation in the lip and do it again. I kept casting, convinced there was a fish there.
Sure enough, there was.
Suddenly, when I pull the line in to swim it back, it stops cold. Immediately, my rod tip bends down like a tree in a hurricane, and my line goes as tight as a trip wire. There are no splashes, I can’t see the fish; all the action is under the water. In the low light and cloudy water, I can’t see anything, but I know it’s a nice fish.
I knew right away this was the biggest fish I’d ever hooked into with a fly rod. I couldn’t suppress my giggling; even if I lost this fish right away, this was why I was out here. This was why I spent hours looking for fish, retying leaders, swearing at the river; this experience, fighting a fish like this is why I go out fishing.
It swam upstream, then downstream. I noticed my rod was now an almost-perfect upside-down U shape. I was amazed it hadn’t broken in half. At the time, it didn’t occur to me I only had 4 pound test monofilament; I still can’t believe that didn’t snap. I carefully tried to get the fish “on the reel,” which I’m pretty sure is fly-fishing-speak for when there is no slack between the reel and the fish. (In other words, instead of holding the line with my left hand, the reel is holding the fish.) It turned out my drag was miraculously set to a good level; the fish took line downstream, and my reel graciously gave the fish the line it wanted. I struggled to hold on to my rod; every little run threatened to tear the rod out of my hand. I didn’t know how to hold the rod with such a big fish on the end. I held it with both hands, hoping the fish wouldn’t take my 6 piece 5 weight.
Whenever the fish paused, I’d slowly reel in the line using the strange fly reel. I’m still not used to those things.
I slowly but surely gained ground on the fish as it tired out; it occurred to me this was probably one of the biggest fish I’d ever caught. Then again, I’m not used to catching fish on the fly rod, so I had no reference as to its size… Until I gained enough ground I was able to slightly lift the fish toward the surface so I could get a look at it in case I lost it.
That’s when I saw the red tail. The big, big red tail.
I giggled again, even though I wasn’t sure what this fish was. In my limited experience fishing, the red tail alone wasn’t enough to tip me off. I had it narrowed down to two species- some kind of catfish, or a carp. I was pretty sure it was a carp. A big one.
A carp! That big lumbering fish I’d spent so much time trying to catch this year; all those hours tossing canned corn and bread out into the water. The time spent researching “backstabber” flies; carping with a fly rod. And I hook into one while trying to catch smallies.
Then I realized the carp didn’t actually take my fly; I somehow had snagged it in the tail. The tail! The big, powerful red tail. Everytime it wanted to swim away, I was at its mercy. There was nothing I could do but wait until it tired out. I’d watched enough steelhead fly fishing youtube videos to know you can’t horse a big fish in on the fly. I had to give it time, be patient. Hope my line didn’t snap. Hope my rod didn’t snap!
I slowly, carefully made my way to the gravel bar, keeping all the tension on the fish. I didn’t have a net with me, not that this fish would have fit in my little trout net. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to “land” this monster. By the time I was standing in a few inches of water, the carp had stopped fighting. It had surrendered, saying to me “ok, if you can figure out how to grab me you can take my picture. Make it quick, please.”
Somehow I managed to get the fish in shallower water, and that’s when I saw its full size. This was a BIG fish. One of those big carps I’d seen so many times but had always seemed just out of reach. I tried grabbing it with my hands, but it was too slippery. Although the fly was firmly in its tail, I was still worried about my U-shaped rod snapping, or my 4 pound leader deciding to quit. Holding my ultra-tensed rod in my right hand, I unzipped my backpack with my left hand and pulled out my fish gripper. I managed to grab the carp’s lips and hoist it out of the water.
What a fish!
Not as long as the flatheads I’d caught under the expert tutelage of Sam, but certainly the fattest fish I’d caught out of the Fox. I guessed at least 20″, probably longer. My grips said 4+ pounds, but they’ve been known to be low. My best guess was this fish was 4.5 or even 5 pounds. I giggled some more.
I saw my fly in the fish’s tail, and couldn’t figure out how to get it out without setting the fish down. As gently as I could, I laid the fish down on the wet grass and managed to get the hook out. A tiny hole was left, I hoped that wouldn’t impede the fish’s movement in the future. I marveled at this beast; as always, I was shocked that something this big was swimming around in the river, not far from where I was wading. The muddy water must hide a lot of fish just below the surface…
I was on a grassy gravel bar; there was no place to prop my phone for a picture. I tried holding the fish in one hand and stretching my phone-arm out, but I couldn’t get the whole fish in the frame. It was a big fish. As a last recourse, I set the timer on my phone to 20 seconds, set it on some grass, and held up the carp. Not the best picture, but certainly a record of one of the most awesome fishing experiences I’d ever had.
After the picture was taken, I carefully placed the fish back in the water and held it there to orient it and make sure it was ok. I held it in my hands, just like I’ve seen fly fisherman hold trout in their hands, reviving the fish. And then, as if nothing epic had happened, the carp casually swam out of my hands. I watched it swim until I couldn’t see it anymore.
So freaking awesome.
That one fish more than made up for all the frustrations I’d had; My 5 weight rod had proven itself as a great piece of gear that did not let me down. It was a miracle I was able to land the fish, that my knot didn’t fail, that my leader didn’t break. What an amazing experience.
As the sun set and I waded back to the shore, I wondered what that first fish could have been. The one that snapped off my leader. Could I have really snagged a carp twice in the tail? The fight seemed much different than the carp-tail fight. I think it was a smallie. A big smallie, but of course I’ll never know.
Almost to the shore, I noticed little dimples on the water’s surface, barely visible in the low light. It looked like fish were eating bugs off the surface. I cut off the streamer I had on my line and replaced it with an adams dry fly I tied. It’s been very successful with green sunfish at local ponds; I hoped it’s large profile would be visible in the dark- for me and the fish. As I was tying it on, a little brown moth landed on my rod. I took that as a good sign, and cast my dry fly.
It was hard to place it where I wanted it, but after a few casts I put it right in the middle of the little dimples. And there it was; a miss. A fish tried grabbing my fly but missed- but it was a good sign! I cast back to that spot, and lost my fly in the dark. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t see any attack or splash, but something told me to tug the line with my left hand, to set the hook. I did, and suddenly my line swam away! Soon I brought to hand a beautiful little Fox River greenie. A great end to an awesome trip.
And here’s another picture of that big old carp and me, just because: