Great Lakes Carp Fly Fishing by Bob Gwizdz

Great Lakes Carp Fly Fishing by Bob Gwizdz

Do you remember your first time?

I do. It was memorable.

carp fly fishing great lakes

I was standing there in the bright morning sun, maybe a knee-deep in the ultra-clear water of West Grand Traverse Bay, off a rocky point, when I first saw the fish casually cruising around in gangs of three to a dozen or more, seemingly unaware of my presence.

I shot a cast out – a tan-colored wooly bugger – a few yards in front of the direction they were headed and watched as the fly settled slowly toward the bottom. The fish cruised by; the fly was unceremoniously ignored.

As another pod of fish came by, I repeated my presentation. Nada.  Minutes later, I tried again. Ditto. But my fourth cast? Fourth time’s a charm.

I saw a fish slowly change its orientation, from hovering flat over the bottom to a head-down, tail-up attitude and move slightly to one side. It took the fly. I executed a quick strip set, shot the rod skyward and, voila, I was one with the bronze-colored behemoth, which took off on at a surprising clip, bulldogging and head-shaking as it tried unsuccessfully to discard the faux fly it had inhaled. The 8-weight rod bent into an almost parabola. The reel’s drag complained. And I just held on, keeping a tight line, gaining on it when I could until, ultimately, I brought the fish -- I guessed it at around 10 pounds – to hand.

carp fly fishing great lakes

It was my first carp on a fly rod.

Nothing to it, eh? Four casts and I’d already bettered a bruiser in a game that other, more-experienced anglers had told me would be a painstaking and frustrating experience.

I fished the rest of the day, casting hundreds of times, to small pods, large schools, even loners. And I never touched another fish. Call it beginner’s luck.

More than a decade later, I’m even more intrigued by the large-scaled, rubbery-lipped, over-sized minnows that have become all the rage among Great Lakes fishermen who are looking for an unusual and challenging angling experience.  

Carp are the real deal.

These days, it’s not at all unusual to find veteran fly fishing guides who will willingly – even enthusiastically – give up the hair-thin tippets and the No. 18 dry flies to chunk a streamer or a nymph at what have lovingly become known as “golden bones.”

The name alludes to bonefish, those saltwater finsters that attract fly fishermen to tropical waters for a chance to do battle with the shallow-water denizens. The comparison is apt; carp are typically pursued by wading anglers, working the flats, stalking to get within casting distance of them. And when everything comes together – when the stars are aligned and you’re holding your mouth just right and you find a fish that’s willing to play, well, hold on. You are in for a treat.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Bob Braendle, a veteran fly caster who is not averse to taking a week off work now and again to go to the tropics to fish the bones, says carp offer your best chance to catch more big fish on a fly than just about any other flats species.

“I do enjoy it,” said Braendle, who stops short of saying he’s consumed by crap. “I honestly believe the carp fishing we have here is some of the best flats fishing anywhere in the world."

“You can certainly have good days and bad days – as we all know,” he continued. “But it’s something I look forward to every year.”

Braendle says the biggest challenge beginning carp-chasing fly angler face is “is recognizing fish that will eat versus fish that will just cruise or fish that are just milling around.”

“It’s not easy to describe,” he said. “It just takes time looking at fish to figure out which ones are going to be eaters and which ones aren’t. Obviously, if you fish tailing or tipping down, those fish are definitely eating. But there are a lot more that are eating that aren’t doing that. It’s just their attitude; you see one and that one just looks right.”

carp fly fishing great lakes

Braendle said he like flies, tied like crayfish and Hex nymphs, small Clousers, and rubber-legged wigglers.

“But I think if you’ve got the right fish, the flies aren’t all that important.”

Braendle figures he lands about one out every four fish that he hooks.

“They’re very strong,” he said. “They abrade you on the rocks, they get out in deep water -- and there’s nothing you can do about it. And often as not, the fly just pulls out. It’s an extended fight – it’s not something where you’re going to land them in a couple of minutes.”

Braendle says the first carp of the season is always special and he can remember every one without even thinking about it. But most importantly, he said, carp fishing has it all.

“It’s got everything,” he said. “You see the fish, you’ve got your target, you throw to that target and you either win or lose. I’ve had days when I’ve hooked a dozen and landed six and I have had days when I’ve hooked one and landed it -- and those days stand out just as well.”

When winter is especially cold, carp fishing season is likely to begin later than usual – “It’s obviously tied to the temperatures of the water in the shallows,” Braendle said – but it might last longer than usual, too. And that could be a good thing as summer weather is more stable – it’s awfully tough to fish the flats when the wind gets up. But when the fish actually go to spawning – when they’re rolling around together in the shallows – it gets pretty hard to get them to bite. They’ve got other things on their minds.

I asked Braendle if he had any final words of advice for carp anglers.

“Ya,” he said. “If you see my red Ford Explorer parked, go someplace else.”

It’s true; carp fishing has become so popular that some of the community holes on Grand Traverse Bay – one of the best flats fishing destinations anywhere -- are crowded when conditions are right. Most guides take boats to get away from the crowds into areas where’s there’s little foot access so they don’t have to deal with the competition.

Brian Pitser, who runs the Northern Angler fly shop in Traverse City, said carp fishing is “awesome.”

“Both East and West Bays are awesome all the way up to the tip of Old Mission Peninsula,” said Pitser, who says there are times he sells more carp fishing flies than trout bugs. “It’s definitely a growing part of our business.

“They key in on crayfish or nymphs – like brown drake-type nymphs – olive, brown or tan, tied with the hook pointed up.”

Pitser recommend a bonefish leader with about 18 inches of 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon tippet.

“Follow the wind direction,” he said. “Look for fish that facing into the wind, in anywhere from knee-deep to hip-deep water. You can sometimes find them in really shallow water, but they can be really spooky in anything less than knee-deep water. Make sure you lead them if they’re moving. And if you see them head-down, tail –up -- actually tailing – put it right on their dinner plate.”

Carp move up on the shallow flats to stage for the spawn, beginning -- depending on the spring weather – anywhere from mid- to late May and they’ll be at it most years into the first week of July. (For years, I made an annual pilgrimage to Grand Traverse Bay the week of the fourth of July.)

“Look for warm water,” Pitser said. “If you get into an area that feels real cool, that’s not where you want to be.”

Pitser agrees with me: getting them to bite can be a big hurdle.

”Sometimes you cast to 300 to catch one,” he said. “And sometimes you cast to 20 fish to catch eight. If you’ve cast to a bunch of fish and changed flies a couple of times and none of them want to eat, it’s time to go find other fish.”

I’ve had some tough days when I found plenty of fish, fished to them, and never got them to go. But I’ve not had those days when it seems like they all want to play. I’ve never caught more than a small handful on a given day, though I have had some days when it seemed like I was missing more than I was hooking.

And that’s a key, too. Despite their reputation as dullards, carp will reject a fly as quickly as a brown trout. You’ve pretty much got to be on them right now.

carp fly fishing great lakes

I’ve had my best success when I’ve been able to find fish that were heading straight toward me and put the fly a few yards in front of them – giving the fly time to settle to the bottom before they get there – and watched them take it.

I keep s-l-o-w-l-y stripping and if I feel anything resembling weight on the business end, I give it a yank and get the rod up immediately.

The sad part of carp fishing is it’s a short season.

After they spawn, the fish move out to deeper water and if you can’t see them, well, I won’t say you can’t catch them – I’ve seen it done, mostly by smallmouth bass anglers who stumble across them -- but there is a whole lot of water for them to be in out there in the Great Lakes. This is a visual sport and the best time to fish them is often when the sun is high – so you don’t cast a shadow when you’re wading – and you can see them well.

The most important characteristic of carp anglers in tenacity; the best carp fly fisherman I know, Jon Andrus, told me it took him a year before he finally caught one. Now, he gets them most times. But not always.

There are very few gimmes when it comes to carp fishing on the fly rod. If you’re easily frustrated, this isn’t going to be your game.

- written by Bob Gwizdz

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