Carp Are Not Bonefish

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Carp on the flats Photo by Louis Cahill

Carp on the flats Photo by Louis Cahill

By Dan Frasier

Hardcore carp nuts are hard people to like.

We’re argumentative, sensitive about our fish, and contentious. We’ll assume you’re insulting the fish we love so much; taking offense to the most innocuous statements and won’t hesitate to demean whatever quarry you choose to pursue. I was once heard saying, “Trout are the pretentious man’s bluegill.” Things like that. For the record, I later apologized because I love trout and the dude I was yelling at didn’t deserve it either way. But this defensive nature begs the question, “How the hell did we get like this?”

The answer is pretty simple. We spent years fishing in the shadows. Lying about what we were chasing or being derided for chasing them. To this day, I catch shit nearly every time someone asks me what I’m fishing for. When we finally decided to come out of the closet, it was mostly to derision and smirks. We caught fish, posted pictures and spent a fair amount of time fighting off the hate that comes with fishing for something that people have been misinformed into believing destroys the water quality and reduces the populations of real fish. It was a rough time to be a carper.

About 10 years ago a man by the name of David McCool, in Traverse City Michigan, coined the term “Golden Bonefish.”

David was a marketer by trade and guide in his free time and he wanted to “rebrand” the carp. He decided the first order of business was associating carp flyfishing with something more palatable to, what can be, a snooty and exclusive audience. Don’t believe me? Tell a flyfishermen you put a worm on your hook and cast it with a flyrod and see how exclusive we can be. Anyway, David got some notoriety and the association with Bonefish stuck. In a lot of ways, it was the crack in the flyfishing world’s defenses that we needed to come barging in. And it worked.

David fished the crystal clear sand flats of Lake Michigan near Traverse City on Traverse Bay. Hell, he probably still fishes there. I’ve lost track of him. The point is, his fishing was wading knee deep flats over sand in bathtub clear water while looking for shoals of fish cruising and tailing on small baitfish. He was bonefishing… for carp. It just made sense. And you can still bonefish for carp. I’ve done it. You have to get a boarding pass to a select number of destinations at the right time of year to do it. But it’s available. So David wasn’t wrong. He simply didn’t understand the diversity of conditions under which we would eventually find ourselves flyfishing for carp.

To this day, the association with bonefishing persists. People discuss using carp as training for bonefish trips, or inevitably try to sell flyfishing for carp as bonefishing in freshwater. It’s such a flawed notion it doesn’t make all that much sense.

Flyfishing for carp is so ridiculously varied, that it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about what it is “like.”

Here in South Dakota alone, I catch nearly a third of my carp on dryflies. Another third are caught tailing and the last third, I nymph. Obviously that kind of variety belies blanket categorization. To make matters more complicated, as I’ve traveled to fish other water I’ve run across even more variety. On the Columbia, the carp tail in thigh deep water on clam beds and won’t move more than three inches for a fly. On Beaver Island, we spent one day casting to carp in the surf that we could see roll up in the pounding waves as they cruised the shoreline, and another day casting in 9 feet of water as we watched them slowly cruise the bottom looking for big crayfish. I’ve stalked them to a rod’s length and dapped them from shore, watched them bust baitfish and hooked them from 15 feet above the water on a spillway. So is flyfishing for carp like fishing for bones? Maybe, once in a while, in the right place and at the right time.

What carp flyfishing really is, is the art of figuring out how to get an eat regardless of the situation. The angler is required to be adaptable enough, and fluent enough in all different fishing styles to fish fairly competently in numerous different ways. To make matters worse, a carp feeding “like” another fish is probably more difficult to get to eat than the fish it’s being compared to. In other words, it’s harder to get a carp that is rising to take a dry than it is a trout that is rising. It’s harder to get a carp that is tailing to eat small crayfish than it is a redfish that is tailing. To put it in perspective, the day I spent casting in deep water to big fish on Beaver Island was with John Arnold. John guided permit for years and near the end of the day he turned to me and said, “If we’d had this many shots at permit in a day we’d each have landed 3.” We had 3 carp between the 2 of us.

This all gets me back to the bonefish comparison.

It does a real disservice to anglers, particularly young anglers, to continue to say that carp eat like bonefish. Or hell any fish for that matter. Chances are they don’t eat like bones where that person is and if you fished them like bones you’ll get your ass handed to you. More appropriately, we should say that each population of carp eat differently than the next. Those styles will vary by season and even by time of day and the real trick is throwing out all the rules. The art comes in assessing a situation, watching the behavior, selecting a fly that fits what you’re seeing and using whatever technique is necessary to get THAT fish to eat your fly. If you’re as good at stalking as McTage Tanner of is, then get close and dap them. If you see as well as John Montana of Carp On the Fly does, then put your fly on a dime at 30 feet and stick them on the eats no one else can see. Just find a way to assess the individual situation with an open mind, use your strengths and what the carp are telling you to fish them the right way AT THAT TIME, and remember… there is no wrong way to catch a carp. As long as it’s fair hooked. Snagging is for idiots.

Dan Frasier
Gink & Gasoline
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16 thoughts on “Carp Are Not Bonefish

  1. “Tell a flyfishermen you put a worm on your hook and cast it with a flyrod and see how exclusive we can be. ” This is quite possibly the most accurate comment on fly fishing I’ve ever read.

  2. Right on Dan! I’m 100% on board for calling carp, carp. They sure don’t act like a bonefish/redfish most of the time. Carp are RARELY “aggressive” and willing to chase a fly where I fish. But I’m sure learning to spot, stalk, and cast to a carp isn’t going to hurt your bonefishing skills.

  3. I caught Permit before I caught a Carp, and I will say after years of Carp fishing, overall, you are pretty spot on.

    One thing I will say, is that I still tell people who have never taken a shot at a saltwater flats fish to go fish for carp for a couple weekends before their trip. It’s not because carp are a perfect proxy for bonefish, but it is because many times carp fishing relies on the same fishing and tactical fundamentals as the flats fish do. It’s primarily sight fishing, so you learn to look for shadows or tails or muds. It’s one of the few freshwater species where you have to determine if the fish are “happy” or even better yet, determine which fish in a pod is the happiest. You have to get to a good position without blowing up the spot (which is easy to do). You have to have accurate, yet delicate presentations that are well timed to target the proper fish without blowing up the spot, and in clear water, you need long leaders. You have to be able to anticipate where the fish will be when the fly lands, and not where it is right now. Once hooked, it is one of the few freshwater fish that will force you to get used to clearing your line and fighting a fish off the reel, using the butt of the rod instead of the tip, and they are one of the few freshwater species (the other perhaps being Musky) that will frustrate you to no end by completely blowing off a perfect presentation, teaching you to get used to the frustration of the flats.

    I guess while Carp may not be “golden bones”, because they live anywhere and have diverse behavior, if you stick with hunting them and figuring them out, they will probably force you into becoming a better all around angler for any species whether you like it or not.

    • I could’t agree more Chris. In fact, I think you could say that about most species of fish. If you want to get better with dries, find surface feeding carp. You want to get better and stalking small streams, find small stream carp. Etc. Etc. But I also think you could just say, you want to have a helluva time, vary up your fishing every outing and chase a super difficult and rewarding fish, better get better at carp. I could argue that fishing carp in so many different situations has made me so much better at addressing those situations that I now have replaced travelling to get those other fish with travelling to fish for carp.

  4. Spot on. During my five days on Beaver, my first real carp experience, I caught them in the surf, stuck to the bottom in fifteen feet of water, cruising the windward shorelines, tailing in backwater tidal basins, and snoozing in deep grasses. I (tried to) intersect their line from seventy feet and tempted them with just eighteen inches of leader extended from my rod tip. From the boat, from the shore, from water to my waist. The variety was amazing.

    And tons of fun.

    • Thats the magic of The Beav. It can have fish in about every different situation. Well almost. I’ve yet to hear about a surface feeder there. Regardless, after your experience wouldn’t you agree that when someone says, “How do you catch carp?” or “What fish do carp act like?” The answer must be, “Oh shit… sit down and grab a drink. This is gonna take a minute.”

  5. I remember putting rancid chicken livers on a hook and casting for channel cats in the Potomac as a kid….man did they bend that thing. I also remember fishing for Smallmouth on the VA side of Harrison island, and marveling at the giant koi swimming under Ball’s Bluff. Never occurred to me to fish for em.

  6. Fantastic article!!! If I had to compare carp to any other species of fish it would be a redfish. We call carp FREDS around these parts. Freshwater Redfish. Although as the article points out carp, well they r an animal unlike any other. They feed like carp. Eat like carp. And well believe it or not they look just like carp. I won’t go into details on how a carps tendencies resemble other species. I will say this. If your going to invest the money in traveling to a saltwater destination after redfish or bonefish. Do yourself a favor and your guide a favor. Go fish for carp. Preferably from a boat. Preferably with a guide. What u will learn fishing for them will make your life easier on the salt flats.

  7. Good article . I couldn’t agree more. What makes it so much fun to chase carp are the variables that determine whether you catch a carp or not.

    The person that can tie a fly that slowly sinks through the water column will have the most success

  8. Of course the point here is that carp have about the most diverse feeding habits of any fish that we (at least I) know of. What other species of large fish can be found in as many habitats spread across the world? They’re consummate generalists, and pretty dang smart to boot, learning and adapting to whatever forage is available. I think that this is what we see when we encounter them being bonefish, or redfish, or permit, or bass. What we actually see is carp just doing what they do – surviving.

  9. Awesome stuff. Ironically I just wrote a blog post ( detailing some of the same information. I live in Southeast Arkansas and make several trips each year to SELA for redfish. I always start my trips by chasing grass carp…not b/c they are similar, but sight fishing and kayak control are very important in being successful with both. Not to mention line management, presentation, and handling a fish that large in your personal space…which for me, is confined to a kayak seat. They aren’t the same but there aren’t many places to stalk +40″ fish in skinny freshwater. Carp are pretty cool and they make you work for every eat!

  10. I need to make a retraction. In the article I quoted John Arnold as speaking about permit fishing. I’ve talked to John and consulted my notes. It turns out he was NOT the person that made the statement about permit fishing versus carp fishing. John has never guided for permit and did not make a statement comparing the carp fishing on Beaver Island to permit fishing. I sincerely apologize John. I should have double checked with you about that quote. Poor work on my part. I’ll get the actual article changed as soon as Louis gets back to me. He’s in Argentina now, so I can’t guarantee a timeframe, but it will be as quickly as I possibly can.

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