Carp, Enough of the Golden Bones

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Photos by Kyle Wilkinson

Photos by Kyle Wilkinson

Sub-title- It’s Time to Give Carp Their Due

By Jason Tucker

Some time back—I believe 15-20 years ago—anglers in Traverse City, Michigan, began calling carp “Golden Bones,” and things haven’t been the same since.

Traverse City is a big city/small town set at the end of the twin arms of Grand Traverse Bay. It is a beautiful little town that over the years has turned into a food and wine destination where even Mario Batali keeps a summer home. The bay is 32 miles long, 10 miles wide, and divided into East and West bays by Mission Peninsula. It has white sand beaches, and is ringed by farms, cherry orchards, vineyards, and almost continuous, clear, shallow flats.

BI1In May and June those flats are invaded by large smallmouth hunting crayfish and bait fish, and giant carp by the thousand. Twenty years ago, those carp were pursued by a small but dedicated contingent of fly fishermen. Some of those fishermen were guides who saw an opportunity, but also had a marketing problem—how do you get clients to travel long distances and then shell out several hundred dollars on a guide trip, to fish for carp?

You absolutely have to see the Lake Michigan flats to believe them. If you’re picturing murky green water and casting to mud swirls you’re wrong. The water is crystal clear, at times blindingly blue, and the fish are up shallow, often tailing with their backs out of the water. Gulls and terns wheel and screech overhead, waves roll and lap, and the wind, well, it does what wind does. Put all this together with fish that can take you into your backing in seconds, and you have a situation that reminds you of, well, bonefish.

BI7Twenty years ago carp were stigmatized as trash fish, bottom feeders. It was said they are “muddy” tasting. This, of course, doesn’t matter to the catch and release fly angler. When you boil it down to what’s left, the challenge of getting them to eat, and the fight once hooked, carp are top notch quarry. Indeed, few other freshwater fish in North America will test your skills and gear like carp. But back then overcoming that stigma was a major challenge, and so this enterprising group of guides came up with a new moniker to try to lure in clients- Golden Bones. Over the years they have been characterized as such throughout North America, despite the fact that the Great Lakes are one of the few places that offer a true flats sight fishing scenario where that comparison stands up.

Despite the similarities of fish and place, there are some obvious differences that can’t be ignored—fresh versus salt water for instance. Or that carp are decidedly not bonefish. Carp by all accounts are more difficult to get to eat than bonefish. They are bigger and stronger too, but bonefish are faster. It’s the difference between hooking up to a school bus and a Maserati.  Both will take you into your backing, it’s just a matter of style.

If you don’t live in the Great Lakes region, carp probably don’t qualify as “poor man’s bonefish” either. Travel, lodging, food, and guide service will cost about the same, and you need similar gear and flies to pursue both.

BI15What I’m suggesting here is that it is time for carp to come into their own, and indeed they are. Calling carp “Golden Bones” does a disservice to both carp and bonefish. Titans of the fly fishing world have at times declared fly fishing for carp to be a fad that would come and go. This is not true. The popularity of fly fishing for carp grows every year. For thousands of fly anglers who live far from trout streams, carp provide first rate opportunities to fish close to home. They certainly offer you the chance to hone your skills and keep you sharp for your other fishing pursuits. Need to work on your stealth and presentation? Carp are super spooky. Do you need to cast accurately at approaching fish like redfish and drum? Carp can keep ya sharp. Do you need practice fighting big fish that test your gear and skills? Carp bring the fight as well as any fish.

What I’m suggesting is that the “Golden Bones” moniker has served its purpose and needs to be retired. Indeed, some in the know have suggested that carp are more comparable to redfish and black drum, but due to the carp’s fussy eating habits, even that comparison falls short. Carp are carp. They always have been. It’s we, the anglers who are finally starting to come around.

Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Carp, Enough of the Golden Bones

    • Ironic, isn’t it Red Boat Mark. I live near you yet dream of getting away from more repetitive 1-2′ trout so I can find carp. They are their own quarry and a worthy one for sure!

  1. I agree 100%. Carp on the fly is here to stay. Here in Denver there is even an annual Pro/Am tournament – the Carp Slam. I have been fortunate to hook into a good sized carp and the fight was awesome! Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it. If you think you’re a good fly fisherman and you haven’t fished for carp yet . . . let’s talk after you get skunked a few times. 😉

  2. For me, one of the rewards of fly fishing is the moment you get to appreciate the beauty of the fish that you are catching; a chrome fresh steelhead, a hearty redside, or a west slope cutthroat against the back drop of a crystal clear freestone. Maybe with time I will develop an appreciation for the aesthetics of a carp but I am not quite there yet. In the meantime, more power to any man/women that can mount an excuse to stand with your feet submerged in water casting loops with intent to a willing target.

  3. Thirty years ago in Wyoming we called them Colorado Golden Trout. My first time was when an old cutoff and dry meander on the North Platte flooded for the first time in a decade and was flush with carp in one to two feet of clear water. I wasn’t sure what they were feeding on but I noticed the water was full of 1″ black tadpoles. Went home, developed and tied a simple marabou tail fly, size 6-8 in black. Went back to the old channel and couldn’t miss. Best take was when I threw the fly in the middle of four tailing fish all facing each other, all four charged the fly, I’m still not sure which one got it.
    Your area of Lake Michigan is getting quite the reputation as a Mecca and couldn’t possibly cost as much as a bonefish trip. And, no one catches 30lb. bonefish. Ditto to a great post.

  4. I’ve flyfished for carp at beaver island with the great guide Kevin Morlock. I can say this:
    EVERYONE should fish the flats of the Bahamas, the Keys, etc. A few Bonefish trips might get you ready for the real challenge of Carp. Any questions?

    • Indigo Guide Service is one of the best whether its Steelhead, Salmon or Carp. Ive fished with them for years.

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