Winter Carp

9 comments / Posted on / by

Photo by Dan Frasier

Photo by Dan Frasier

By Dan Fraiser

Let’s start here. Like every other preconception about the common carp, the notion that this is a warm water fish is patently false.

I’ve caught them every month of the year. In South Dakota. I’ve caught them, in numbers, while it snowed. I’ve caught them in wild places, uninfluenced by warm water discharges, bottom release dams or power plants. I’ve watched them feed under ice shelves, tail next to snow banks and crawl with their backs exposed in the only open water for a mile. As McTage Tanner once wrote and often preaches: Next to trout, there is no better flyrod target in the winter than carp.

Carp are known for their ability to tolerate extreme water temperatures. For some reason, we’ve equated that with a high survival rate in extraordinarily hot water. But the opposite is also true. Carp not only tolerate, but thrive in cold water environments. That is to say, they can and do actively feed in cold water just like they do in hot. Research suggests that they begin feeding actively in water as cool at 40 degrees and continue to pick up metabolic steam as the temperature increases. That puts their active feeding range, at the low end, closer to that of the Northern Pike than the Largemouth Bass. An active feeding range that low means carp are a viable flyrod target throughout the winter for most of the country. For those not willing to hang up the rod for 7 months and tie flies until spring, here are a few tips for stalking large tailing fish in shallow water during cold weather.

Look for moving water. River or stream fishing for carp is an extremely exciting proposition any time of year. Large fish in small water makes for challenging fights and wonderful sight fishing. Never is this more true than in the winter. Moving water allows an angler opportunities to find more addressable carp more often for a few reasons. First, moving water tends to stay open longer than still water. While the lakes are frozen, a swift small stream may be open; obviously a requirement for flyfishing. More importantly, carp that live in a small river or stream are confined to that relatively shallow water year round. When warmer, deep water is available, the carp will head there during low water temps. But in confined spaces, the carp will thrive wherever they live. To be clear, they will still congregate in the deepest pools on the stream just like any fish, but they will head for the shallows earlier and more often in small spaces.

Overnight lows are the key. Flyfishing for carp in winter is almost always more effective during a warming trend. The carp will feast as the temps rise slightly and their metabolisms heat up, only to slide back into slower feeding habits as the water cools. Remember, it’s not how warm you feel that matters, it’s how warm THEY feel. That means it’s the water temp that’s important. A steadily rising water temperature is ideal. It’s vastly easier to predict rising water temps if you look to the overnight lows as an indicator. A warm day, followed by a night with a low that is higher than the night before sets up great fishing the following day. For a 24-hour period the cycle of water temperature in the stream will have higher highs and higher lows. Thus, on average, the stream is warming and the fish will be turned on and hot. Frankly, I prefer to fish the second day of a warming trend over the fourth day of consistently warm temps. Once the water temperatures hit a level and maintain a stable temperature, the fish will have gorged themselves early and will settle into a slower feeding pattern. In other words, WARMING water is better than WARMER water.

Think about forage. This is the single most important factor in any carp flyfishing anywhere. Carp identify food by recognizing it as the forage they are accustomed to. If you aren’t matching the hatch, forget it. This principle has wide ranging impacts on winter carp flyfishing. First, put away the crayfish. They are dormant and the carp aren’t seeing many of them. A scurrying crayfish fly won’t look like food to a winter carp. It’ll look like something they haven’t seen in months and be frightening at best. Secondly, it’s time to forget the drag and drop fly presentation. For the uninitiated, this presentation is the single most deadly development in carp flyfishing. All the best carp anglers independently came up with it through trial and error all over the country and it’s unbelievably effective. In the summer… it’ll triple your hook up rate. So now that it’s winter. Forget it. The Drag and Drop works because it looks like something fleeing to the bottom to avoid the carp. Food isn’t fleeing in cold water. It’s probably dead, in a state of hibernation or listing along helplessly. So now we flip carp flyfishing on it’s head. It’s been preached (by me most loudly) to get the fly to fall through the water column within 6 inches of the fish’s face to get an eat. That’s summer. In the winter that will spook a carp. In winter you want the fly to be out of the fish’s feeding zone when it hits the bottom; more like 12 inches away. You then have to wait for the carp to work up to it, decide it’s food and pick it up. Don’t move the fly, don’t wiggle, pop, or strip. Let the materials do the work and let the fly sit. Either the carp will think it’s something helpless and delicious and eat it, or it won’t. No amount of moving your fly is going to increase those odds.

Don’t downsize you fly. Winter trout fishing has created a general belief that all winter fishing should include smaller flies than summer. That’s true if you’re fishing for creatures that are feeding on what’s active, and what happens to be active in the winter is smaller. But that’s not carp. Carp feed on what’s around and available in abundance and what will provide more calories than it takes to eat it. During the winter, the bottom is littered with numerous creatures not surviving the cold. Leaches, worms, big nymphs, smaller fish and on and on. They all die in the winter and become available forage. That’s not to say carp become scavengers. Just that a helpless and dying leech can be a pretty big snack to a winter carp. So keep your flies the same size as whatever forage the carp eat there in the summer. It’s the same stuff in there dying in the winter. Just adjust the presentation for the preponderance of creatures struggling with the cold.

The water is more clear than you’re used to. Many of us fish turbid water or deal with algae or all kinds of other things reducing visibility during the spring and summer months. In the winter, the water will be as low, clear and slow as you’ll ever see it. This makes for wonderful sight fishing that is often not available in the summer. That said, it also makes for wary fish that can see you better than you’re used to. You’ll have to become far more stealthy to effectively fish in the winter.

Look for warm water. Finding water that is even slightly warmer than the surrounding areas can make for the best fishing of the year. When temps drop on the river or stream, fish will pile into areas of relatively warmer water. Like snowbirds in a small Arizona town, the fish will congregate during the winter in places they can find warmth and live in a much higher density than they do in the warmer months of the year. Great places to start include warm water discharges from power or water treatment plants, where the water will maintain a consistently warm temp year round, spillways or dams that release warmer water, or springs and feeder creeks that supply a consistent water temperature. More subtle places include shallows with dark bottoms (they are warmed faster by the sun than surrounding water, or the water immediately after wide flat shallow riffles. These riffles expose more water surface area to the warmer air, or the sunlight. That slightly warmer water is then funneled down into the immediately deeper water, creating an area of concentrated warm water.

Winter is a time most anglers settle in behind their vices or the keyboards to lament the lack of fishing and drink and tie their way through the short days and long cold nights. If you’re interested in finding available fishing throughout the year, look no further than the mighty common carp. Just as they’ve made flyfishing available to people living in locations traditionally not conducive to life on the fly, carp make flyfishing viable during times of year that more traditional fish are unavailable. If you’re hardy and willing, carp can provide the determined angler with unbelievable flyfishing year round.

Dan Frasier
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

9 thoughts on “Winter Carp

  1. Awesome. I love carp, but have never even considered them in the winter. I pretty much leave my home water alone and go chase the trout that I dont bother with in the warmer months.

    We have not even had a full icing on my river yet (uncommon, thanks El Nino), and I have not even bothered going over there. Just goes to show that I am a fist year undergrad carper and some folks like Dan have multiple PhDs.

    • I’ll definitely be out if we even get a hint of a warming trend. I’ve got a warm water discharge about 2 miles upstream of me that I’m sure will be good

  2. That 40 degree threshold should open a lot of eyes. Just like you mentioned, my cold water carping is much more like trout fishing. Actually, it’s the closest thing I get to moving water trout fishing without driving for 3+ hours. Dead drift nymphing techniques score for me, sight fishing almost non-existent on my local waters during the winter. Presenting to carp holding in eddies and deep pools with a dead drifted worm or leech. (Channel cat by-catch is a bonus).

  3. great article! its just really hard to find a warm water discharge in lake of the ozarks. all you got is coves down WAY below normal levels and steep banks as they’ll get and streams that flow in at the back of these coves and trickle in and dont make much of a difference it seems like. ill have to explore some more and check stuff out cuz this lake is HUGE! great reading while in class though! ill talk to u in april dan!


  4. I studied your article and caught two carp in a cold shallow creek on the fly rod – everything was just like you said. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...