I headed out for an hour or two chasing carp earlier this week, as the sun was hanging bright in a bluebird sky and the temps and humidity were starting to climb. It seemed like ages (maybe even last year) since the weather gods had strung together a solid week of humid summer heat, and my favorite stretch of the Rouge River was clamoring for my attention. I rushed out to wade her turbid waters for an hour, hoping to find some rubber-lipped takers grubbing around for a bugger or big nymph, fished deep or swung through one of the deeper slots.
The access to my first favorite hole runs across a bridge. I’ve found that stopping and taking a look from above is a good way to locate tailing carp (not to mention the occasional hubcap-sized snapping turtle) before wading in. Bass and pike usually hang in the deep spots, invisible from the crows’ nest, but big carp tailing in the sunshine are easy to spot. Nothing was rolling this day – the rocky bars on either side of the main channel were strangely barren of scaly brawlers. I decided to skip wading in and moved on to a small local pond.
Conditions at my second objective were drastically different than I remembered. A spring-fed pond sporadically stocked with trout for kid fishing derbies, its main draw for me was the large number of fat, healthy carp that cruised its’ weedy depths, vacuuming mulberries off the surface and tailing in the clay bottom. The water was now gin-clear, and the bottom was mostly weed-free. Six or seven large carp milled around in the center, spooking when I shut my car door. Someone had performed weed control magic here, and the resulting clarity ensured the only carp left were the ones too large to be inhaled by the herons that used to stalk the shoreline.
No worries – I switched my sights to another local pond, a Rouge River impoundment just a short drive across town. Hurriedly rigging up, I dug in my vest to find most of my carp flies absent, having been packed in my boat bag for a recent camping trip. I’d have to make do with a small box of ratty nymphs and woolly buggers. I quickly knotted an olive crystal bugger to my leader and started walking around the pond, looking for tailing fish.
This pond sports a large silt bar in the middle, and carp are usually visible working along its edges. With nothing showing, I continued along the far side, spooking up a huge snapping turtle basking along the water’s edge. I’d nearly circumnavigated the entire impoundment with no carp spotted when I got to an area where a broken willow tree leaned way over the water. Visible in the shadows of her willowy boughs were several large cyprinid shapes, lazing under the surface. I froze, stripped off a few feet of line, and dropped my bugger into the water straight from the rod tip, dapping it next to the nearest carp. Without batting a fin, she swung over and hoovered up the fly. A quick side-strip hook set later, I was hitched to a bruiser-sized carp that showed me my backing for the first time in over a year.
The return of humid summer weather to Southeast Michigan means that conditions should be ripe for dapping flies for big fish. Dapping flies is a short-range tactic originally devised for small-stream trout fishing, such as overgrown mountain creeks (i.e. tight quarters with little or no room for backcasts). When dapping flies, you simply stake out a pool or riffle and drop a dry fly or nymph on the water vertically while using streamside cover such as boulders or trees to conceal your approach. In many tight locations where casting is difficult or impossible due to brush and overhanging branches, this presentation is a quick way to tempt whatever lives in that fast-moving environment. Small pool size and brisk streamflows contribute to the near-instant strikes that come with this method, as the fish here rarely get a second chance to hit something that looks like food.
Dapping can be an excellent close-up tactic for large species such as bass, pike or carp. When summer heat and humidity settle in, these big fish often lay up under weedbeds and other cover. Heavy cover and tight quarters can make regular casts and retrieves difficult, if not impossible. Instead of dealing with these frustrations, make a slow, quiet stalk along weedy shorelines and shallow areas, keeping your eyes open for fish that are lying in wait. If your sights are set on carp, remember that their feeding behavior (tailing) causes muddy water, disturbed vegetation and bubbles that are a dead giveaway. The advantage here is that carp usually stir up the water and the resulting silt cloud prevents them from seeing you. A close-up presentation with your favorite buggy fly usually causes an instant reaction. Dapping a small bugger or minnow pattern near an ambush-minded bass or pike can draw an explosive strike.
If I’ve steered your thoughts away from work and back to stalking weedy ponds with your fly rod, remember that gear set-up is pretty easy for dapping – just use whatever rod you typically use for flyfishing to these species. Keep your leader on the heavy side, as hooking into a real beast in the middle of lilypads quickly spells doom for light tippets. I save old leader butt sections trimmed too short for regular use, and loop one on for this type of abuse. If you insist on a tippet, fluorocarbon in heavier sizes (0-1x) is necessary to withstand the abuse that occurs when you hook a heavy fish on a short line. A rod care note – a light drag setting is necessary for a heavy leader/tippet combination. ‘Tis better to give a little extra line than have your favorite stick explode in your hands. You can increase drag by palming or cupping the reel spool – with a little practice many anglers find this faster than fumbling for the drag knob. Whichever method you choose, be ready to make adjustments quickly or pinching the line against the cork grip. A quick-change clip can be very useful if you happen upon a tailing carp during your early morning topwater forays. Rather than waste time clipping off your bass bug and tying on a woolly bugger, a clip allows you to change flies immediately, before the carp has a chance to spot you or move off while tailing. Be sure the clip is black or dull metal, a bright shiny clip will spook fish. As for fly selection, start off with whatever pattern holds your confidence, whatever you typically reach for first. Dialing up a true beast is that much more sweet when you do so using a home-tied pattern, finished with your own troll fingers.
A cautious stalk and approach is key – maybe even more important than your fly presentation. Very light footfalls, no getting silhouetted by the sun, soak your fly before dapping it (ensures the fly sinks fast with minimal surface disturbance – dry marabou can cause a fresh nymph to hang at the surface) and make no unnecessary movements once you are in position. Extend your rod over the target area and drop the fly on top of your target. Bass and pike rarely need an announcement that they’ve struck – if you are watching, the sudden movement or flash should tell the story, although it’s always wise to wait to strike until you feel the fish come up tight on the line. Carp can be more difficult to detect. Watch the leader on the surface for twitches or thumps – these signify that the carp has either bumped the leader, or has vacuumed up your fly. Make sure to strip strike with carp, stripping the line with one hand while striking low to the side with your rod hand. Your standard upward hooksets on carp often pop the hook free of that rubbery mouth.
Once you have a fish hooked, don’t be afraid to horse them enough to keep them out of heavy cover. Heavy weeds, lily pads, brushpiles and underwater tangles are all dedicated line foulers. Even if they don’t break your leader, a fish can get wound up in their stems and then pull loose of the hook. Be ready for a rough, appalling fight that may leave you as shaken as the fish. If you wind up on the winning side of the ledger, take a quick picture, revive your foe and return him or her to the water to fight another day. Tight lines!