Carp are perhaps some of the most underrated sportfish in the United States.
Native to Europe and Asia, all of the carp that we have in the U.S. were brought here for either food or sport. For any of us that have tried one, the bad taste and bony filets makes the latter (sport) much more enticing to freshwater anglers. The two most common species are the Common carp and Grass carp. These two species differ quite significantly in what they eat – the Grass carp eats almost entirely vegetation, while the Common carp eats more of a variety of vegetation and small invertebrates found in the lake and river bottoms. What this means is that catching them also differs significantly, from the baits used to where to find them. This general 101 section will discuss the how, when, and where to catch carp for whichever species you have nearby.
When to Find Carp
You can fortunately catch carp any time of the year, if you know where they’ll be. Like most other freshwater fish, their behavior changes throughout the seasons, but you can always bet that they’ll be coming in close to shore for vegetation. Summer is perhaps the best season for catching carp, as you can find them easily with the glassy water conditions early in the morning on the lakes. On top of that, they’re also the most active during the warm summer months. In the opposite season, winter, they like to sit offshore throughout the colder parts of the day in deep pockets of stable water. When the sun heats up the shoreline though, they come in strong eating the grasses in the shallows. In the spring and fall, they’ll be more mixed in their movements, but you can usually always count on first thing in the morning big carp near the shoreline.
Some other things to note when planning your trips should involve grass mowing and fruiting trees. Especially in Florida, we have to cut the grass every weekend during most of the year. Grass carp love to come up and munch of those floating pieces of grass as they’re blown into the water. Certain trees will produce fruit during specific times of the year, and you should always take note of this as the carp below are certainly munching down on them.
Where to Catch Carp
For the most part, wherever you find vegetation, you’ll find carp, especially big Grass carp. This can include submersed grasses in shallow water, cattails, or emerging grasses near the shoreline. Common carp are common among that vegetation as well, but are also found in muddy bottom areas where they search for small bugs and other critters to eat off the bottom.
Tackle for Carp
Carp can be small, or they can be very, very big. With a maximum size of around 80 pounds, it is not uncommon for Grass carp to between 20 and 50 pounds. Common carp are not quite as large, but are commonly between 10 and 20 pounds. These sizes of fish, combined with the fact that they are incredibly strong fighters, may lead you to go out and get your heavy saltwater rods out. Unfortunately though, we’re also talking about some of the most line-shy fish out there, so there’s a fine balance between landing fish, and actually getting the fish to bite in the first place.
Spinning Tackle for Carp
Spinning tackle is great for carp because of the very easy drag systems. Easy all around in fact, as you can cast easily into the range of fish, usually far enough to not spook them. With the drag however, you can use light enough line – 6-to-8 pound test for smaller carp, and 12-to-20 pound test for larger – to actually get the fish to bite, and let the fish run so that the tension does not break the line.
Baitcasting Tackle for Carp
Baitcasting (also called conventional) tackle is great for carp for two main reasons. First, you can cast a lot farther using a baitcasting combination than a spinning combination. This is very important because carp are very easily spooked, and this will increase your catch rate significantly. Second, they hold more leverage for fighting big fish (and carp often are!). With baitcasting gear, the reel is positioned on top of the rod, not the bottom like a spinning rod, and is spooled parallel to the rod, giving you more power to turn fish away from snags that will cause you to lose the fish.
Flyrods for Carp
Since carp are primarily a sport fish, there is no better way to go than a good old fly rod! A solid rod between 4-and-6 weight will be a good balance for catching carp. A rod this size will allow you to use light enough line to be able to feel the bite (if you can’t see it, that is), but will also be strong enough to fight the big carp, using a bit of drag of course. A reel with a good drag system is very important here, because you don’t want the fish to break this size of rod.
Baits for Carp
Bait is the name of the game for many carp anglers. Some of the species, for example the Common carp, have chin barbels just like a catfish that allow it to feel and taste around the bottom for food. This makes using bait more effective for catching those species than species like Grass carp, which do not have chin barbels, and thus rely more heavily on eyesight for feeding. Either way, most species of carp will take worms, corn, small fruits like cherry tomatoes, doughballs, or your own concoction of what are called “boilies” – small balls of fish meal, seaweed, eggs, and any other flavor you want, boiled to produce a hard shell that deters fish other than carp, but will definitely get you some carp.
Lures for Carp
Artificial lures can be a very productive way of catching carp, especially once you know how to work them. Anything that looks like a small bug or worm works great for carp, even grass carp that eat mostly vegetation. Small soft plastics mimic these things best. Attach them to a heavy jig-head and bounce along the bottom, kicking up sediments as you go right in front of a carp for strikes. This method works for flies too, although some anglers have produced their own “veggie flies” for big Grass carp that mimic the vegetation in the area they are feeding on. The most effective method is sight-casting towards tailing or cruising carp in shallow water, as you know for sure what is there. As you may have noticed, these lures also catch fine numbers of smaller fish like Bluegill, and they will definitely get in your way – although not necessarily a bad thing, just not what are being targeted.
NOTE: It is illegal to take Grass Carp from Florida waters.