Carp fishing is gaining momentum in North America, not only from casual anglers who are happy to catch anything that bites, but from hardcore trophy hunters gunning for 30-, 40-, even 50-pound fish. Fish at the lower end of that range are common in many waters, and some harbor much larger fish.
What's most compelling about big carp is the number of big fish available in good carp waters. Consider that an exceptional bass lake might hold 20 pounds of bass per acre, and a well-managed walleye lake might carry half that load of walleyes. But a good carp fishery is capable of sustaining 100 pounds of carp per acre. The total weight of carp often exceeds the combined total of all other gamefish species.
But that doesn't mean that carp are easy to catch. Small carp in murky water sometimes are easy, particularly in waters with fierce competition for food. Big carp, though, almost always are a challenge. The carp's acute senses of taste, vision, hearing, and feeling, combined with superior longevity makes them one of the wariest fish in freshwater--and one of the most challenging to catch.
The best time of year to catch big carp is during spring. Like many other fish species, carp move to warmer water during early spring. And just like other species, the biggest fish in the system usually are the first to move into shallow black-bottom bays in lakes, reservoirs, and river backwater areas. In northern waters, this migration sometimes begins before the ice leaves the main lake.
Unlike pike and bass, which might hold in one area in the back of shallow bays, carp are almost constantly on the move. They cruise through the shallows looking for immature insects, aquatic worms, and other invertebrates. It takes a big volume of such a diet to sustain a 40-pound fish. Carp continue to cruise during summer, but usually aren't as visible.
In fact, the best way to find carp during early spring is to cruise through shallow bays in a boat or walk along the shoreline. A pair of polarized sunglasses helps to spot fish moving just beneath the surface, occasionally tailing as they pluck edible bits from the bottom. Structural features like points and inside turns tend to concentrate the fish as they cruise the perimeter of the bay.
Some anglers enjoy the challenge of sight fishing for individual fish, but chumming increases your odds for catching numbers of fish. Canned corn is a popular chum in many areas, though softened field corn is more effective and more economical. The trick is to disperse enough chum to get the fish's attention without satisfying their appetites.
Boat anglers often chum several locations, then fish each spot in turn. This is a good strategy for shore fishermen too, but mobility is more limited. Remember, though, that chumming is designed to make the fish pause as they move though the area, not to attract them from across the lake. Chumming is only effective when you're baiting an area that carp already are using.
Corn also is an effective hook bait, but so are nightcrawlers, leeches, and a variety of other natural and attractor baits. In fact, it probably would be easier to list all of the baits that haven't produced a carp than those that have. The best advice is to keep it simple. Homemade doughbaits might produce smaller fish, but big carp seem to prefer natural offerings, especially during the early season.
The bolt rig is a top choice for fishing at long range, where bite detection is difficult. Begin by pushing a half-inch length of surgical tubing into the eye of a 2- or 3-ounce bass-casting sinker. Slide the tubing onto your main line and tie on a small barrel swivel. Tie a 12-inch leader to the end of the swivel, followed by a #6 to #2 hook, depending on the type of bait and the size of the fish.
Before casting the rig, slide the surgical tubing halfway over the barrel swivel. When a carp grabs the bait and feels resistance from the sinker, it "bolts" forward, driving the hook into soft mouth tissue. If the fish breaks the main line and the sinker snags bottom, the fish can pull the swivel from the tubing and free itself from the sinker.
A basic sliprig is a good option for closer range. This rig is constructed like a bolt rig, but without the surgical tubing. When a fish takes the bait, the main line slides freely through the sinker so the fish feels no resistance. When you get a bite, pick up the rod, reel tight, and set the hook.
A float rig is an overlooked rigging option that excels over soft-bottom areas. Begin by tying a stop knot on your main line, and then add a small plastic bead and a slipfloat. Tie a hook to the end of the line and pinch several lead shot to the line about 12 inches above the hook. Adjust bait depth by sliding the stop knot up or down the line.
Rods in the 9- to 12-foot range are advantageous for shore fishing. Medium-heavy-power steelhead spinning rods that are 8 to 9 feet long are a good compromise, offering longer casting range, good hook-setting power, and more control over hooked fish. Seven-foot rods are a good choice for boat fishing.
Most medium- to large-capacity spinning reels work fine, but many anglers prefer reels with a long-cast spool design and a freespool feature. When the freespool lever is activated, a fish can pull line from the spool with little resistance. When you're ready to set the hook, flip the lever to engage the reel's drive.
Abrasion-resistant monofilament in the 8- to 15-pound range is standard for most situations, but many anglers prefer superline. The thin diameter of braided or fused-filament lines allows for longer casts, while the lack of stretch affords better hooksets, especially at long range. Use whichever line you're comfortable with, but do experiment with braided leaders. These apparently feel softer to a carp's sensitive mouth and might result in more bites.
Big carp rank among the most powerful fish in freshwater, but heavy line usually isn't necessary. A 20-pound fish might crack off 50 yards of 10-pound line again and again before it's brought to net. As long as snags aren't a problem, though, you should be able to land much larger fish with that same tackle. It's some of the finest sport in freshwater.