Fly Fishing for Carp - Flats Style
by Brian Pitser
On a whim, I was first introduced to a wonderful new sport of flats-style fishing on our own Northern Michigan waters of Grand Traverse Bay. These wonderful fish are known by most people as a rough fish or even a trash fish. Fishing Lake Michigan for these “Golden Bones” has become a passion for me throughout the late spring and summer months. These carp are a very worthy opponent with a person equipped with a fly rod, a good cast, and a keen fish-fighting ability.
One of the most widely dispersed type of fish in the United States, the common carp can be found virtually anywhere that holds water. From city park ponds to the Great Lakes and everywhere in between, these carp roam the waters in search of food. Carp were imported from Europe by some of the earliest settlers as a food source. Most people in America today do not look at these fish as a food source, but more as a common fish, not worthy of taking the time or energy to catch on a rod and reel. As a boy growing up in the middle of Indiana, these were the only large fish available to catch that would really put a bend in the rod. My friends and I hunted them with bow and arrow in local creeks and fished for them in the rivers through much of my childhood. Now I have graduated to fishing for them with a fly rod and fly. Usually I wade the flats of Lake Michigan for these “golden ghosts” armed with a 8 or 9 weight rod rigged with a floating line. I like tying on a bonefish pattern or crayfish imitation fly, fishing from a boat similar to the flats-style fishing of Florida, the Bahamas or Belize.
Fly fishing for carp is most productive from early to mid-May through the middle of July. During the warmest months of the summer the carp fishing drops off a bit at the fish move to colder water off the drop-offs of Lake Michigan. During the peak months the carp move around the extensive flats of Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, Michigan. The carp move in to spawn in the shallow water. They move in groups of two to schools of fifty or more during these early summer months. At times they will just be “laid up” facing into the waves in the flats feeding on nymphs, or seeds that are blowing into the warm shallow water. Other times they are actively cruising looking for minnows and crayfish to forage on. Carp will actually tip down and “tail” just like a redfish or a bonefish to feed. These are prime targets with a fly and can usually be fooled with a well-placed cast. Carp have an extremely sensitive lateral line so it is important to wade quietly and avoid false casting over the fish. Once hooked they offer a long fight and will take you into the backing once or twice before they reluctantly tire and come to hand.
The flats of GT Bay look blue and green, just like a tropical destination where you would have flats style fishing opportunities. The water is clear and clean and the carp are very firm and large in size. With a diet of mainly crayfish and minnows, they can get up to 40 pounds in a few short years. There are great areas with public access to wade flat and target these fish. The majority of the fish are in situations where sight fishing is a necessity, so make sure you have a quality pair of polarized glasses. Carp can be extremely finicky, which may try your fishing patience and casting ability. You will get the fly in front of a fish and think that they turn down on the fly as you hop it along the bottom, just to have them turn away for no apparent reason. The proper presentation does not always equal a fish that will eat the fly. When fishing for carp, it is important to keep your rod tip low and strip-strike the fish just like you would a bonefish or red on the saltwater flat.
If you have considered doing any type of saltwater flats fishing, but can’t travel 3000 miles to have this experience, check out the flats of Lake Michigan during the spring and summer months for our own Lake Michigan version of a flats fish, the carp. Who knows maybe you will hit our “grand slam” composing of a carp and smallmouth bass. If you are interested in checking this out with a guide or on your own, give the Northern Angler Fly Shop a call and we will be happy in assisting you with information on this fun trip. If you’re staying up in Traverse City with your family, we can even pick you up and drop you off at your hotel or resort.