My interest in catching carp on light tackle began long ago, when I was just old enough to ride my balloon-tired Columbia bike downtown to a dam on the Charles River. There was always a gathering of fish there, from herring and suckers in the spring to the bigger summer residents, what the older boys called German carp. These were by far the largest fish I could find within my limited travel range. I was told that they would take almost anything, including corn, peas, or even small worms fished without weight.
I couldn’t fool them, but I was intrigued by their slow and deliberate movement through the water. They appeared to be drifting past, ignoring me and my bait, though I was sure they saw me watching. Finally, after a few years of trying, I decided a bit of weight a foot or so from my kernels of corn might help keep my offering in front of the fish longer, with me well hidden behind a streamside tree so I wouldn’t frighten them.
About a half-hour later, a large carp tipped his head down and inhaled my offering. The battle was on as the greatest fish of my life tore across the river, then downstream. The fish was so strong I could not stop or hold it, and it quickly broke my line. That was the first of many such adventures, most of which ended in the same way.
As I grew older my interests changed to other fish I could reach with my improved transportation, an ancient Oldsmobile that gave me access to trout water and the ocean. I applied my efforts to both environments, driving, and sometimes pushing, that old car as far as the Catskills or the Rhode Island coast. Interestingly enough, it was striped bass that brought me back to the river of my youth. I sought them out as they followed migrating river herring in the spring, and I took advantage of a now much cleaner and inviting waterway. In the clearer water, in shallows where the natural tannin color of the river provided little interference, I saw them again — the slow-gliding ghosts from my past, many bigger than the stripers I sought. Remembering some of the articles I had read about Dave Whitlock’s encounters with carp in shallow water, I resolved to tie the flies he used to fool carp in other parts of the country.
Carp are not fools, and really are cautious, so with my “great depth of experience” it only took three weeks to find the right combination of realism and presentation, purely by accident of course. These big fish wanted their food at the right depth and wanted it to look natural, but they were explosive when the line drew tight. Many still found their freedom by heading for subsurface brush piles, but a many came to hand to be released. These big river horses were great fun, close to home, and always present. They didn’t migrate away in winter, and any warm-water discharge into the river always held a few in the cold months.
There are others who read of Dave and Emily Whitlock’s experiences catching carp on the flats and who share the same penchant for “unusual” fish that I admit. Drew Price is one of those open-minded individuals. He grew up near Malone, New York and fished mostly for trout, but he was always fascinated by unusual critters like bowfin, which he caught on Lake Champlain with conventional tackle. In 1993, he got his first fly rod and made the natural progression, using Wooly Buggers and stout leaders. He was hooked far more than the fish and began a hard look at all sorts of other species that were available to fly fishermen. He even began guiding others to introduce them to the thrills of catching the unconventional.
Bowfin are probably Drew’s favorite fish to chase. They are abundant on Lake Champlain, attain good size, readily take a fly and fight like hell. They are not afraid of much and will even approach a canoe, a habit that you can take advantage of to put a bowfin on the end of your line. We’ve seen as many as three or four around the canoe at the same time, and it seems that every time you catch one, the commotion attracts more. Drew has his own subsurface patterns to catch these fish.
Fishing bowfin is a visual game. You are in water that is less than 3 feet deep. The fish come right up to you, and you put the fly near them and work it. Then watch the fish. That long dorsal is the key. When they are watching your fly, the dorsal fin just sits there erect and doesn’t move, but when they are about to pounce, it wiggles like crazy. At that point, you get ready. Use really strong, sharp hooks for your flies, and when they take you need to slam that hook home like the guys in those bass fishing TV shows. Then, hang on for dear life! Those fish will have water flying everywhere, and will go deep into the weeds doing all they can to get away.
Landing them is another challenge. They are nasty, with a mouth full of conical teeth designed to smash crayfish, and they can rip you up. They will try to bite you. We use lip-grippers to hold them and long-nose pliers to remove the hooks, then watch them swim off like nothing ever happened.
Drew guides clients that specifically want to catch bowfin. He once paddled a client for a while without finding a single bowfin until they finally ran one over with the canoe. Spooked, the fish took off, then turned around and came back to see what hit it. The fish was so mean that it wanted to take on the boat that ran it over! It took a fly promptly, but pulled off after a couple of minutes. About 30 seconds later it came back and took the fly again! Talk about a tough fish.
Bowfin are incredibly strong. On an August trip in 2008, Drew discovered that high water levels had allowed the bowfin to move way up into flooded trees. The first one his sport hooked did a figure eight around two saplings and then broke the 16-pound monofilament tippet with a snap that sounded like a gunshot. Another was hooked with similar results. Finally he saw one cruising open water and got a good shot at it – wham, the fish was on. Water, mud and muck were flying everywhere! Both Drew and his sport jumped out of the canoe, with the client busy fighting the fish and Drew trying to get branches out of the way so they could land it. It ended up being about 8 ½ pounds, and Drew says that he’s seen larger ones, including a few that were close to 15 pounds.
Carp came later for Drew. He kept spotting them when looking for pike in the shallows in the spring. There were lots of them, and they were big, so he decided that he had to try it. He spent many hours determining how to convince one to take a fly. He also finds that carp are spooky, picky, tough and powerful.
This past summer, Drew took his fiancé for her first carp outing. He warned her about how tough it was to get one, trying to prepare her for possible failure. It had taken so long to figure out what he was doing that he thought that a beginner would have similar problems. Not the case! On her second cast ever to a carp she had two charge the fly, and the smaller of the two fish took it. It wasn’t a large fish, maybe 8 pounds, but it was a carp nonetheless! She loved it. He was pretty excited for her and even more excited when she helped him land his largest carp on the fly, a 24-pounder. Carp represent the best shot at getting fish over 10 pounds on a fly in Lake Champlain as well as most other freshwaters in the Northeast.
Gar are one of those strange fish that Northeastern anglers don’t think about as a local opportunity. They are great fighters and a unique fish with a long body and a mouth like nothing else in this part of the world. Drew used to see them in wetlands and in shallow bays around Lake Champlain, and he knew that he had to use a rope fly to get them. Their bony, tooth-lined snout is too hard for a hook, so you have to cut the hook off the fly and just let the fish’s teeth get caught up in the fly material. Armed with a rope fly, he went with a good friend to a spot where gar gather to spawn in large groups every spring. There were dozens and dozens of gar there, and most of the fish were more interested in procreation than in feeding, but they both managed to “hook” a few. Be sure however, that your fly is legal under local law. Drew was stopped by a game warden that had seen him fly fishing for gar and pointed out that Vermont regulations require a hook point. From that point on, a size 20 dry-fly hook was added inside each rope fly!
There is yet another fish you might not consider on your list of target species angling in the Northeast, the sheepshead or freshwater drum. They are really important to the ecology of Lake Champlain as they eat a lot of zebra mussels. These invasive shellfish can make up over 60% of their diet. Sheepshead are ghosts. You won’t see them until suddenly one is practically on your feet. The fly needs to be right on the bottom and in front of them or they won’t take it. It takes time to figure out which ones to cast to. Most of the fish you will see are just cruisers and won’t take anything. It is when you see one that is picking stuff from the bottom that you have an honest shot at it. Even then it doesn’t always work the way you might want it to. They are a challenge. It took a long time to finally figure out that you can catch them more consistently on crayfish flies. Drew calls them “Champlain permit” – they ghost in, are very finicky and then fight like hell when you get one. Most of the nice fish are over 10 pounds and there have been a few over 20. Awesome fish when you get into them, but a most frustrating target with a fly rod!
Drew’s favorite memory of drum angling is being out alone chasing them on a hot morning in July. He was wading along a favorite rock pile and watching a few drum circle the area. There was one big boy that kept hanging around this area. It kept chasing off other fish as it rooted around, looking for crawdads. He knew that if he could put the fly in the zone the fish would have it. Sure enough, the fish took a good look at the fly then darted forward to eat it. That fish made several good runs against the 8-pound tippet (a light fluorocarbon tippet is necessary to fool these fish in the clear water of Lake Champlain) before he finally landed it and estimated it at about 15 pounds. It may not be exactly the same as landing a permit on a Caribbean flat, but for a dedicated freshwater fly fisherman, it’s pretty close.