Catching big carp can be year-round sport in southern New England’s ponds, lakes and rivers.
I was on a quest last winter to consistently catch carp in open water here in southern New England. In previous years, I had succeeded in catching a few of these freshwater brutes in every month of the year. For the most part, I was fishing in ponds just before the ice arrived and just after ice out. So, I knew that contrary to many beliefs about carp being a warmwater fish, they do, in fact, hit in cold water. But, would it be possible to catch these fish in the dead of winter, in open water when most ponds and lakes were locked in ice and the shorelines covered in snow? I was determined to find out.
From the little I could find about winter carp fishing, I discovered that my best bet to hook a winter fish in open water would be to fish a location with currents or a warm-water discharge where icing was not an issue. I knew of no warm-water discharge nearby, but I had plenty of ice-free water with current practically in my back yard along the Blackstone River. In addition, what little I could research about winter carp fishing pointed to better results in oxygenated water, the type of conditions you might find under a waterfall or dam. With several potential locations scouted out, I decided to give it a shot.
My first winter outing took place in early January in a section of the Blackstone River in nearby Massachusetts. If you remember last winter, it was brutal, with record snowfalls along with cold weather. On the day I headed out, there was almost three feet of snow in my yard, the ponds had upwards of a foot of ice, and the temperature was in the low thirties. When I got to my destination, I realized I had to walk a couple of hundred yards through the woods to get to the spot I wanted to fish. It was no easy task since my leg sank into snow up to my thigh with each strenuous step. When I finally arrived at the bank, I had to dig out the snow for a place to pile my stuff and to sit. While I was doing so, I noticed several bubble trails along the current break, a sure sign of carp rooting on the bottom. With my bank sticks (rod holders) driven into packed snow, I tossed in a couple of handfuls of corn for chum and I was ready to go.
My previous experience with winter carp fishing told me that a delicate presentation was the best way to go. I was using fairly light tackle by carp standards. These were 7-foot rods with Shimano 3500B Baitrunner reels loaded with 12-pound-test monofilament. I baited up two hooks with pineapple-flavored sweet corn on hair rigs and short leaders. I used a 1-ounce egg sinker to hold bottom, the smallest weight I could use to keep the bait from moving. It didn’t take long for a hit, and suddenly my bite alarm was screaming, signaling a take. I excitedly grabbed the rod, turned the reel handle to put the reel into gear, and was onto a runner. After a seesaw battle of drag-screaming runs, I had my first open-water river carp in the net and onto the snowy bank. The fish turned out to be a beautiful 10-pound mirror carp. Later on that day, I added two more common carp to my catch. I had discovered something unique and special. Yes, you can catch carp in open water in the dead of winter.
I continued to fish open water river currents all winter long last year on storm-free days and days with moderate temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties. During the two dead-ofthe- winter months of January and February, I managed to land over 30 carp, all heavyweights by freshwater standards and all terrific fighters on rod and reel. Carp fishing has now become a year round experience for me.
For anyone contemplating openwater winter carp fishing, realize there are three different situations you might fish in the wintertime here in southern New England. You can catch carp in a lot of places right before the ice arrives in December or January. As I described above, you can also get them in the dead of winter in river currents. Finally, these fish will hit well in ponds and lakes at ice out, which generally happens in late February or March.
Many fishermen falsely believe that carp are strictly warm-water fish. The truth is that these fish are highly adaptable to their surroundings and will hit throughout the year here in southern New England. A few years back I landed several large fish in the twenties in mid-December in an urban pond in Providence, Rhode Island. Knowing I was onto something hot, I went back the next morning after a cold night and the place was completely locked in with ice. Likewise, I have fished many locations in late February and March just after ice out and have encountered some very good success at that end of winter. A few years back after a February thaw and sudden ice out, my father and I fished a pond in Cranston, Rhode Island. We had a phenomenal afternoon there and landed 16 common carp up to 15 pounds. We were fishing an area of shallow water when a brook enters the pond. I think water flow and oxygenated water made this a good choice for this time of year.
Whether you fish for carp in open ponds and lakes or river currents, winter techniques are about the same. Fishing for carp is a matter of bottom fishing, getting bait on the bottom and waiting for a hit. However, there are things you can do to increase your odds of catching. Pre-baiting a spot often gets the carp in your area and interested in feeding. Admittedly, winter carp are not the heavy feeders they are in spring and fall, but nevertheless, large fish like carp will feed when food is available. Pre-baiting or chumming with corn (either canned or boiled field corn) or breadballs is the most popular way to do it. If possible, you might want to chum an area the night before you fish or in the morning prior to fishing. If that is not possible, at least chum an area lightly when you arrive to fish as I did in the river spot described above. Most carp fishing sharpies will chum several locations on a regular basis, and that will certainly give you more options when choosing a spot. Note that chumming in Rhode Island is illegal in places where trout are stocked. The use of corn for bait or to chum is also illegal in trout-stocked waters in Rhode Island.
If you want to give winter carp fishing a try, you can get by with a heavy duty freshwater rod (7 to 8 feet is best) and a heavy duty reel. A bait-feeder reel is essential if you get serious about carp fishing. These reels sport a freespool lever on the back of the reel that places the spool in freespool, even when the bail is closed. This prevents a rod and reel from being pulled in as a result of a violent hit and run. If you don’t have a bait-feeder, you can still use a traditional spinning reel with some modification in your technique. With a traditional spinning reel, make sure your reel’s drag is cranked down to just about nothing when the outfit is set onto a holder or “Y” stick. Carp have a reputation of bolting when they pick up the bait and feel the hook. Reels that are locked in gear with a normal drag setting will be pulled in the water in the blink of an eye. If your drag is very light, the first thing you want to do when a fish hits is to gradually increase the drag pressure after picking up the rod. There is no need to pull back hard on a hit since a running carp is a hooked carp. Bait-feeder reels, on the other hand, are simply put in gear with the turn of the handle.
The terminal set up for winter carp fishing is a simple affair. Thread on an egg sinker on the end of your line. Next, knot on a swivel that holds the egg sinker in place. Then, knot on a short leader of 8 to 10 inches (I suggest 15-pound-test monofilament). At the end of the leader is a hook (go with a small short-shank hook here, #6 or #8). The sinker weight should be just enough to hold bottom. Halfounce steel egg sinkers work well in ponds and lakes, while river currents will determine the weight of the sinker needed to hold bottom in moving water. Note that I will set up my leader rigs ahead of time at home and I store them in an oversized wallet-like carrier called a rigger pouch.
Many serious carp fishermen use “hair rigs.” The Internet is loaded with examples of how to tie your own hair rigs. These are rigs in which a loop of line extends beyond the bend of the hook. That line is called the “hair,” and the bait is actually placed on that line with a baiting needle and held in place with a hair stop. The bait is not put on the hook. While this exposed hook set-up is probably the most efficient way to fish for carp, and the method that I prefer to use, it is something a beginner or a newbie might find to be complicated. For those looking to try winter fishing for carp, you should have good success just threading soft bait onto your hook.
Winter bait choices are simple compared to the range of bait you might use for carp in the warm months. It comes down to a simple choice of bread or corn. If you choose to use corn, sweet corn bought in a supermarket will be an effective bait. You can use it straight from the can or add a flavor to it. I especially like to add pineapple or tutti-fruitti flavor that I purchase in online stores. Three kernels of sweet corn fit nicely on the hair rig or along the shank of a small hook. If you choose to go with a bread ball, you want to use the white part of a slice of bread and mold a small marble sized ball around your hook. If you are into hair rigging, mold the ball of white bread and thread it on with a baiting needle. If I am unsure what bait will be most effective, I will generally bait one hook with a breadball and one with sweet corn when using two outfits. Some days one bait seems to work better than the other, and when that happens both hooks get the same bait. Note that if you fish on a real cold day, you will have to keep your baits from freezing. If I’m using corn, I usually put my bait it in a small container that fits in a warm pocket that will keep it from freezing.
I must caution new carp fishermen about the use of treble hooks, an oldfashioned method to fish doughballs. Most conservation-minded carp experts frown on the use of trebles for carp fishing. Treble hooks can do considerable damage to the lips and mouths of these fish. They can also hook the fish’s lips together, and if the line breaks that eventually becomes an ugly and deadly affair for the fish. Sharp, single, short-shanked hooks like an Umpqua Tiemco 2457 or an Eagle Claw 80 or the more upscale Kamassan Carp Maxx hooks are all good hook choices that will do little damage to a fish that you are planning to release.
Now I know there are a ton of winter fishermen out there reading this and just wondering if a carp can be taken through the ice. Yes, I have tried this, with no success – though I know of some rare catches on a tilt that have been documented. From my experience, it seems that when the ice locks in a pond, these fish get mighty sluggish. You have a much better chance at getting them in open river waters rather than through an ice hole in a pond.
If you like to fish with rod and reel and are looking to catch one heck of a big, rod-bending freshwater fish in the wintertime, consider fishing for carp. Southern New England is loaded with ponds, lakes and rivers that hold these fish. Right before the ice arrives and right after ice out are productive times to fish ponds and lakes, and your best bet for catching a carp in the dead of winter is to fish oxygenated river waters with current. It’s a little known winter fishery that holds loads of cold weather fishing excitement.