Unlike trout, common carp (Cyprinus carpio) are unattractive, slimy, feed almost exclusively below the surface, and rarely inhabit clear mountain streams—choosing instead to live in turbid or brackish waters. For these reasons, the species was denigrated as a “trash fish” by generations of fly fishermen, who saw carp as somehow too unsophisticated for the long rod. But a small cadre of anglers realized that carp are actually difficult to hook, and once they are on the line, they fight with power an enough tenacity to test both tackle and an angler’s resolve. It is these qualities that earned the carp the nickname “freshwater bonefish.”
There are two variants of the common carp—mirror carp, which has much larger scales, and the leather carp, which has virtually no scales except near the dorsal fin. Native to Eurasia, common carp were an important food source, and the Romans built special ponds in which to raise the species near the delta of the Danube River in Romania. A more advanced kind of aquaculture was spread throughout the continent by monks between the 13th and 16th centuries, the beginning of the widespread introductions over the next few centuries that would result in carp populations in virtually every part of the globe, except the northern and southern extremities. Ironically, as this expansion of the carp’s range has gone on unabated, what is thought to be the original wild population, in the Danube, is now threatened.
There seems to be no definitive evidence of when carp first came to the U.S., but it was most likely in the mid 1800s, when fish were imported from Germany or France. By 1877, the U.S. Fish Commission was stocking carp in lakes and rivers across the country to serve as a food source, and the fish spread on their own from there. Modern introductions are mostly the result of anglers dumping bait-size carp into lakes. Every state but Alaska now has carp populations, with the heaviest concentrations in the Great Lakes Basin and large impoundments throughout the South and West.
Like largemouth bass, carp can inhabit a wide range of habitats, but they prefer lakes and slow moving rivers, especially those with turbid water. They can also live in brackish water in estuaries on both coasts and can withstand high water temperatures and a slew of pollutants and agricultural runoff. They travel in schools, usually of at least five, and spawn in the spring in shallow water—often by the thousands. The annual migration into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay draws anglers from around the country to sight-fish for huge carp on the flats.
A member of the minnow family, carp can live for decades and achieve monstrous proportions. The all-tackle IGFA record is almost 76 pounds, but much larger fish have been landed, including a reported 91-pound behemoth caught in France this April. The official record for a fly-caught fish is 42 pounds, from Italy, with the U.S. record a 29 pounds, 8 ounce carp from Town Lake in Austin, Texas.
Carp are omnivorous—they can even be caught on mulberry or cottonwood-seed imitations when they are falling in the water—and most anglers use imitative nymphs, leeches, crayfish, and shrimp patterns. In shallow water, they tail just like bonefish, and you can track them by the puffs of mud. A delicate presentation is required to avoid spooking the fish, and they can be remarkably fickle, at times refusing to take any offering. Anglers who approach carp fishing thinking that it’s easy can be quickly humbled.
For much more information on carp and how to catch them, visit Orvis’s Carp Central page.