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Can Spawning Carp Be Caught?

by Philip Monahan

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Carp FishingTim Glomb photo


Question: Every spring when the carp are spawning, I see them very active, often jumping out of the water entirely. So I’ve been trying to catch one, but the water in the river I’m fishing is very muddy, and sight-fishing is impractical. I’ve read enough articles online and discovered a few tricks used to spot them. I can now see non-static bubbles created from carp feeding on the bottom, yet I have only seen one carp that was not jumping out of the water, by accident in less than two feet of water.

I tried catching one using nymphs and small crayfish imitations for many consecutive days when I’m pretty sure I’ve seen signs of their presence, but nothing. Are carp so hard to catch? Can I do anything better to improve my odds of catching one someday?

Nicolas C., via email

Answer: Here’s the part where I’m forced to admit that I have never caught a carp on a fly. However, one of my few attempts mirrors Nicolas’s experience. I had moved to North Carolina and, while driving past a pond, had seen carp rolling and jumping. I ran home, got my gear, and fruitlessly cast for a couple hours. When I got home, I called John Likakis, former editor of Warmwater Fly Fishing, and asked him what was up.

He said, “You can’t catch those fish. They’re spawning, so they’re not interested in eating at all. Plus they’re constantly on the move.” Instead, he told me to look for fish that are actively feeding or cruising in clearer water.

To answer Nicolas’s question with a little more authority, I asked my friend Tim Daughton—an Orvis product developer—who is constantly posting pictures on Facebook of him and his kid with huge carp. Here’s what he had to say:

“Carp are not difficult to catch, if you know which fish to target and when. Spawning fish, jumping out of the water and wallowing in the shallows, are not the ideal choice for the fly angler. Setting aside the ethical issue of fishing to spawners, these fish have one thing on their minds, and it is not eating. However, it is hard to ignore these fish, and I have tried in the past to catch them, but have snagged many more than I have caught. I would recommend that you wait it out and let the fish do their thing.

As the water warms and the summer progresses, the spawn will wrap up, and these fish will resume more ‘normal’ behavior. I like to target fish that are actively feeding, noses in the mud and tails up near the surface or even out of the water. These are the fish that will eat a fly, often with reckless abandon. In general, early and late are the best times, but don’t discount the middle of the day. Days with little to no wind and good light are ideal, as this is more like hunting than fishing and the ability to spot and stalk fish is imperative. Be cautious and move slowly; these fish are often in very shallow water and will flee for deeper water at the slightest sense of danger. A good pair of polarized glasses is a must.  Keep in mind that a fish in shallow water is often there to feed.

Carp are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of many different food sources. Obvious starting points are smaller crayfish patterns and Woolly Buggers. Be sure to give the fly plenty of time to sink to the bottom before the fish gets to it, or the fly gets to the fish. Retrieve it or dead drift; let the fish’s reaction be your guide. Small nymphs are also good choices, and don’t rule out using a strike indicator if you can’t see the fish clearly in muddy water; just keep the indicator small and light.

These are just some basic tips to help you get started. Keep on trying and be observant, and it will all eventually come together.”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • James Futrell

    I live in IL (near St. Louis, MO) and as most already know we have been invaded by carp (and other things I shall not mention in this comment).  I get my carp flies from and have caught many big carp on this fly:  I’ve never thought about using an indicator until this article and now I can’t wait to do so.  I believe it will increase my hook-up rate.  The previous mentioned fly I use is kind of a weird combo I call a cray-wolly.  Good luck!

    • James Futrell

      The link to the fly does not seem to work.  The true name of the fly is Carp Breakfast.  Search for it at 

      • Chuck S

        Thanks for the tip on a Carp Fly.  My favorite is a wooley worm pattern but tied on a bend back hook with two tufts of orangish deer hair as weed guards.  I weight it with one two or three wraps of fine lead, according to the water depths I’ll be fishing.  I developed this back in the 90s  on a mid Washington Lake which had beautiful flats but they were covered with a cobble of softball and bigger sized basalt stones.

  • Erparf

    A great place to learn something about fly fishing for Carp comes about August 27th in Denver at Denver Trout Unlimited’s 5th Annual Pro Am Carp Slam on the urban SOuth Platte River in downtown Denver. The competition is now fully booked and we’re looking forward to the best “Slam” yet. 15 amateur Carp fly fishers will be paired with Pros. Carpus beware!!!

  • Captpaulrose

    Having guided for carp more than ten years in NC, this question comes up frequently in my seminars. The key during spawning time is to find the fish lurking on the edges and are still in a pre-spawn pattern. Many times my biggest fish of the year come from just waiting for that pre-spawn monster.  Presentation is the game when carpin’ anytime so fly selection is secondary. Keep it in colors of brown, rust or brown but with the right amount of weight in your fly for the water your in. Don’t change patterns as often as changing the weight. Flies must be in the feeding zone. Check out the podcast on the Itinerant Angler for more info on Carp on the Fly

  • Unclefstop

    One afternoon in mid March on the Agua Fria River inlet to Lake Pleasant in AZ I watched an angler catch over 20 carp during spawning while we were casting for white bass.. The carp were quite active, large, and thrashing about the river bank. The angler I was on his knees, making perfect casts under an overhanging branch with a lightly weighted fly similar to a bonefish pattern on a 4wt rod. He was having a blast fighting some very large fish on that light rod. If I hadn’t left my bugger box in the car a mile or so away I might have joined him for a lesson since the white bass weren’t very active that day. It was a pleasure to watch a man that knows why he came and how to catch what he’s after. Interestingly, he also asked some less than considerate anglers to pick up the trash they came with and take it back to their car, which they did.

    • Chuck S

      Pre and post spawn Carp are readily caught and it sounds like he was fishing for those fish wiating their turn in the weeds or hanging about after spawning.  The timing is certainly right for fishing for them with either a crayfish or white bass egg pattern as they do feed on the white bass eggs and on the other small critters eating the many white bass eggs during their spawn.  Sounds like someone who has taken the time to figure out one of the many aspects of their feeding behavior.

  • DP

    I have caught carp in spawning areas, but not spawning carp. There were carp that were feeding and carp that were spawning. Spawning carp seldom look at a fly. The carp that were feeding, though, were a lot less spooky than usually and I caught quite a few. I think all the sex pheromones in the water hid the scent (or caused them to ignore) the danger pheromone that carp release. It’s easier to walk up and kick a spawning carp than it is to get them to eat a fly.