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How To Catch Carp: Most Effective Rigs And Baits (And a Recipe)

Carp fishing? Why would anyone want to purposely fish for those nasty, invasive species? Known in some areas as “Sewer Bass”, these large members of the minnow family happily stir up the silt in search for, well….anything they can eat, which is considerable. The fact is that carp are an outstanding fish, both for flavor, and for fighting ability. They’ve been raised in Europe and Asia for food and pets for several thousands of years. Here is a shocker for you, Those beautiful goldfish and koi you see in the pet stores are just selectively bred carp. If you’ve ever eaten real gefilte fish, you’ve eaten carp.

Carp are complete demons on a line, with blistering long, powerful runs. They fight to the very end. On a fly rod, they are great practice for Flats Fishing on the coast. Think of it this way. Most of us do not get a chance to hook into 10+ lb bass very often. Losing one is a disgrace. But 10+ lb. carp are very common, and if you lose a carp, who cares? Just rig up and get another one. It’s the best way to learn how to fight large, pugilistic fish.

What Are Carp?

Carp are large members of the minnow family (Cyprinidae), which also includes shiners, mosquito fish, fatheads, etc… Native to Europe and Asia, they have been domesticated and raised commercially for over 2400 years. Prized as a food fish as well as for aquatic vegetation control, carp were introduced everywhere in Eurasia. Common carp were purposely brought to the US in the mid 1800s as a food fish, to help reduce overfishing of native species.

There are really only 2 species of carp in the US that you need to be concerned with: Common Carp, and Bighead Carp. Other carp species in the US, such as Mirror Carp, and Leather Carp, are just variations of common carp. Grass Carp are protected in some areas in the US, so it is best to release them unharmed if you catch one. Although good to eat, they are used mainly for vegetation control.

Common carp
Bighead Carp
Grass Carp

From an initial modest stock of common carp from Germany, carp proved they were both prolific, and one of the toughest fish there is. They exploded into almost every US body of fresh and brackish water possible, even ones that were so polluted nothing else could live there. Unfortunately, their value as a food fish was not fully realized, and their sheer numbers cast a curtain of disdain on them. It was believed that their habit of stirring up silt and mud in search of food made the waters too dirty for other more desirable fish species to live there. Fact is, the mud quickly settles back down where it came from with no harm done. Bluegills, crappie and bass are more than able to keep carp away from their nests until spawning is over. Crappie actually benefit the waters they are in by helping to keep a healthy ecosystem. They are invaluable in controlling aquatic vegetation like hydrilla, which can choke off water and deplete it of oxygen. They love quagga and zebra mussels, invasive species that are a serious problem in some waters.

But are they really inedible and nasty? Absolutely not.  They are only slightly oilier than other freshwater fish, and much less than mackerel, tuna and herring. They are firm, flaky and slightly sweet. Smoked, they are every bit as good as smoked salmon and trout. They are a seriously underused food source in the US.

How To Catch Carp

One of the great things about carp is that they are very accomodating. You can catch them on anything from a high-end rod and reel combo to a simple piece of kite string and a cheap hook. I caught my first carp at the tender age of 5 with just a piece of kite string, a rusty #8 Aberdeen hook, and a wet, mashed up, and compressed piece of hot dog bun. It weighed 23 pounds and felt like it was ripping my toe off. I had wrapped the line around my big toe and settled back for a nap on a dock while my parents were fishing. They were just trying to make me think I was fishing, to keep me out of the way. I guess I showed them. I awoke to the feeling of my toe being wrenched off, grabbed the line and pulled in what seemed to be a behemoth. That was my introduction to fishing, and I have been hooked (er…) ever since.

Carp can be caught on a cane pole, but if you catch one with any size, that can be problematic, since there is no reel. Anything larger than 7 or 8 lbs will probably snap a cane pole. Common carp average over 10 lbs, and 30+ lb. carp are not that uncommon. Just about any light to medium, rod and reel combo will work fine. Heavy rods and reels also work, but may spook some carp. They tend to be a little wary, especially in shallow or clear water.

In Spring and Fall, carp will usually be in the shallows in large groups, nosing up the mud for food. They are active during the day, and at night. They are frisky, and often jump out of the water, making locating them easier. Approach them quietly so as not to spook them and try to stay low. Avoid casting a shadow on the water. Cast ahead of them, be careful not to ‘line’ any fish, meaning do not cast directly over any fish where the line may hit them. If one fish spooks, they all stampede. Carp are available all year long, even through ice.

Bighead carp are a different proposition. They have the strange habit of jumping clear of the water any time a motorboat comes near, often jumping right into the boat. A new sport is Full Contact Fishing. In areas that have bighead carp, people just get bats, nets, and whatever, wear motorcycle or bicycle helmets, and motor through schools of these huge fish. Remember, they can get over 20 lbs., and getting hit in the head by a 20 lb. fish while you are moving at 6 or 7 knots will definitely get your attention. They just try to knock them into the boat as they cruise along, and when the boat is full, they go in and have a fish fry. As you may guess, water and jet skiers consider the fish a major hazard, and people are encouraged to harvest all they want. But you still need a fishing license.

My favorite way to catch carp is on a fly. Carp are definitely Big Game on a fly rod and are great practice for stripers, large bass, and inshore species like snook and bonefish. They are similarly sized, and fight the same way. The best fly patterns I have found are the Coyote Carp Fly, The Carpinator, The Carpoon, BackStabber, and the Scarpoin. These are mostly just variations on the saltwater flats Gotcha and Crazy Charlie patterns.

Coyote Carp Fly

The very best rig I have ever used is just a slip sinker rig. Slide on a light slip sinker, tie on a swivel, then make a leader of 12” to 15”. Top it off with a small (#8 or #10) bait hook.

The carp can pick up the bait without feeling the weight of the sinker. Also, it transmits the vibration of the pickup directly to you rod, making it more sensitive.  This is the rig I use for carp almost all the time.

Another popular rig is the Hair Rig. This is just tying a small leader onto the hook bend and threading corn or boilies onto it. In theory, it lets the carp pick up the bait without feeling the hook. I’ve never noticed an improvement over the slip sinker rig, but that’s just me.

You have to thread the corn or boilies onto the leader with a needle. It’s a lot more work, but lots of people like to use it.

As for bait, carp aren’t that picky. They can be caught on worms, grubs, small crawfish, plain old bread, and various dough baits that can be purchased, or made at home. The best bait I have ever used is just a piece of white bread. Soak it in the water until it gets mushy, then squeeze it onto the hook and make a ball out of it. Instant dough ball….

One of my favorite homemade baits is 1 cup of Wheaties (or any cereal will work), 1 cup flour, ¼ cup honey, and slowly add hot water and mix  until you get a thick dough. Store it in a ziplock baggie in the fridge. To use, just pinch off a small piece and mold it around the hook, covering it completely. You can also add some strawberry Kool Aid or vanilla to it for added attraction.  I have also caught carp on Gummi Worms and plain old Gum Drops. You can make boilies at home, but it is very involved and time-consuming. It’s easier just to buy Magic Bait Sweet Angie, or similar dough baits. They work every bit as good. 

What To Do With Your Catch

Carp are delicious table fare. They are a little more boney than other fish, but it only takes a few minutes more to filet them. Here are the steps:

  1. Scale the fish
  2. Filet them just like you would any other fish.
  3. Cut out the red strip of flesh along the lateral line.
  4. There is a row of ‘Y’ shaped bones along the side. Find the bones and run you knife along the top, freeing the top tenderloin. Set this piece aside.
  5. Run your knife along the bottom of these bones and free the bottom part of the filet. You now have 4 great boneless filets from 1 fish.
  6. Double-check each piece for any bones you may have missed, then rinse them off and store them in ziplock baggies in the fridge until ready to cook.

You can now fry them, bake them, broil them, or my favorite, smoke them over applewood, or mesquite wood. I have also pickled them with onions, and they are absolutely wonderful. Carp have firm flaky flesh that is a little sweet, and not fishy at all. They are just a tad more oily than a trout, but not so that you would really notice. You can also fix this by marinating the filets in milk, or water and lemon juice for 30 minutes before cooking them. This removes most of the oil.

If you haven’t tried carp, you’re missing out. There are plenty of them and they are relatively free for the taking. Enjoy….

Happy fishing

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