Story From the Road: 4-Wheeled Oven

Fly fishing: Craving the flats, it was finally time to dig into the carp game again

Fly fishing for urban carp from the Denver Metro area, Denver South Platte River
Releasing an urban carp from the Denver Metro area, Denver South Platte

February 2023

By mid-July, I was fighting an intense dose of daydreaming for bonefish, tarpon, and redfish. Plus, I figured the trout deserved a break during the hot summer days. So what did that leave me with? You know what that means.... Yup, this is a carp story. The only problem with my plan: I'm not much of a carp angler. Back in college I knew a couple spots but now- far from those ponds- I kinda figured a lot of sweat-equity would be required to get me up to speed and hooking into some fish. I'd have to start at square one and previously had not been keen on putting in that of effort. But the time had finally come, I needed to shake loose this saltwater angst. The first question to answer: Where are the nearest carp?

I picked a great summer to get serious because my car's air conditioning bit the dust just a week before. The trout bum-mobile was running hotter than ever and as I drove around pinning blue circles on google maps, I settled into my mobile sauna, accepting the unrelenting heat blast. It's never a good sign when the outside temperature is pushing past 100°F and rolling down the windows cools you off....

Even though the Denver South Platte is the main carp attraction around my neck of the woods, upstream releases muddied the water to an uncomfortable degree for a long stretch of summer. So, I pond-hopped... and hiked... and drove... and sweat. I didn't realize how little casting was actually involved during this early phase. It felt like a big game hunt. The local carp were few and far between, surprisingly. I've been repeatedly told they are everywhere, of course except when I went searching for them. Schrödinger's carp. Eventually, I found more than a few lakes with fish. They weren't the ones I was expecting, but I was making progress. Unfortunately, I still had to learn the next lesson: there is a big difference between finding a carp and finding a carp that's eating.

Fly fishing for carp with the backstabber fly pattern
What a dink of a carp

Back to the road, and my 4-wheeled oven. I took a stroll across town to a lake that previously hosted a carp fishing event and figured the odds would be more in my favor. In the past few years, this was the first time I've driven over an hour on a fishing trip for something other than trout. It probably wasn't that far away, I mostly blame the famous Denver-Metro traffic. It felt weird to trade bumpy dirt roads for bumper-to-bumper highway gridlock, but I'm always keen on exploration, no matter the setting. This trip capped off a seven day hunt, which had gone completely fishless up until this point. Progress was slow. I just didn't find suitable lakes. Again, they say carp are everywhere but to me, that seemed like a lie. Anyway, I found enough reserve energy to give it another shot. Sure enough, in the muddiest corner of this lake, I saw tailing fish in shallow water with just enough clarity to get get an idea of where the fish was pointed and heading. Right at my feet, I finally got the first hook up and landed a 5lb carp. A small fish in the carp world. Still good enough for a victory lap and an extended hydration break.

Back at my local waters, there were two front runner lakes where I doubled down to focus my efforts. The smaller pond proved productive but highly temperamental due to seemingly random water level fluctuations; the other, a midsized, crystal clear still-water loaded with mondo carp all blessed with precognitive abilities to predict my presence and movements. Here, I simply couldn't get a fly in front of anything. By now, there was one fly I had confidence in, yet these fish didn't want anything to do with it. I'd try dries that looked like bugs, even crumbs of bread. I'd try soft hackles to land quietly, even large crayfish as larger offerings. Leaders would get longer and thinner, some days I'd take a look earlier in the day, others later. Many outings were completely blown out due to overcast skies where I couldn't see any fish in the water until I'd stumble upon, and spook, a whole pod simultaneously. I was ready to black list this lake forever and stick to exploring. A few other ponds had some feeding carp that I found success in, but I learned that the carp pond game required a lot of recon, walking, and checking other spots for better signs of feeding fish. However, as any fisherman will tell you, angling necessitates optimism. And so I'd find myself back at my blacklisted lake...The clear, spooky lake often became the last stop for me, a reluctant trip simply because I knew there were fish present. It didn't hurt that an adjacent gas station maintained a well-stocked refrigerator of cold beverages. I'd still grumble to the lake, at the lake, or on the drive back, "Why am I coming back here? This is such a waste of time." My brand of optimism is complicated...

Fly fishing for carp with the backstabber fly pattern
Backstabber caught this carp in an urban Colorado pond

Now September, the Front Range finally got a big rain that broke up the heat, briefly dropping temperatures into the lower 60s. The next day, temps were bouncing back into the 70s and I figured the break in temperatures and additional moisture might have stirred things up for the carp. Based on the first pond I visited my theory was wrong. I made two quiet laps around the pond but didn't see any fish feeding in the shallows. So I found myself in that familiar situation, do I check out the spooky lake? I knew better, but with the windows rolled down the drive was easier than most other days. By now, fall was starting to creep into my mind, and my fishing daydreams were shifting to swinging streamers for trout; carp were starting to fade. But one thing at a time.

In the parking lot of the spooky lake, I struggled to rig up to adjust to the usual spooky conditions. I eventually settled on 3x tippet and picked a fly at random, because hey, why not? It was something small and relatively light: Egan's headstand. Perfect, it won't matter anyway. Within 100 yards of my parked car, I had my first shot. Surprisingly, I didn't spook the fish. Unsurprisingly, my cast was off course and didn't get any attention. Maybe the rain did actually make a difference here. Still, recasting spooked the pod of fish and I had to find new water. They didn't spook in a blaze of speed, but rather lazily swam just out of reach. Sure felt like they knew how to position themselves inches past my casting range. Just another typical day here. I quietly bushwhacked through a tall thicket of shrubs to find another larger pod of carp basking in the sun. One fish had strayed from the group, wandering close to the bank with his nose down, rooting around. Finally! A feeding fish!

sight fishing carp

Instead of getting in my head about having only one chance at this fish or checking my back casting clearance or thinking about how I'd need the perfect cast, I just sent the fly out on autopilot. Failure was the standard here and expectations were low (told you I had an odd sense of optimism). The cast for carp is a compound process: land past the fish, drag it up high, and drop it right onto the fish's dinner plate. As we're nearing the end here, you'd expect that I made the perfect cast and the fish ate the fly. I don't think it was perfect... but it was good enough. I remember noticing how slowly the fly was dropping and thinking that I'd actually have a shot here, the fish didn't spook. The fish simply turned slightly to its right, on top of where the fly presumably landed, and that was my clue. I set the hook.

I'll tell you, up close there's no need for a strip set; a big ol' trout set does the job just fine. The fish bolted for deeper water, but I put the breaks on and quickly adjusted my reel's drag to compensate. About fifteen minutes later, by the time the fish landed in my net, I needed pliers to extract the fly as it was "hoovered" up with enthusiasm. That untouchable lake finally let me have a victory. A slimy, squishy, kind of gross victory, but victory nonetheless.

But the grumbling will assuredly be back when I eventually try my luck next time and start the cycle all over again. At least next summer I'll make sure to have working A/C.

Fly fishing for urban Carp from Denver South Platte Corridor
Victory at last! Larger Urban Carp from Denver South Platte Corridor