October 14, 2021
By Patrick Burke
This article was originally titled "Trash Fish" in the April-May 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
A deep-seated anti-carp bias was instilled in me at an early age. I was nine years old at a family reunion picnic when I caught my first carp using kernels of corn on a Zebco. Somewhere, there’s a faded photo of me hugging a golden, mustachioed fish a third my size. I can still remember the pride I felt, as a crowd of cousins gathered around to admire my catch.
I can also remember the words of my uncle: “It’s just a carp. A garbage fish.” The onlookers shuffled back to the picnic shelter and the 6-foot Italian sub. As the pride drained out of me, something else drained out of the carp. Looking back, it was probably eggs venting. But to nine-year-old me, a “garbage fish” had just crapped on my Bugle Boy jeans.
That “garbage fish” reputation seems to follow carp, wherever they swim. However, if we were to design a perfect catch-and-release gamefish, what would we want? The chance to sight-cast to big fish that will fight us into our backing. Fish that are challenging, yet plentiful, so that we’d have multiple shots at big fish, every day. And we’d want them to live in our backyard. And eat flies.
It was only a matter of time before at least some fly fishers took notice. Pioneering guides in places like Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Beaver Island, Michigan, propagated the carp’s “golden bonefish” reputation, marketing high-end, flats-like experiences. But there are carp in every state except Alaska. They don’t need to be a destination fish (unless . . . you live in Alaska). More and more every year, carp are migrating into the mainstream of fly fishing.
“Gear manufacturers are getting on board,” says Bill Katzenberger, of DuPage Fly Fishing Company in Naperville, Illinois. “And we’re really seeing it with flies. Since 2015 we’ve seen double, if not triple the carp fly selection out there. We’re getting carp patterns from signature tiers now, where typically they’d be designing trout or maybe permit patterns.”
Fly shops are also stocking more and more carp-specific gear. There’s no carp-shaped Patagonia logo yet, but give it time. The Bison just got theirs.
In 2016, Katzenberger partnered with Kurt Nelson of Midwest Waters Angling Co., to host the first annual Midwest Golden Bones Fly Tournament in northern Illinois. Over a dozen major sponsors, from Simms to Costa Del Mar, supported the event. The 30 spots sold out quickly, with 13 fly fishers consigned to the wait list.
In 2017, they expanded the field to 45 anglers. More sponsors took notice. The prizes grew more valuable. Carp holdouts were coming around.
Finding Feeding Carp
The first challenge in catching a carp on a fly rod is finding a carp. Not just finding “carp water,” but finding an actual, individual fish. One that’s feeding.
“They’re probably the only fish in the Midwest that are 100 percent sight fishing,” says Katzenberger. “We look for carp that are tailing, mudding, or cruising slowly. We find them anywhere there is food and cover, but good places to start are ‘blowdowns and berries’—water below deadfalls or under mulberry trees.”
Wherever you find them, carp can be infuriatingly spooky. Sight fishing means getting close enough to see them, but too often a carp will return the favor. The low vantage point of wading isn’t ideal. If you’re not in a drift boat or raft, then you’re often sneaking along wooded banks, or crawling on rock walls, peering into likely water.
Carp Fishing Tips
Mike Allen is the first Midwest Golden Bones champion, as well as Nelson’s partner and fellow guide at Midwest Waters Angling. Allen is also a retired Army Ranger, 82nd Airborne, which becomes immediately apparent when I ask him about his carp tactics. He barks his answers like a drill sergeant.
“Stealth and presentation trump fly selection, every time. Keep the sun at your back for better vision,” Allen fires in short bursts. “Learn to crawl with a fly rod. Learn to dapple. Learn to cast from your knees. Use trees as cover. Stay low.”
I was with him an hour west of Chicago, floating a stretch of the Fox River. We came to a large eddy full of blowdowns and the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the water. Allen nodded subtly at something from the bow position, then made a short cast. Then another.
Soon, we could all see the carp. She hadn’t yet spooked, but she had several good looks at his fly and didn’t make a move. Then, on the next cast, she quickly darted to her right and inhaled the rust-colored version of John Montana’s Hybrid Carp Fly.
Allen set the hook, and his 7-weight doubled over almost instantly. The carp dove, then ran downstream, slashing across the surface. The fight was violent, until finally the fish came to the net. It wasn’t a huge carp, but respectable. In the 10-pound range. It proved a point that I often hear from carp zealots: Even a small carp is a big, powerful fish.
Serious Midwestern carp fly fishers each have their own, finely tuned setup. They obsess about things like the size of their fly’s dumbbell eyes, or the brightness of a logo on a hoodie. Some carp tiers paint their stainless hooks black or olive, to avoid glint. (Click here for some good carp flies).
For Midwest waters, 7- or 8-weight rods and WF floating lines are ideal, even when fishing the bottom. “We don’t recommend intermediates. We don’t want that line going anywhere near the fish,” Katzenberger says. “For local rivers, we’re fishing 9-foot leaders, with 8- to 12-pound tippet. A good pair of polarized sunglasses are critical, with copper or amber lenses.”
Late one Saturday night in July, Dave Kuntzelman texts me a location pin, with one word: “Noon.”
Goose Island is known for the brewery by the same name, but it’s also an actual landmass in Chicago—a manmade island in the North Branch of the Chicago River, formed in the 1850s when a side canal was excavated for clay to make bricks. The island is an industrial corridor, in the early stages of gentrification. At one point, this neighborhood was nicknamed “Little Hell,” but now there’s an Infiniti dealership and a Whole Foods within sight.
The street dead-ends just as my GPS tells me that I’ve “arrived.” I assume that I’m in the wrong place. I can’t see the river, although I can smell it. But soon Kuntzelman arrives, with Adam Alexander. Kuntzelman and Adam are the founders of Chi-Tie, a monthly fly-tying event in the city. They’re also something of a rarity: city-dwelling fly fishers who have truly embraced their local waters. Not just the lakefront and harbors, but even the lowly Chicago River, where pre-trip planning involves checking online updates for sewage releases.
The Chicago River is deep here, averaging 15 feet in the center channel. Kuntzelman and Alexander probe piles of deadfall along a cement wall, roll casting or dapping the fly when they spot fish. We use shorter, 6-foot leaders, down to 10-pound tippet. The carp are suspended, cruising just below the surface, so we use unweighted flies, like simplified versions of Ted’s Swimming Hex nymphs, on #4 hooks.
It’s been raining, and the Chicago River—stained green on a good day—is muddy. The sky is overcast, making it even harder to see fish. Eventually, Alexander spots a large carp. He flips a short roll cast out, the first cast of the day. The nymph drops slowly in front of the fish. Nothing. On the second cast, the big fish disappears into the murk. Alexander sits down in defeat. There is no third cast. It’s the only carp we would see that day. We tie off to some rebar on the cement wall and open beers. To the east, the Chicago skyline rises to meet a low cloud bank.
At the 2016 Midwest Golden Bones tournament, Kuntzelman and Alexander left the city before dawn, drove an hour west for the tournament check-in, then drove an hour back into the city to fish this exact spot. The gamble didn’t pay off, but Kuntzelman is considering it again this year.
“There are some absolutely massive carp in here,” Kuntzelman says. “You could win with one fish.”
Alexander nods in agreement. “There’s a legitimate shot at a fly-rod record carp in this river, and no one ever fishes here.”
Midwest Golden Bones Carp-Fishing Tournament
When the weekend of the 2017 Midwest Golden Bones tournament arrived, conditions weren’t good. It had been raining all week. The organizers ditched the list of approved rivers, and opened the competition to any moving water, allowing anglers to seek out systems that are starting to clear. (The tournament is restricted to rivers and streams only, no ponds.)
I arrived early for the Friday kickoff party, at Southbank Original Barbecue on the Fox River in Yorkville. The other hopeful fly fishers had traveled from all over the Midwest. The parking lot was full of trucks tattooed with stickers and weighed down with watercraft. The beer garden was crowded with plaid shirts and trucker hats, and a band was tuning up for the evening. Justin Carfagnini from Pig Farm Ink announced contestants for the Iron Fly tying competition. Sponsor banners were flapping in the breeze. It seemed like a lot of fuss for garbage fish.
At 5 A.M. the next morning, 45 bleary-eyed fly fishers checked in at DuPage Fly Fishing Co. Katzenberger briefed them on the rules before they fanned out across the region. I went to breakfast with Katzenberger and a handful of other tournament participants who weren’t in a rush. They knew that the fish wouldn’t be active—or as visible—until the sun was higher.
I brought up the carp’s lowly reputation, asking DuPage Fly Fishing Co. owner Jeremy Spaccapaniccia if his customers still view carp as garbage fish.
“It’s getting better,” he says. “I’d say 50 percent of our customers are genuinely interested. They either already target carp, or want to try it; 40 percent nod politely, but in reality have zero interest in carp. And then there’s 10 percent who still say, ‘They’re trash fish.’”
Tournament reports trickled into the shop throughout the day. Predictably, the morning had been tough, but by lunchtime fly fishers were putting carp on the board. The big rivers—the ones that funnel in from Wisconsin—were basically unfishable, but smaller streams had cleared enough to be productive. The official quitting time was 6:30 P.M. but by then most anglers had already found their way back to Southbank—some in defeat, others hopeful and waiting for the official tally.
Finally, just as the sun was setting over the Fox River, Dave Kuntzelman (my host from the Chicago River float) was crowned as the Golden Bones champion, putting up 147 inches of carp with 7 fish. He’d gone for numbers over size, and it paid off.
“With these conditions, I had to change tactics,” Kuntzelman said. “I had to explore my water a bit further, and wait for fish. I was making longer casts than I’d normally have to.”
Kuntzelman drove 40 minutes to find what he was after, though he wouldn’t say exactly where. “I found a tributary that was running clear,” he said, smiling, and giving away nothing. Next year’s challengers might be listening.
Despite the urban setting, Kuntzelman and the rest of his tournament participants don’t think carp are trash fish. When it comes right down to it, we’re the ones who trashed the rivers. Carp just found a way to survive in the mess we made. Call them what you want from the sidelines, but as soon as you cast a line to one of these gamers, they will earn your respect. One man’s trash is another man’s 20-pound gamefish.
Patrick Burke lives in the Chicago area, and works in advertising as a writer and creative director. He is also a freelance outdoor writer and content producer, with a focus on the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.