While equipment improvements and advancements in technique have been significant on the Huron since I first published this book*, the greatest change in the fishery has been the growing emphasis on carp fishing.
Once, the carp “fishery” was little more than a novelty. Early practitioners like Craig Clevidence and Dave Hellman, were as curious as anything else, and they had little idea that the behemoths they tossed smallmouth-purposed Wooly Buggers and crayfish patterns to would one day hold an elevated status among local anglers.
The idea of catching carp on the long rod was not exactly new – Dave Whitlock had already published a book on it, and the fish’s popularity among European fishermen had given rise to specialty rigs in all manner of tackle, including fly rodding. But, it had never really caught on with Michigan’s fly fishing community.
The first to target them in any dedicated manner locally was Paul Christensen, and the entire fishery on the Huron, Flint and Raisin rivers can be traced back to him. Paul, and later a host of people such as Wally Herrala, and guides like Mike Schultz and Pete Hodgman, began to refine the tackle and techniques to make the pursuit of these cyprinids not only legitimate, but indeed kosher.
One of the best aspects of the new-found love for carp was an appreciation for parts of the river that otherwise held limited appeal to the fly fisher. The fishery, for most, is centered around the mulberry “hatch” – the seasonal dropping of fruit from red and white mulberry trees along the river’s banks. Since many of the more-productive trees are found in city parks, like Island and Riverside in Ann Arbor, and Riverside in Ypsi, anglers get an introduction into these areas that otherwise have been generally overlooked.
Carp are incredibly strong fish and they require stout tackle to bring them to hand. They also are not a dainty, gentlemanly fighter – they are brawlers that will run the angler’s line and leader against the gravel, take them into their backing and into the tag alders. If the synchronized movements of an angler’s rod in duel with a trout could be seen as a fencing match with foils; those with carp would be a bout in which the blades were tossed aside and the combatants had a bareknuckle romp. While they are sometimes called “golden bonefish” I think the more appropriate comparison of fighting style is to a bull trout.
At any rate, a durable, powerful rod is needed for this game and I prefer fiberglass for a couple of reasons.
First, it is well-suited to the rough and tumble game of carp fishing. Knocking around amongst branches, or the abuse that comes from jumping in and out of boats, is not a problem for glass. Also, the soft action of a fine fiberglass, such as a Fenwick FF80 (my personal favorite for this fishing) is ideal for presenting a fly on a heavy line with a minimum of splash and disturbance.
Most casts are less than 40 feet when fishing mulberries, as this is a sight game, so the smooth delivery at short distance, which is a hallmark of fiberglass, makes it ideal. Those who indicator fish with nymphs will do better with a “tippier,” faster graphite, but this game has never interested me much – if I am going to “work” for a fish (that is, fish when the fishing is less-than-ideal) I will spend my time targeting smallmouth with streamers and surface patterns, as it fits my personality better.
If you are not into the fiberglass movement, a good carp alternative is a steelheading setup of a 10 x 7 graphite. The demands of the two games are similar enough that the crossover works – and the added rod length is nice if you are indicator fishing and need to mend line.
Carp fishing is one of the few freshwater pursuits that makes the investment in a top-flight disc drag reel wise.
These fish, while not as fast as saltwater species, are every bit as powerful, and they put a premium on a smooth, non-binding drag. They also will come back upstream at a good clip, giving the angler with a large arbor reel an advantage over those with a standard arbor.
I like a reel such as the Hardy Ultralight DD 6000, the Orvis Hydros (no longer made, but still readily available), or a Lamson Guru for this sport. These are all good performing reels that sell at under $300, yet match up nicely with more expensive fare for this fishing.
If ever there was justification for a return to level lines, this would be it. I have destroyed so many premium lines with this fishing that it makes both my stomach and wallet hurt. I rarely cast beyond 40 feet when berry fishing for carp, and my only requirement of a line is that it float well. But, the fish are so hard on lines – their bottom-hugging runs scuff the line on every rock and log in the area – that I rarely get a full season from the line, and generally will have to change out about two-thirds of the way through the heat of the action.
I tend to use floating double tapers for carp fishing (please note, this is for river fishing only! Flats-style carping requires premium weight-forward lines). The slow rollover and superior roll casting performance of double-taper lines make them ideal for the delicate dropping of mulberry flies.
Weight forwards are fine, provided the taper is more of a “quiet” style as opposed to something like an Outbound Short. There is no need for power casting in the mulberry game.
For general carping, I use a 7 ½’ to 9’ leader (depending on water depth) tapered to 1x. In very clear water I will go to 2x, and if fishing for very heavy fish, I will use 15 or 16 lb. test at the fly. A suitable leader can be made with 3.5 feet of 30 lb. test, one foot of 20 lb. test and 3.5 feet of whichever tippet you prefer, if you want a quick, no frills setup.
I do not use fluorocarbon, and if possible will construct a leader of simple monofilament spinning line (inexpensive) to keep with the spirit of the pursuit. Carp fishing should not be a snooty adventure.
Fishing the Berry Hatch
Basically, the mulberry game boils down to two essential ingredients – the right location and the right presentation.
Red mulberries, which are native to Michigan and much of the Eastern United States, tend to have fruit that ripens and drops heaviest in early-to-mid June; but they are long-fruited trees, with many berries sticking around deep into summer. White mulberries, which are invasive, have a long period of unripened fruit hanging, and occasionally dropping, making them a good target in the late-summer, as well.
I have fished red mulberry flies (the standard mulberry pattern as tied by Wally Herrala and Paul Christensen) under white mulberry trees with much success, and have concluded that the fish are so happy to see any berry, that individual characteristics are a minor concern.
But while pattern is flexible, presentation is not.
The angler wants to be in a position to present the fly immediately downstream of a fruiting tree, paying particular attention to natural gathering spots where the fruit collects (this is very similar to fishing spent spinners on a trout stream).
On windy days, or periods in which birds or squirrels are actively feeding and causing berries to drop into the water, the fish will reach near-frenzied states as they jockey for position with each other and other dinner guests, like ducks and geese.
The cast must be soft and the ideal presentation is an open-loop, or a roll cast that causes the fly to drop nearly vertically. The more your berry looks like one falling from the tree, the better. Once landed, the fly must be fished completely dead-drift. Carp are incredibly skittish and will reject any suspect presentation.
Once fooled, the take is confident, but the rejection is very quick. The angler needs to see the fish eat, or be extremely attuned to body language that indicates the fly has been taken (tell-tale signs are a fish that follows the fly downstream and then stops – indicating he has picked the fly up; or a tilting of the body to one side, similar to a nymphing trout). A late set will miss the fish almost every time.
A particularly rewarding experience is to take the fish on a “dry” – a mulberry that is still on the surface or in the surface film. I tie my berry flies with an under-wrapping of closed cell foam so that they float momentarily (as does the natural). Watching an aggressive carp come and turn his body to orient his mouth to take a floating fly is an almost comical experience – until the fight ensues! I do not like the Whitlock-style floating berry flies of spun deer hair. In my experience, this low-mass fly too often gets pushed away when the fish tries to take it, and this results in spooking of that fish, and any others in the immediate area.
As he or she must with steelhead, salmon and other hard-fighting fish, carp fishing requires the angler to pre-think the battle carefully. Take note of the logical places the fish will run. Steering him away from logs and other obstructions is critical. It is much easier to turn a fish when he is upstream or within 20 degrees of the angler’s position, than it is when he is at a more acute angle downstream. Realize, too, that the drag of the line and leader in the water is putting pressure on the tippet and fly gap – the further away the fish is, the more pressure there is.
I don’t like to use Boga Grips for landing carp, as their mouths are soft and the hard pincers can cause damage. I usually look for a shallow beaching area, or just get them close enough to turn the barbless (crushed barb) hook easily out of the mouth. A large rubber-bag net is also a good option, and steelheaders are likely well-set with this item.
When the end-game is at hand, the angler is well-advised to keep his or feet firmly together (as you do with salmon and steelhead), as carp will run between your legs, and this can be hard on rod-tips, nerves and sensitive parts of the anatomy.
It is possible to catch carp at other times, and when one is in tune with this species, he can usually spot what Christenen calls “a player” – a fish that is likely to take a fly. For my money, when I see carp actively “mudding” (grubbing along the bottom), I am confident that a well-presented crayfish, Woolly Bugger or nymph can attract some attention. However, since I usually do not carry a seven-weight except when targeting carp, or fishing weighted flies in the early season, I often pass on this opportunity.
* The book, Fly Fisher's Huron River is no longer in print, but I'm working on a second edition.