It was a chamber of commerce day with bluebird skies and not a cloud on the horizon. I could hardly contain myself, as I knew it was going to be one of those days. The thought of tailers kept me up all night and as I carefully approached the grassy shoreline I could clearly make out the flashes of golden-hued brilliance. I was stalking tipping and tailing gamesters as they foraged through shallows barely deep enough to cover their broad shoulders. I made a quick roll cast and let my fly rest motionless on the surface of the tannin-tinted waters. Fortunately, my cast landed in the path of a cruising fish and after a quick strip to set the hook it was game on. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, think again. This isn’t another rambling about glorious tailing drum or prized bonefish, rather an incredibly unique experience with huge triploid grass carp.
A non-native species introduced by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to help control the growth of unwanted aquatic vegetation, triploid grass carp are freshwater herbivores that occur in many of the state’s freshwater lakes, ponds, canals and drainage ditches. Although unwanted aquatic vegetation can be controlled by herbicides, these chemicals kill all types of vegetation—not only unwanted exotics like hydrilla. Grass carp are a more cost-effective and environmentally conscious way of dealing with the problem.
If you’ve never fought a carp you should know that these fish fight down and dirty.
You may be familiar with the issue currently unfolding in the Midwest. Asian carp were introduced to help clean commercial ponds but they have since reproduced at unnerving levels and are currently threatening many natural species of aquatic flora and fauna. While carp released in Florida waters are a different species, to eliminate the possibility of unwanted distribution and widespread growth scientists have developed genetic alterations to eliminate reproduction altogether.
Cultivated at FWC hatcheries, Florida’s grass carp are known as triploids, meaning they feature a third set of chromosomes and are rendered sterile. Taking the precautions a step further, before carp are released into the wild a red blood cell is sampled to ensure their inability to spawn.
Known worldwide as white Amur for the region of Siberia around the Amur River in which they occur naturally, grass carp feature dark to golden-gray backs with distinct golden shimmering scales. With a relatively oblong shape and large scales, these fish are easily distinguished from common carp, which feature barbels and more laterally compressed bodies. While fishing for grass carp is an enjoyable and exciting experience offering a unique catch varied from typical freshwater targets, it is important to note that grass carp are illegal to possess without a valid FWC permit and must be released unharmed. It’s perfectly legal to catch carp, but since they were introduced for a specific purpose you should take great care to provide a healthy release.
Because these aggressive herbivores are stocked, once you have found a promising location you should have rather consistent action knowing your landlocked targets will be there time and time again. However, since carp are introduced to many private lakes and ponds you’ll have to make sure you aren’t trespassing. Don’t be discouraged if you get kicked out of a honey hole, as there are many publicly accessible waters that hold big carp—you’ll just have to put in your time looking for promising, accessible waters.
Before you can present an offering to a tailing grass carp you’ll need to utilize the same stealthy practices you would when sight fishing to more traditional targets. Grass carp are actually pretty spooky and once startled will retreat to the safety of deeper water. If they spot you before you spot them it’s all over, so move cautiously. Polarized glasses with amber lenses will help you spot these intelligent fish from a distance, so treading lightly when scouting new waters is always a good idea. While staking a bank it will be in your best interest to have some line stripped off your reel and your fly ready to launch. You never know when a carp may pop up.
As for tackle selection I prefer to keep the fight sporty with a 6-weight outfit. A weight-forward floating line and 10-foot section of 10 lb. fluorocarbon leader will get you in the game.
When it comes to effective flies, grass carp feed on a variety of offerings depending on their location around the state and availability of such food sources. Although some anglers have success soaking corn or bread balls with conventional tackle, I prefer the challenge of catching grass carp on fly. And while corn flies do exist, in South Florida’s ponds, irrigation canals and golf course lakes, I’ve had great luck with berry flies. However, berry flies will only be effective in areas where fruiting ficus trees drop berries into the water. In addition, there are different types of ficus trees that fruit berries of various colors, so your overall success relies on your ability to match the hatch. If you find grass carp feasting on grass clippings your berry fly probably won’t get much attention.
While matching the hatch is critical, no matter your offering of choice it’s important you let your fly rest after your initial presentation. Berries, grass clippings, corn kernels and bread balls can’t propel themselves like baitfish, so any stripping or twitching of your fly will appear unnatural and will likely send your wary target running. If your initial cast doesn’t get a response, pick up your fly and make another presentation. You’ll want to avoid false casting if possible, as it can spook wary carp.
When a carp rises up and inhales your fly you have to resist the urge to initially lift the rod tip. The bite can be very subtle so don’t get excited and rush it. Similar to how you must wait to set the hook when fishing topwater plugs, you should wait until your fly disappears before you set the hook. Even so, you will likely miss your first few fish with premature hooksets. You want to set the hook by strip striking before slowly lifting the rod tip. If you are lucky the line will come tight and you will be in for an exciting battle.
If you’ve never fought a carp you should know that these fish fight down and dirty. While they won’t peel off 100-yards of line at once, powerful surges and head shakes will keep you on edge. Since carp flies feature small hooks you don’t want to apply too much pressure at the risk of pulling the hook. It will also be in your best interest to angle the rod down and away from the direction the fish is headed. Once you have your catch under control you want to release it as quickly as possible. If you want a quick photo be sure to wet your hands and support the fish horizontally.
How often do you get the chance, if ever to catch freshwater fish that eclipse the 20-pound mark? Besides alligator gar and sturgeon these are the largest freshwater adversaries you will encounter in the entire state. So if you are tired of the same old bass bonanza, broaden your horizons and target grass carp on fly. A perfect option when it’s too rough to head offshore, hit the banks and seize the day!