As a species to fish for, carp were never high on our list, but we had caught a few on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and on the Yellowtail Reservoir in Montana. The Susquehanna fish were caught on a very slow streamer retrieve and the Montana fish on a hopper imitation. Yes, they were fun, especially when they could be taken on the surface, yet we would always pass on carp for more popular candidates like trout and smallmouth bass.
But one day recently we were on the upper end of the Bighorn River, at the very top of the Yellowtail after-bay. We had planned to fish the upper three miles of the 'Horn but it was a weekend and every good spot had fishermen, so we decided to take a ride along the after-bay and forget about fishing until tomorrow. We parked and walked down the path that leads to the very top of the after-bay, never dreaming of what we were about to see. There were thousands of trico spinners on the surface and heads everywhere. Our first thought was trout and we wondered where everybody was as there was not a single angler in sight. And then, as we got closer, we saw that the feeding fish were actually carp; carp feeding on the trico spinners.
After watching this feeding frenzy for a couple minutes, we climbed the trail back to the car, geared up and returned to fish. We no sooner got to the water when we heard car doors and voices coming down the path... we were getting company. Two women showed up without fishing gear, obviously tourists or campers out for a walk. As we tied on flies, they remarked about there being a lot of fish. They asked us what kind of fish they were seeing. When we replied with carp, they shrugged. We explained pointing to the water that there were tiny mayfly spinners on the surface and that the carp were eating these insects. “Oh, I can't believe that,” one replied. “Why would a big fish like that eat such tiny bugs?” And with that, they promptly turned and left.
We breathed a sigh of relief and decided that Cathy was up first. While wondering how selective the fish might be, she had tied on a size twelve black super beetle on a 9' 4X RIO tapered leader. Her first cast was well-placed and the super beetle quickly disappeared in a slurp. This guy wasn't really a big fish but he quickly put Cathy into her backing and made the 5-weight Sage X buckle. As the fish came to net she remarked how strong it was before releasing it.
Looking upstream, there was a current flow at the top of the after-bay. Cathy’s fish had put the others down, but upstream I could see plenty of other targets to cast to. It was my turn, so I put my camera down, borrowed Cathy’s rod and eased into a casting position. On my first cast I lined the fish and he immediately disappeared. Wow, I thought to myself, these fish are really touchy. The next fish in line refused the beetle five times but he continued to feed all around it, so I changed to a size 20 trico spinner. It was the right choice and we could see the white lips break the surface as the fish slowly sucked in the spinner. Luck was with me and the carp ran downstream leaving a lot of feeding fish undisturbed above me. Like Cathy's fish the carp was not huge and probably weighed four or five pounds, but on a 5-weight rod it gave me an amazing fight. In the end, I unhooked the tiny trico spinner and watched as the carp made a quick dash for freedom. The spinner fall lasted for another hour and we landed four more carp, lost two to hooks that straightened out and had one break off. Once the spinners were gone the fish disappeared too.
When the fishing was over, we sat on the bank talking about the great morning fishing to a trico spinner fall with rising fish and not another angler in sight. We agreed that our opinion of carp had improved a lot in just a few hours and we had learned a few things about the fish. First, carp can be selective. Second, they can be very shy. One bad cast or if they spot us, they're gone. Third, it's easy to strike too soon. Like New Zealand brown trout, you must wait to set the hook, especially with size 20 spinners. Fourth, let them run. Once hooked you have to let the fish run or you'll break off.
Over dinner that evening at Kingfisher Lodge, we listened to our guests tell stories about the great trico fishing they had on the river. When asked about our day we said we had landed a couple carp. Even after explaining about the tiny flies and light tippet, well... you had to be there to see the expressions. One guest asked why we would fish for carp when we're on one of the best trout fisheries in the west. Well that’s certainly true, but you can bet we'll be back there looking for those heads again next year.