Top Three Tips for Carp Fly Fishing

Written by: Chris Bevilacqua

Fly fishing for carp is a challenging endeavor.   It can be a true test of perseverance, especially for beginners.  It is this challenge that draws many anglers to the sport.  Unfortunately, it is also what deters many of them from pursuing one of the biggest, most abundant, and most exciting game fish around.  

I had an interest in carp fly fishing long before I consistently targeted the fish specifically.  It was more fun to go catch a couple dozen bluegills or a handful of nice bass than it was to fish for carp for several hours and not even wet my line.  Sure, if I saw a carp, I’d try to get a fly in front of it, but I wouldn’t go out with the goal of catching carp in mind.  My fly fishing game has evolved, and I now purposefully pursue carp, usually present a fly to a fish or two, and bring enough of them to the net to make them one of my favorite fly rod fish.  Of all the things I’ve learned about fly fishing for carp, these are the top three things that have made me more successful.  


This fish’s tail was near the water surface as its head was in the rip-rap searching for food. It was an excellent target.

Tip Number 1: Define High Value Opportunities

The most important factor for increasing your odds at the carp game is to know how to identify high value targets.  You need to distinguish a fish that is likely to eat your fly from one that is not.  Those that are not likely to eat your fly will decrease your chances for success.  There are limited hours in a day.  If you want to catch more carp, you need to pass on the duds and focus on the players. 


A high value target is an actively feeding fish.  The more aggressively the fish is feeding, the easier it will be to catch.  Some carp are just hanging out, resting, soaking up the sun, and teasing fly fishers.  They are low value targets.  A carp that is eating food brought to it by the current is what I would consider a passive eater.  They are better targets than sunning fish but they aren’t exactly strapping on the feed bag.  A fish that has its head down, tail toward the sky, vacuuming up every morsel of food it encounters is feeding aggressively.  Such fish are high value targets and knowing this will tilt the odds in your favor.

This fish was feeding without caution in clear water so shallow that its back was out of the water. Fish like this are practically in your net when you find them.

Tip Number 2: Find High Value Opportunities

There are several important factors to keep in mind when trying to find high value carp targets.  The foremost of these is the availability of shallow water where you are fishing.  To be a strong contender, an aggressively feeding carp needs to be in shallow water.  This is implicitly a sight fishing game and shallow water allows the angler to see the fish.  In addition, shallow water is fertile and provides an abundance of food that attracts hungry fish.  

Water clarity is another important factor when searching for carp.  Obviously, feeding fish are easier to spot in clear water.  Aggressively feeding fish in clear water are certainly good targets.  However, more stealth is required on the part of the angler because it is also easier for the carp to observe potential threats.  Somewhat turbid water arguably presents a better scenario for the angler.  Commonly, the best targets are found in cloudy water that is adjacent to clear water, where the murkiness is being caused by feeding carp.  It can be tricky to spot fish in these situations.  However, with enough patience and keen observation, a carp tail can be seen intermittently in gaps of clear water between the mud clouds.  These fish are often worth the time it takes to spot them because they are actively feeding and the angler is not readily visible to them.  

It is also important to keep in mind the season when searching for high value targets.  Carp eat throughout the year, but you are unlikely to find them in the shallows when the days are short and the water is cold.  It never hurts to search for carp in the off-season.  It can give you a unique chance to understand the structure of the places you fish when the water is low.  You can also try hanging some flies under an indicator to catch some fish if that’s your jam.  However, it is perhaps best to save the cooler months for trout fishing or filling your fly boxes, and to concentrate your carp efforts on the time of year when there are leaves on the trees. 

This carp was grazing among bankside vegetation when it fell victim to the drag-and-drop. Photo credit: Barry Reynolds.

Tip Number 3: Drag and Drop

Now that you know how to identify and find high value targets, all you need to do is seal the deal with a technique called the drag-and-drop.  Search YouTube for “carp drag and drop” and many instructional videos on the topic will be found.  Essentially, the technique involves casting a weighted fly beyond a feeding carp, lifting the rod tip so that the fly is in contact with the water surface, and then dragging the fly through the surface film, until it reaches a point above the fish’s head.  At that moment, the angler lowers the rod tip to present the fly in a downward motion into a plate-sized area around the fish’s mouth.  

The drag-and-drop works in clear and cloudy water alike.  In clear water, you can see the fish’s mouth cover the fly.  You won’t feel the take like you would with many other species of fish.  When the carp sucks in the fly and realizes it is unnatural, it will spit it out immediately.  Therefore, the hook should be set as soon as the fish’s mouth covers the fly.  And then the fun really begins.  In more turbid water, it can be difficult or impossible to see the fish eat the fly.  In these scenarios, keep an eye on the fish’s tail.  If you put the fly on the dinner plate, you will usually see a characteristic movement of the fish’s tail that indicates the fish is moving to eat the fly.  GIve a slight pause, set the hook, and hold on.  The timing takes a bit of practice, but you can usually get several attempts at a time, so it is a skill that can develop more quickly than you might think.  

Additional Resources

carp books
These books are great resources for learning about carp fly fishing.

This blog just scratches the surface when it comes to what there is to know about fly fishing for carp.  There is a wealth of information available to the interested angler.  A local fly shop is likely your best source for timely and detailed information about where you fish.  A notable example is Trouts Fly Fishing in Denver, which has carp fishing clinics throughout the summer.  In addition, books and videos on the topic can be found easily online.  And if you are lucky enough to have an active fly fishing club like The High Plains Drifters nearby, you are certain to find other anglers there who share your interest and are willing to help you learn more.