Everything you need to know about the world's most popular sportfish
Fishing editors aren't supposed to be at a loss for words. Yet I can't explain why the typical Canadian angler ignores carp fishing—especially when you can consistently catch trophy-sized fish. That's exactly what happened last August when Outdoor Canada managing editor Aaron Kylie and I spent a day on the shores of Peterborough, Ontario's Little Lake. We were catching carp that weighed 20 pounds or more every 30 to 45 minutes—and all the while, dozens of comatose anglers in boats passed by without catching a single fish.
When and where was the last time you hooked a dozen big, bold, beautiful bruisers—no matter the species-in just one day of fishing? I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. And apparently it could have been even better: at the end of the day, our guides—carp pros Steve Sherman and Len Perdic—apologized for the slow fishing. They'd expected more and bigger fish.
Canada's fantastic carp fisheries are the envy of anglers the world over, and they may just represent the last big-fish frontier left anywhere. “In Europe,” says Perdic, “catching 15 to 30 carp a season is considered superb. Catching that many in a single day in Canada is easy. And 300 or more trophy-sized fish a week is common. That is unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
So, if visions of fighting a never-ending parade of heavyweight contenders has you suddenly chomping at the bit to get into the ring with a carp, here's everything you need to know—from where to fish to tactics and tackle—to answer the bell.
Where, when and how to bait
To find the action, you simply need to pick a good spot for a dinner party, spread out some chum and eventually the carp should come to the table. Carp usually hang out near an area of a lake or river bottom that's made up of sand, clay, gravel or mud. And there should be little boat traffic or overhead disturbances, as carp are wary and spook easily.
Perdic likes to set up shop in parks or along boardwalks where people feed ducks or geese, and the carp can pick up the feed the waterfowl miss. The brainy fish are smart enough to establish daily feeding patterns, and once they find a good thing, they keep coming back. They also possess phenomenal senses of taste and smell, which they use to lead them to healthy foods high in protein.
Which brings us to chum. Chum is nothing more than small particles of bait that you spread liberally across the bottom of the lake or river where you intend to fish. If you chum a spot several days before you plan to fish, you'll likely find a score of mammoth carp milling about and munching on the freebies come fishing day. In fact, if you chum an area at the same time each day, after only four or five days, pods of carp will show up within minutes of your appointed rounds.
Likewise, it's a mistake to pre-bait an area in the afternoon, then show up to fish it in the morning. The carp won't know you've changed the routine and often won't put in an appearance until later in the day. If you can't bait an area beforehand, make sure it's the first thing you do when you arrive. (Note: while chumming is legal in most parts of Canada, always check your local regulations to be sure.)
Perdic and Sherman prefer chumming with a mixture of cattle corn and chicken scratch, which you can buy at any milling company or livestock feed store. Usually, the day before a fishing trip, they fill half a pail with the mixture and cover it with an inch or two of boiling water to soften it up. They also like to occasionally add high-protein calf starter, millet and hemp seeds to the mix. And just like Emeril Lagasse, they kick it up a notch by incorporating a potpourri of secret herbs, spices, scents and flavourings. Colonel Sanders has nothing over these characters. They also alter their chum recipe slightly depending on the season.
“In the spring,” Perdic explains, “I prefer to chum with small seeds that are naturally odorous. The fish haven't eaten all winter long and they start feeding slowly. So instead of using corn, I chum with millet and hemp seeds.”
Sherman says that in the summer it's an entirely different matter. With their metabolisms operating at peak efficiency, the fish specifically seek out high-protein meals and they'll eat as much cattle corn as you can put on their plates. Amazingly, one carp will eat four to five pounds of the stuff at a single sitting. Both pros continue chumming with corn right into the fall, but they spice up the autumn mixture with liberal dollops of anise, cinnamon and pepper.
And while you can't overfeed the fish in the summer, when they're literally wolfing down chow like pigs, you can make the mistake of not dribbling out your chum in measured amounts. “If there are 20 carp visiting your area,” says Sherman, “they'll eat 100 pounds of corn. The secret, however, is timing the chum. You don't want to put it all out at once because they'll eat it up and move on. Instead, you want to keep baiting an area with just enough food to keep them interested in sticking around.”
When you're just starting out, you can deliver chum by hand, throwing it out by the fistful. Eventually, however, you'll want to use a baiting spoon (a deep-cupped ladle with a long handle), a catapult (a slingshot with a big pouch) or a spod rocket (a hollow, rocket-shaped device you fill with chum and cast out using your rod). Spod rockets help deliver chum to slightly deeper water, where the fish feel more secure. They also let you lightly chum the fringes of your fishing area so the carp eat their way up to your main food pile.
Using hair and bolt set-ups
As you might expect, Sherman and Perdic typically bait their hooks with the same foods they use for chum, but with one subtle difference: when chumming with cattle corn and there are no gobies in the waterbody, Perdic recommends using sweet corn (the commercial canned or frozen kind). Carp relish the stuff. If gobies are around, however, they'll quickly tear sweet corn apart; in that case, use the tougher cattle corn.
Boilies are another bait option. These are little balls of dough made of flours, grains, amino acids and flavourings baked in an oven. You can buy commercial boilies in packages or you can mix and bake your own. Perdic and Sherman advise against the latter for beginners, noting that it's not easy or cheap, and homemade boilies are really only necessary where there's heavy fishing pressure, such as in Europe.
Whether you use corn or boilies as bait, you don't actually put it on your hook. Instead, use a needle to thread the bait onto a tiny piece of line that sticks out from the back of the hook. The bait is then held in place by a simple plastic stopper, known as a hair stop, which you can buy in tackle shops that cater to carp anglers.
Called a hair rig, this set-up is used because carp, unlike most fish, have no teeth at the front of their mouths. Rather, they have pharyngeal teeth, found at the back of their throats. And being primarily bottom-feeders—with the same kind of snout as sturgeon, whitefish, suckers, bonefish, permit and redfish—carp literally vacuum food off the bottom. Water, mud and food are all sucked up and through the gills with anything good enough to eat getting trapped in the filaments. By placing a scrumptious boilie or several kernels of corn a few inches away from the sharp hook point, the ever-cautious carp can suck in and savour the food without detecting any danger, while the hook is perfectly positioned to catch on the fish's tough, rubbery lip.
Sherman and Perdic also routinely skewer coloured foam, balsa or buoyant plastic corn kernels onto their hair rigs to float them less than an inch off bottom. These “pop ups,” as they're called, look totally natural, and the carp can easily spot them at a distance, especially when the bottom is silty or weedy. The entire system is ingenious and demonstrates how far carp anglers have advanced on the technical side of the sport.
They've advanced so far, in fact, that they've even made the hair rig more effective by teaming it with a so-called bolt rig. In most other forms of fishing, anglers go to great lengths to ensure the fish never feel the weight of the rig. Carp anglers, however, do the opposite, and the results are amazing.
To make a bolt rig, Perdic and Sherman place a heavy two- to three-ounce weight four to 12 inches up the line from the hair-rigged hook. Then when the carp inhales and savours the bait, it detects the heavy weight and bolts-hence the name of the rig-literally hooking itself under the resistance of the sinker. It's brilliant and it works.
When you're fishing for fun in most Canadian waters—where the carp are far less educated—standard lead sinkers work fine. But in tournaments and heavily pressured waters, anglers are using new sinkers shaped and painted to look like stones; they're even scented, oozing carp-attracting odours.
Choosing rods, reels and accessories
If you're getting the impression most carp anglers are fanatics, you're right. And that carries right on over to the gear they use. Sherman and Perdic use Shimano Alivio, Nexave and Thunnus spinning reels. Granted, they're specialized carp reels sporting large spools and large line capacities, but an Alivio is surprisingly affordable. In most cases, these reels hold a minimum of 500 feet of line and lay down the monofilament evenly. They also have the essential Baitrunner feature, a secondary drag system that allows for controlled free-spool with the bail closed (and disengages when you flip a lever or turn the reel handle).
Do you need one of these specialized reels to take up carp fishing? Probably not, but consider them as a guide and use the biggest, highest-capacity spinning reel you own. And when you get hooked on carp fishing, as you surely will, you'll know where to turn for the proper equipment.
For Perdic and Sherman, that includes carrying quivers of Shimano Nexave, Technium and Tribal carp rods that feature fast tapers, responsive tips and measure at least 12 feet in length. These long rods help you cast to great distances from shore. I watched Perdic, for instance, whip a bolt rig out of sight. I kid you not. At the same time, your rod has to have significant backbone in the lower portion so you can handle the heavy sinkers favoured by carp anglers and the punishing, line-screeching runs of mammoth fish with gigantic, thick, powerful tails.
Once again, if you're just beginning your carp fishing odyssey, you can probably manage with the longest, most powerful rod you own. But just barely. Get towed down the shoreline once or twice by the biggest fish you've ever hooked, or watch well-equipped anglers cast baits twice as far as you and hook massive carp that you can't reach, and you'll quickly appreciate the beauty of using the right gear.
Finally, finish up your basic tackle needs by spooling on a premium eight-pound-test line. Perdic and Sherman use special triple-coated Technium line made expressly for carp fishing. Fox and Nash Outlaw are two other popular brands that make line specifically for carp fishing. I suspect a premium Maxima, Trilene, Rapala or Stren line will also work to get you started. But having fished with the uniquely limp yet abrasion-resistant carp lines that Sherman and Perdic favour, I'm not certain that's the case.
Finally, there are two additional items you'll need. One is a rod holder. And, no, you can't use a forked stick stuck in the mud. Proper holders keep your rods parallel to the ground with the tips pointing straight toward the baits. They're also adjustable, allowing you to change the position of the rod to compensate for uphill or downhill gradients.
The final prerequisite is a fish alarm, or bite indicator. With your line threaded through an alarm, such as the Fox Illuminated Euro Swinger, the sound of the warning bell only adds to the excitement when a trophy carp finally hits your bait. And quickly turns you, too, into a carp fanatic.
A simple chum recipe
Although it doesn't contain all the secret ingredients, here's a basic chum recipe that carp pros Len Perdic and Steve Sherman (above) often use.
- 2.5 gal. maize (also known as field corn or cattle corn)
- 2.5 gal. milo seed (or bird seed, chick peas, hemp seed, etc.)
- 1 tsp. of flavouring (anise, vanilla, cherry, pineapple, molasses, etc.) or two packets of Kool-Aid powder (strawberry, tropical punch, grape, etc.)
- 2 tbsp. sugar
1. Add maize to one 5-gal. bucket, seed to another 5-gal. bucket. Add water to each, letting both soak for 24 hours.
2. Next, combine maize and seed in a large pot and stir.
3. Bring mixture to a boil, cooking for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat when you can easily pierce corn kernels with a hook.
4. Stir in flavouring.
5. Let mixture cool, then top up pot with water.
6. Add sugar; stir well.
While most Canadian anglers are oblivious to the outstanding carp-fishing opportunities at their doorsteps, the species is the most sought-after gamefish on the planet, accounting for as much as 70 per cent of freshwater fishing effort. In Britain alone, anglers routinely spend more money to become members of exclusive carp-fishing syndicates than Canadian golfers pay to join swanky country clubs. The Brits even carry suture kits in their tackleboxes so they can sew up hook wounds before releasing their catches, which they often name. And when a prominent fish dies in a particular lake, river, reservoir, pit or pond, the local anglers stage a funeral.
What's more, when the five-day World Carp Championship was held on the St. Lawrence River last year, more than 110 teams from as far away as China, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia descended on the mighty river. So, too, did television crews from several European and Asian networks. And a staggering $10 million was wagered in Britain alone on which angler would catch the first fish. Worldwide interest was so huge that Las Vegas casinos were among the principal sponsors of the tournament.
“Carp anglers have a hard time understanding the hype associated with North American bass tournaments,” says Len Perdic with a twinge of delight. “Comparing the Bassmasters Classic to the World Carp Championship is like comparing the World Series to the World Cup of Soccer,” he says. “One is a national event. The other is international.”