The Carp Incident by Mark Usyk

There’s two fish that call my local waters home that I’d love to scratch off my list of fish caught on the fly that keep evading me. Let’s cut right to the point. Carp and northern pike have been making me feel like the village idiot for a couple years now. Before you start making fun of me, it’s not like I’ve been going out day after day for years chasing nothing but carp or pike and coming up empty handed, it’s not like that at all. I spend a lot of time exploring Adirondack streams for brookies and bumming around creeks for smallmouths. It’s more like when I’m out and there’s carp or pike present and I give them a shot, well, that’s when it all falls apart. That’s when I hear fish laughing. Two years ago I made it a goal to catch a Northern on the fly rod. I’ve got so many streamers tied in every color, profile, and size with Pike being the underlying motivation behind them that the inside of my big streamer box looks more like a hippies tie dyed t-shirt. But of course I keep gluing more crap to hooks just in case the next one might be the one to hook up. But after missing and/or losing count of how many pike I’ve missed and/or lost, and after realizing that I was getting frustrated and angry on the water instead of relaxing and having a good time, I decided to quit targeting them specifically. I decided to just go fishing, and if I hooked one and got it to hand while bass fishing then so be it. But I wasn’t about to let fly fishing become work, with bad days and all. That’s the whole point of it, to avoid that stuff altogether.

So while I’ve had follows, missed strikes, and a few breakoffs with pike, I’ve had even less contact with carp. Usually by the time I’ve spotted them they’ve spotted me, and while people seem to think that trout are the ultimate challenge, the most picky and fickle fish that swims in fresh water, I can tell you they’ve got nothing on carp. There they are. I cast. There they aren’t. I suck, or they’re really good. I’d like to think that it’s more that they’re that good than that I suck, but then that’s admitting that an animal with a little brain that a lot of anglers refer to as a garbage fish, a dirty bottom feeder, is smarter than me. Which is saying I suck. So either way, I guess I suck. Stupid fish. Oh wait. I’ve just surmised that they’re pretty smart. But I digress.

I’ve tried them in a retention pond close to home, one that’s usually a dingy brown, nothing to be seen but the tops of the weed beds and the dark shapes of fish with big heads tapering back to tails that sometimes come up out of the water while they root around for God knows what in the muck of the bottom, only to have my offerings ignored in full. And I’ve tried them on the lake, from my canoe and from the bow of JP’s john boat as they rolled on the top, right there, close enough to make out individual scales as they scoffed at a lousy cast or a lousier fly before disappearing. I’ve dropped weighted leech patterns to them in the depths of the Barge Canal too, only to have them glide on by as if it wasn’t even there.

So a couple weeks ago while I was a jobless fish bum I ended up in the old canoe, drifting down the Mohawk River, casting my 7wt and decent sized streamers looking for smallmouths. I was striking out. I caught one smallmouth in about an hour, the only one I saw. There were however carp everywhere. I should have switched to something smaller and “carpish” from the beginning when I first spotted 5 of them lingering in a deep pool in a bend of the river, all big, and all seemed to be on the search. My first clue should have been when I tossed a silver bait fish imitation to a shallow and stripped it to a drop off where I let it float to the bottom like a dead fish on its side. A massive Carp with scales like armor out of a medieval tale hurried to within three feet of it before stopping and staring it down. I didn’t take it seriously because of my previous interactions with the lumbering brutes, I just laughed at it and talked to it like I talk to the family dog as if it’s really understanding me. “What, you’re actually going to take a four inch streamer? Ha, yea sure you are.” Then I twitched the streamer on the bottom and the Carp actually moved in closer. So I picked it up off the bottom with a tiny twitch, and the carp turned away. As I drifted past the bend I did wonder however if I could have taken the fish on that streamer. Maybe I should have just let it lie there on the bottom. It did seem interested at first.

I came to another dark and deep pool in another bend and as I stood in the boat, my calves braced against the portage bar of the canoe, thinking about how many times I was told when I was younger to never stand in a canoe, and there they were again. A whole bunch of big teardrop fish shapes, cruising up and down this small section of river, deep enough that I was seeing more silhouette than detail. But they were there, there had to be half a dozen or more. I had on a smaller streamer at this point and they didn’t seem interested in the least, so I moved the canoe into a piece of dead water so I could stay put and scanned my fly box. I didn’t want to tie on something that was going to exclude smallmouth from the possibilities, but then again, smallmouth will eat pretty much anything. I’d bet if you tied a deer hair popper that looked like a kitchen sink a smallmouth would crush it as a matter of principle alone. So I picked out this little stonefly nymph buggy looking thing, and figured why not. If I was a carp I might eat it. I made a short cast to the opposite bank where a slight eddy formed off some roots protruding into the current and let it swing downstream.

I thought I was snagged. I lifted the rod, it bent over hard, shook and vibrated with tension, and the canoe moved out into the current, pulled by something downstream. I had a 15lb leader on, so I didn’t mess with the drag. Line pulled off the reel at a slow and steady pace, up ahead a graveyard of dead fall trees stood out of the water weathered and broken, an ominous sight. I knew this was about to end as fast as it started. I pulled back on the rod trying to turn it, trying to do something, but it was pointless to say the least. But in a moment like that, you have to at least be able to say you tried.

The fish, we’ll all assume carp at this point, it never stopped. It never even paused. Which means it never even looked back, which means I meant nothing to it in the greater scheme of things. How could it mean so much to me, but me so little to it? Had there been more time for the relationship to grow, I’d have been heartbroken. It headed straight into the blow downs, and the line stopped. I pulled, nothing gained, but nothing pulled back either. I pulled some more. I thought I could feel a hint of life on the other end and I pictured the leader in my head, wrapped around a branch the size of my leg, the carp simply sitting down there, reclined in a Lazy Boy reading a magazine without a care in the world, like nothing was going on.

I grasped the fly line with my left hand, pointed the rod tip straight into the water where the line disappeared into branches and darkness, and pulled hard. The leader broke, I sat down, the canoe stopped there in the slow current against the dead and drowned trees. I opened my fly box and tied on another small streamer, one I hoped would grab the attention of a smallmouth…not a carp.