Face it: Some freshwater gamefish simply aren’t as heralded as others. Such is the case with the common carp. But, as all anglers well know, our pescatorial curiosity ultimately leads us to wonder about those species we haven’t yet caught. Don’t underestimate the worthiness of the carp when hooked.
The angling virtues of a carp, a member of the minnow family and related to the goldfish, lie in its abundance, size and relative ease of catching. It provides a lot of meat and, yes, sport—due to its weight and strength on the run.
All you need to do is distinguish it from similar species outside of its family (e.g., buffalo, suckers) and learn which gear and bait to use. The rest is pretty basic—hook, line, sinker, reel and rod.
Let’s look at everything you need to know in order to land this strong, ravenous giant of a minnow.
- What a Carp Looks Like
- Where Do They Live?
- Best Time to Fish for Carp
- What About Regulations and Seasons?
- What Type of Rod, Reel and Line Are Best for Carp Fishing?
- How Do I Rig My Line for Carp?
- Hook Sizes
- The Fascinating World of Carp Bait
- Bowfishing for Carp
- Carp Fishing Is What You Make It
- Carp Fishing FAQs
What a Carp Looks Like
In many ways, the carp resembles an oversized goldfish without the flashy orange body. It owns huge scales, a gold to yellowish body and a musky gray-brown head with two small barbs extending from its bottom lip.
Instead of sporting two dorsal fins, a large and small like most other fish, the carp’s back hosts one long fin. Like many freshwater fish, it features a forked caudal or tail fin, pectoral fins, pelvic and anal fin.
The colorful koi—associated with home ponds and Japanese gardens—is a subspecies of carp and will return to its original carpish color if left to breed freely instead of with colored koi. But, the carp is not a koi.
Carp can range in size from a few pounds and 18 inches long to 20-30 pounds and as long as some fishing rods.
In water, especially ponds or lakes, you can often identify them by their behavior. In dervish fashion, they like to swirl in circles in shallow water. You will likely see clouds of mud as a result of their dance.You can recognize their gold or yellow color easily in these instances.
In fact, they make themselves so visible that some anglers use bow and arrow to catch them (in most states this is legal).
Where Do They Live?
These fish like lakes, reservoirs, rivers and ponds, as well as any backwater resulting from these water bodies. They can be found in most states of the Lower 48, Canada, Europe and Asia, to name just a few regions.
In streams, look for slack water, the edge of current, drop-offs, undercuts along the river bank, lots of vegetation on shore and weedy spots. Where current is notable, they will seek refuge behind large boulders and the pockets these rocks create.
In reservoirs, check out the falls below a dam and some of the shelves near shore. The pool below a dam serves a popular hub for the carp. Again, fish riparian and weedy areas along shallow shelves and along the drop-off from these shelves as morning disappears. Reservoir backwaters often prove prime habitat for carp.
In lakes, the same basic haunts apply: shallows in the morning and sometimes until midday, drop-offs, around points and in backwater.
Best Time to Fish for Carp
States often offer year-round seasons for carp. They do come to bait in winter, but spring and summer are usually best.
Mornings in flat, weedy, muddy-bottom lakes prove ideal in spring and summer. When winter fishing, you may need to wait for the sun to rise high in the sky and focus on midday through afternoon.
Also interesting: Best Time to fish in Freshwater
What About Regulations and Seasons?
For the angler proudly wearing the title of “meat fisher,” the carp is ideal. Most states offer very few, if any, restrictions on limits and size.
The carp is a proliferate breeder. As of yet, it swims far from the borders of being endangered or threatened by man’s harvest or environmental practices.
Of course, a fishing license is required. If you like archery and plan to catch carp in this manner, always check your state’s regulations, which may differ from the rod-and-reel approach.
What Type of Rod, Reel and Line Are Best for Carp Fishing?
These fish carry heft, of course, so a rod should be stout in its butt section. It should be longer than a conventional trout or bass rod.
A 9-10 foot rod is not uncommon but pay attention to bulkiness. A rod too long and heavy will weigh on your casting arm by day’s end. You can get by with a 6-7 foot rod in most cases.
A spinning rod works just as well as a bait-caster when casting to carp. As with all fishing, make sure the rod is not too big or too small for your reel. You can easily find matching sets at tackle stores and outdoor retailers.
Spinning reels or bait-casting reels work fine for carp.
A bait-casting rig, which sports smaller eyes or line guides on the rod will maximize your casting distance.
Moreover, the line will run more freely off the spool of a bait-casting reel than one on a spinning reel.
A good brand of monofilament line in the 8-12 pound-test range and leader from 6-8 pounds work just fine.
You can handle a 15-20 pound carp on these line strengths if you are free of snags such as big logs, their branches or piles of large or jagged boulders.
As with any fish, the carp will seek such refuges when a hook is penetrating its mouth.
How Do I Rig My Line for Carp?
Depending on the water’s depth, you will find your carp-fishing fraternity relying mostly on a floater rig to tackle these behemoths.
Because the carp is predominantly found in approximately 5-10 of water, a float allows quick detection of the bite and keeps the bait at the level you wish to fish—either dead bottom or a tick above it.
First, don’t confuse a floater with the common bobber—most often red and white with the push-down button on top. Carp fishing may be a bit more sophisticated than you imagined, yet a bait, leader and sinker on bottom can still lure your prey.
An ideal carp floater should contain a bit of weight or mass to remain stable in strong wind or choppy water. Tackle stores carry weighted floaters, almost as narrow as a pencil and up to 6-7 inches long.
Other floaters allow you to determine the weight by inserting pellets inside the tube on the floater. The weight also helps the floater to either lie flat or straight up toward the sky as you fish.
Some carp anglers simply buy the torpedo-shaped bobber that often are cast with a fly from a spinning rig—often for trout. These bobbers contain some weight but not enough to sink it below the surface.
Whichever weight method you use for a float, simply slide a rubber stopper to the main line to keep the float from allowing too much line to slide through and below it while in the water. Also slide beads on each side of the bobber to minimize line entanglements.
You can find appropriately sized rubber backstops and beads at most outdoor retailers and tackle shops.
If the water chop requires such, a split shot or two can always be attached to the leader just above your hook and bait.
If fishing deeper waters, a sliding sinker just above a barrel swivel with 10-16 inches of leader works well.
You might also slide or crimp a floating bait (found at tackle shops) or plastic device just above the shank of the hook to keep the baited hook just off bottom.
Slot sinkers that contain a rubber piece inside the slot also work well on the bottom. Again, float cubes or even a marshmallow just above the hook will keep your offering just off bottom.
Depending on the type of bait you use, hook sizes for carp generally range from size 10 to size 2.
Hooks tied with an egg loop—as one would tie for steelhead or salmon fishing in a river—allow you to easily cinch a bait ball up against the shaft of the hook.
Alternatively, simply crimp the bait onto the hook. In either case, do not worry about exposing the tip of the hook and its barb. It will not deter these voracious eaters.
However, some carp anglers insist on using black or dark hooks to minimize flash and reflection on bright days.
Carp are gorgers but are still a fish, sometimes averse to noticeably unnatural presentations.
The Fascinating World of Carp Bait
You won’t find a more messy, smelly and interesting means of catching a fish than when you start trying to coax a carp. Canned goods? Most certainly. Human table fare and its scraps? Sure.
Acutely concocted combinations of the aforementioned, with a little twist? Just as good if not better. Secret ingredients? Certainly the domain of a diehard carper, and as hard to pry from said angler as the recipe for Bubba’s award-winning barbecue sauce.
A lot of carp anglers started fishing with their dads or even granddads and are now a gramps themselves. Their prize bait often comes from the same carton, package or can that finds its contents on your common dinner table.
Yup, straight from the can. No fuss, no muss. Grab a couple kernels of sweet, tip your hook and cast it out. Inexpensive and easy to find, you can easily toss some of the kernels out into your fishing zone for chumming—where state regulations allow.
If you want to save some dollars per kernel, buy a big bag of feed corn. To prep it for the hook, you must soak it and then boil it, which can be done the night before you head out fishing.
Cattle corn actually offers some side-benefits: It stays on the hook better than canned corn and you can boil it up with some special seasonings or broths that might further tempt the carp to bite. At least one tackle manufacturer even packages its specialized corn as fishing bait.
Think about it. When you visit a Japanese garden and its ponds, a walking bridge over a lake or pond in a park, or your neighbor’s manmade fish pool, what do you usually throw to those koi or carp swirling below your feet?
From white bread to artisan breads, this bait is as easily found as corn and may be less expensive per cast. Just make sure you squish it well with your moist fingers before putting a ball on your hook and then compact it some more after sliding it over the barb. Like corn, bread balls can be tossed as chum, where allowed, to create a feeding frenzy.
Of course, you can blend the corn with bread and even complement that with similarly common table fare. Usually called dougbballs or ground bait, these concoctions are often held close to the chest by successful carp anglers.
You might even find an angler or an angler’s kid selling their sure-bet on the roadside occasionally. Carp bait is fun and open to anyone’s imagination. Syrups, vanilla, grocery meat blood, cooking oils, grains and even pet food never stray out of bounds for the serious carper.
Some anglers will only use manufactured carp bait, rolled off an assembly line. These are finely tuned baits customized to attract this large-scaled gourmand of both fame and infamy.
Often called ‘boilies,’ these popular off-the-shelf baits dazzle the eyes with as many colors, shapes and sizes as fishing lures, while coming in more flavors than a baker uses for desserts.
Because these pre-packaged products specifically target carp, they hold advantages over the aforementioned baits.
They stay on the hook more readily, meet the mouth and palate of the carp with more savor than other baits and, quite often, draw the carp’s nose for food more effectively than other baits.
You can even add some of your own special sauce to these tidbits once you take them home.
Also read: Best Freshwater Baits and Imitations
Bowfishing for Carp
Not many fish, outside of the carp, lend themselves to catching by bow and arrow. Carp like to school when they swirl just beneath the surface of shallow water. This half-in, half-out pirouette often exposes the carp’s back and sides, ready targets for a keenly aimed arrow.
If you already know how to hunt with a bow and arrow, you need not know much more about choosing your bow. Whichever kind you normally use (long, recurve or compound) to seek game on dry land will work.
For carp, a 30-50 pound draw weight on your bow will suffice. A compound bow offers the advantage of spanning across the water with your aim because it is essentially trigger ready—enabling you to change your aim to a fish that is suddenly exposing itself more than your original target.
As for arrow type, a lengthy, strong, weighty, fiberglass arrow works best. A carp’s skin and scales amount to its armor. They are much tougher skinned than most other fish.
Nix fletchings (the feathers or veins at the butt end of your arrow). The line between the fletching area and your reel will hold the arrow true while in flight.
Most importantly, use safety slides on your arrows. Your fishing line will be connected to the nock (the plastic slotted end of your arrow that holds the string when drawn).
Therefore, the line will extend back and beyond the riser (the apparatus serving as the handle), which creates the hazard of the line snaring the riser and potentially sending the bow back toward the archer. Safety slides prevent such calamity. Their design allows a quick release once the arrow passes the riser.
These range from very simple to complex.
The drum reel resembles a single-action fly reel or trolling reel. The drum, spooled with line, attaches to the bow via strong tape or threading through the bow stabilizer. It is the cheapest and simplest form of carp reel.
A closed-face, bait-casting reel also works when attached similarly. Retriever reels are customized for bow fishing and are attached via a holder with screws to the stabilizer.
It uses a plastic capsule to contain the line. Usually, 25-35 yards of either monofilament or braided line suffices when taking carp with a bow.
Check the Regs
Different states enforce different rules and regulations for bow fishing. Be sure to read your state’s regulations thoroughly before drawing your bow.
Carp Fishing Is What You Make It
Because the carp reproduces readily in almost any kind of water, it is a relatively easy fish to find. It is almost always hungry but even with its appetite, you will find dead periods for bites, just as with any other fish.
As described in this article, your rig can be as simple or specialized as you desire. It’s all up to you.
Carp offer anglers more action than many other fish caught for sport. Enjoy their fight and their readiness, no matter which rig you choose to hook them.
Carp Fishing FAQs
Is a Carp a Gamefish or a Scrap Fish?
This depends on an angler’s point of view. However, states, provinces and other jurisdictions in countries around the world treat it as a gamefish.
You must buy a license to fish for it in most jurisdictions and you must obey catch limits, as well as gear and even seasonal regulations.
In a few cases, no catch limits exist because this fish may be overpopulating some rivers or lakes and displacing more highly sought gamefish.
Are Carp Good to Eat? When Should I Fish for Them?
This depends on the time of season.
In midsummer and in turbid or fairly stagnant water, you might want to avoid eating carp, but this can be said for several other gamefish as well. They tend to tast mushy and muddy.
Spring, early summer, autumn and even winter pose the best periods for eating carp, which taste somewhat like a cross between perch and catfish.
What Family of Fish Does a Carp Come From?
They are actuallly a member of the minnow family. Some mistakenly associate them with suckers and buffalo, but these are entirely different species than carp.
However, koi are a subspecies of carp and there are other fish anglers catch that belong to the minnow family, including the pike minnow.
Do I Need Specialized Tackle to Catch Carp?
You can use the same gear you often use for other gamefish. Some of the floaters are specialized for carp, but hooks, lines, rods and reels can vary depending on your preference and how large of carp you expect to catch.
Is It True You Can Catch Carp With Bow and Arrow?
Yes. Because carp often school in shallow water, they expose themselves to an archer. Reels can be attached to the bow’s stabilizer and the same type of line you use for other gamefish can be used, including mono and braided lines.