Fly Fishing for Carp: Joseph D. Cornwall and Tips for Catching Carp

The first weekend in March brought crowds of hikers, kayakers, mountain bikers, wilderness campers, and fly fishers to the campus of Wright State University in Ohio for a gathering called the Adventure Summit. Among the speakers was Joe Cornwall, Editor-in-Chief of Fly Fish Ohio, who gave a presentation titled, “Fly Fishing for the Golden Bone.”

Little-known Facts About Carp

According to Cornwall, carp are very smart fish. He surprised the audience with the news that, while the average fish has an IQ of 6, carp are relative geniuses, with an IQ of 12. Carp also have excellent color vision, an especially well-developed sense of taste and smell, which is really one sense for fish, and they are blessed with exceptionally keen hearing. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why carp pose such a challenge for fly fishermen.

Carp live in every US state except Alaska, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The hardy fish can survive, even prosper, in less hospitable environments, such as the turbid water of many impoundments.

Carp have a long history of being a prized food fish. The Romans farmed carp. In 1877, the fish were brought to the United States from Germany, and placed in ponds near Baltimore, Maryland. These fish were considered so valuable that the ponds were fenced off and protected by guards.

Carp as Sport Fish

According to Cornwall, carp are the most important freshwater sport fish in Europe today. He believes that carp, which are abundant in North American fisheries, can provide fly fishermen with frequent, great fishing close to home. Cornwall says the experience of catching hard-fighting carp on fly tackle is easily a match for tropical fish angling in terms of challenge and excitement.

The successful carp angler must develop stealth and cunning along with the ability to cast accurately. Carp are ultra-sensitive to pheromones in the water, and use these to communicate.

A carp that is alarmed by the presence of danger releases pheromones that signal other fish to get away and stay away. Cornwall explained that carp can detect these pheromones in concentrations as minute as 1 gram in 10 billion liters of water.

Feeding Behaviors of Carp

Carp are omnivores. They will consume seeds, insects, crustaceans, or bait fish. Cornwall described the various feeding techniques carp use, along with photographs illustrating these situations, the varieties of foods carp eat, and a number of flies that are proven carp-catchers.

The Four Feeding Behaviors of CARP are:

Tailing and Mudding

Anglers should sight-fish to carp feeding on the bottom in shallow water. Flies that mimic aquatic worms and Wooly Bugger-type flies that sink are effective. Water may be very muddy and cloudy, requiring blind casting.


Carp are seeking an easy meal near cover, such as partially submerged blow-downs. They will often strike flies on or near the surface. Cornwall says, “Overhead cover makes the first few minutes after hookup very exciting!”


Carp are slurping food such as cottonwood seeds or a spent hatch off the water’s surface. Cornwall advised anglers to wait for the line to come tight before attempting to set the hook, then prepare for a long, head-shaking battle with a powerful fish.


Carp are preying of schools of baitfish. This often occurs in deeper water in late summer and early fall. Flies that mimic baitfish, fished near the surface, are key to hooking up with extremely selective hunting carp.

Cornwall also cautions carp anglers to come prepared with the right tackle. He recommends 6 to 8 weight rods, matched to weight forward lines. “You will likely see your backing knot on any fish over 6 pounds,” he said, and “You will definitely see your backing knot on any fish over 15 pounds.”

Cornwall communicated his excitement about fly fishing for carp. His smile was infectious, and his eyes sparkled as he talked about the thrill of spending over an hour fighting a carp, fly rod bent as he pulled the powerful, head-shaking fish from the depths.

Those who had gathered to hear him left the program armed with enough information to make “Fly Fishing for the Golden Bone” their next angling adventure.

Donald S. Cochran

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