At 16 years of age, beneath a roller coaster named The Gemini at Cedar Point amusement park near Cleveland, Ohio, I vowed to catch a carp on a fly rod. How a dozen rough fish milling about a cement pond rising to pretzel chunks tossed in by sunburnt kids caught the fancy of a recently converted dry-fly purist I’ll never know. Perhaps it was the large-mouthed fish’s apparent gluttony, or their sheer size compared to the minnow-like brook trout I was used to. Regardless of the reason, 21 years later, anchored off the shore of Clark Canyon Reservoir south of Dillon, I was finding the pursuit of my first carp on a fly far more challenging than I’d ever imagined.
A modest school of huge, pre-spawn fish sloshed through the shallows near the mouth of the feebly flowing Horse Prairie Creek. Their gold-orange, halfway-out-of-the-water backs glinted in the sun, but every cast I threw spooked them wildly, causing the ankle-deep water to tremble like a train-shook house. My friend and former boss, Tim Tollett, owner of Dillon’s Frontier Anglers and southwest Montana’s resident carp expert, levied swift judgment on my casts: “Too hard. That fly is landing way too hard.”
“How can they be this spooky?” I asked, explaining to Tim that a week before launching the drift boat on Clark Canyon, I’d been walking the shores of Lake Michigan and encountered a school of spawning carp in the bay where angling legend Dave Whitlock popularized carp fishing with a fly in 1998. Since my fly rod was then nearly 2,000 miles away back in Montana, I had walked barefoot, heron-like, through the warm shallows, sneaked to within an arm’s length of a 20-pound fish, and thrust my hand at its tail. I’d nearly grasped it before the fish shot off with alarming speed, leaving a trail of stirred silt in its wake. “Shit, if I could get within an inch of that fish without any gear, how can these fish possibly be so spooky?”
Tim pointed behind us at two boats whose presence I hadn’t noticed.
“Carp-chers,” he said, nodding at the boats loaded down with several archers, their bowstrings drawn tight and arrows aimed at the shallow water. “These fish have more predators than elk.”
Carp are a native delicacy in Asia, and considered an upper-echelon sportfish in Europe, but listed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as “non-native, incidental” (read: trash fish). Nonetheless, they attract quite a crowd at Clark Canyon Reservoir.
An idling speedboat drifted toward us. In the bow stood a tall, thin woman wearing camouflage crop pants and a bikini top. Holding her bow at the ready, she looked the picture of refinement to me, but then I strive for ecumenism in these overly judgmental times.
From not too far across the glassy water, a hefty man in a second boat, a pontoon, could be heard talking to his partner, presumably about us: “Don’t get too close to them—they’re fishing.”
“So am I,” said the man standing at the steering wheel.
Tim had brought his bow as well, a longbow, and a quiver sheathed in a fox skin, but who were we to argue with carp-chers?
“Do they actually hit these things?” I asked. Before Tim could answer, the bikini-clad woman released an arrow. It shot through the water’s surface with a sound I have only encountered while watching Legolas dispatch orcs in The Lord of the Rings.
“Missed!” she said, and began to crank a fishing reel handle on the side of the bow, which gathered the line to which the arrow was attached.
Some recently hatched midges whirred above our heads with an eerie apocalyptic whine, and I recalled my aging grandmother’s longtime assertion: that three species of creature, due to their nonpareil adaptability, will remain at the end of times: coyotes, cockroaches, and carp. She called them “the three C’s.”
My indomitable grandmother was presently slouching through her 92nd humid Michigan summer, hospitalized with another bladder infection, her third in as many weeks. Following a major brain aneurism in 1995, she had survived the better part of the past two decades almost solely on Heath bar ice cream, Cutty Sark and Benson & Hedges cigarettes, and from her hospital bed had recently middle-fingered the doctor who suggested that an alteration in diet would be prudent.
“I’m a survivor, honey, a carp,” she’d scoffed to me a week earlier from her antiseptic room. “Now go find me a belt of Cutty.”
By the time we reached Tim’s favorite bay in the shadow of the Tendoy range, I’d exhausted my paltry supply of bemusing carp puns (“Even if the fishing’s slow, I’m not going to carp about it,” etc.), which Tim ignored while scanning the water for signs of fish. We were looking for another school of carp, but until we found it, we were looking for evidence that the fish had been using the underwater country: wide puffs of mud, loosened weeds or other disturbances along the bottom.
“It won’t look like a pig trough,” Tim said, “but you’ll be able to tell when they’ve been around. I’ve seen schools in this bay wide enough to walk across. It looks like the lake bottom is moving.”
One of my early angling mentors once described to me the evolutionary stages of a fly fisherman as follows: At first, the angler just wants to catch a fish. Then he wants to catch lots of fish. Then he wants to catch big fish. And finally, he wants to catch big, selective fish. Where catching so-called trash fish with refined high-end tackle fits into this evolution (or devolution) I wasn’t sure. Nor was I sure that the thin light cutting into the water revealed a carp-stirred batch of mud, but I offered to Tim: “Do you think that’s mud over there? I think I see tails.”
“I’ve seen them here before,” Tim said, “but that could be just glare.”
It’s the tailing carp—water flicking off the sunlit dorsal and tailfin—that most fly-anglers covet. This pursuit is a far cheaper drug—less travel, less gear —than a tailing bonefish or permit, both of which reside chiefly in the Caribbean. But decades before carp-on-a-fly became the piscatorial equivalent of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (shit swill everywhere but the hippest of Western watering holes), Tim was already pursuing these bruisers with trout gear.
Over a century after the common carp was imported to California from Germany, but a full three decades before Orvis released its Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp, Tim knew that catching carp on a 10-foot 5-weight would be a challenge, but not to what extent. Most of the anglers who fish the Beaverhead, the trophy-trout-hungry clients to whom Tim caters, care nothing for the fish that fly-fishing pioneer Izaak Walton centuries ago called “the queen of waters, a stately fish.” Tim, however, has nothing but respect for them.
“These are some of the spookiest fish on the planet,” Tim said, “but try to lead the fish by a foot or two at most. Their eyesight isn’t great in this water.”
I did as told and stripped the fly, a wine-colored woolly bugger, briskly across the bottom. The fish tore off toward Leadore, Idaho, leaving a wake and a line of stirred muck.
“You’ve gotta strip slower,” Tim said. “They’ll find the fly.”
Over the next several minutes I botched the job three more times.
“Do you think this is the right fly?” I asked.
“It ain’t the arrow,” Tim said, “it’s the archer. Let me have a shot.”
My face reddened with embarrassment as I heard a line I’ve used for 17 years—the arrow line—boomerang back at me. But when Tim laced out a cast, landed the fly with all the plop of a pea, tightened the line, and bent the rod full with the weight of the day’s first carp, I was ready to slink into the bottom of the boat.
Mercifully, the fish popped Tim’s tippet, halving the amount of crow I had to swallow.
“You’re just stripping the fly too fast,” he said. “Just curl the line around your left hand like this”—he made a motion as if he were twisting his wrist to check his watch—“and keep the line tight.”
Tim clipped the woolly bugger from the leader with his teeth.
“Let’s go with something smaller, too,” he said. “These fish are moving into shallow water for the warmth, and we want something that will land a little lighter.”
He knotted a #14 Callibaetis nymph to the 4x fluorocarbon tippet and promised the fly would hit the water lighter than a popcorn fart. I couldn’t fathom what these huge fish wanted with an earwig-size nymph, but I stripped some line from the reel and started to scan the shallows for nervous water.
Beneath the water’s dappled surface, a few stray leafless sage bushes anchored themselves amid the milfoil. Other than that, the bottom seemed as desolate as the surrounding hills.
Before construction of the earth-fill dam was completed in 1964 at the northern end of the valley, three bodies of moving water—Horse Prairie and Maurer creeks, and the Red Rock River—met here and made their way north. Today, the beds of these dead streams contour the bottom of this 5,000-acre impoundment known mostly for its fat rainbow trout, lingcod and speedboating. Downstream of the dam, one of the country’s most productive tailwater fisheries—the Beaverhead River, which boasts more than 3,000 trout per mile—begins, and, sustained by the reservoir’s cold, bottom-draw flows, courses over the heads of the fat trout that draw tourists to the otherwise sleepy Montana cow town of Dillon.
Once, while walking along the Detroit River, I saw a carp eat a cigarette butt my grandmother had flicked into the water. The fish rose like an orange zeppelin from underneath the boardwalk and tilted its barbeled mouth up toward the sky before rolling on the filter, frothing the water.
A similar disturbance frothed and shocked the shallows on Clark Canyon when I pulled tight on my first carp. As the big male felt the sting of the hook and fled south in the general direction of Monida Pass—a hundred or so yards in a matter of seconds—a dozen of its spawning mates split in the opposite direction.
“That tippet is stronger than you think,” Tim said. “Put the screws to him.”
I tightened the drag, turned the rod into a long bow at full draw, and after one more thwarted run the fish was lagging beside the boat. Tim scooped him with an old net he saved for carp, and we admired the creature’s huge keen eyes before removing the tiny nymph from the corner of its mouth.
“Go forth and multiply,” I told the fish. The fish’s schooling mates had fled in the direction of the carp-chers, and now the still air was abuzz with the whistle of arrows piercing the water.
“What do they do with them if they connect?” I asked Tim.
“I don’t know, but I’ve always wanted to eat one,” he said. “Gotta be decent. They eat the same food as the trout and ling in here, and they’re fantastic.”
“If you arrow one,” I said, “I’ll eat it.”
“Deal,” Tim said. “I’ll keep the bow at the ready. But see if you can get one of these big ones to eat that nymph.”
Quick as I could, I cleared the coils of line from the bottom of the boat and threw a cast—frankly, one of my best in the past decade—about 90 feet, the fly landing within a foot of a 15-pounder’s whiskers.
Before I could strip the line the fish was tight, thrashing at the surface before initiating its run.
“You fed him on that one,” Tim said. “Straight on. They don’t have much patience for anything they don’t come on themselves. I’ve never seen a single fish eat something stripped across their path of travel.”
“Do you think they’re eating these little nymphs all day?” I asked, cranking down on the fish. “I mean, how do they get so big? I’ve heard they eat berries, weeds, all kinds of strange stuff.”
Just then, without warning, Tim stood up in the back of the boat and, in one fluid motion, drew the string on his bow and released an arrow into the clear water.
“Oh-for-one,” he said. “Or it would have been carp sandwich for you.”
An hour or so later, back at the boat launch, the other carp-chers were nursing their failures with Natural Light.
I asked if anyone had struck scale.
“I stuck one,” the pontoon boss said, “but he swam off.”
“With the arrow?”
“Yeah, right in the dorsal,” he said. “But he was fine. I’ve seen those guys swimming around for weeks with the fletching sticking out of the water. You can’t hardly kill em.”
I had showered Tim with gratitude for his expertise, purchased a few dozen of his unmatched hopper patterns at Frontier Anglers, and was headed homeward up I-15 when the cellphone rang. It was my mom bearing more not-so-great news about my grandmother.
“But she’ll probably prove the doctors wrong again,” she said. “Outlive us all.”
I pulled over to talk but couldn’t muster much, so I hung up and watched the high evening sun illuminate plumes of water sprayed from irrigation pivots—tiny, long-traveled filaments of the reservoir falling across the expansive, green-as-it-gets Beaverhead Valley.
I kept quiet and let my eyes well.
What’s a tear, I wondered, but more evidence of how we end up, like water, a long way from what we thought was home.