Flats fishing the Dirty South

ATLANTA, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND, is not a particularly good fishing town. We have a striped bass run, as well as some nearby mountain fisheries for brook trout, but on the whole, it’s tough being a flyfisher in the Dirty South. When I moved to the city a decade ago, I took a stab at stocked trout fishing (tragic), before quickly turning to alternatives. Back then, there was one resource no one cared to exploit: carp flats. The South is blessed with plenty of oxbow lakes and backwater sloughs, perfect habitat for the ubiquitous, invasive, common carp. Other than a handful of bow fishermen, few people cared that the carp were even here. They didn’t much invade traditional gamefish waters and thus were largely ignored. As a result, they were large, naive, and available. It didn’t take me long to identify a few prime flats. The carp awakening was sweeping the flyfishing world about that time, and several of my friends also expressed interest in casting to these previously maligned fish.

fly fishing for carp
CARP DON’T LOOK VERY SMART, BUT THEY ARE.
ESPECIALLY IN REALLY SHALLOW WATER.

Flats fishing was part of the appeal. All of us had manned the front deck of a skiff at some point or another, whether in the Keys or the Bahamas or Mexico. We respected the guides that poled us around, and we wanted to know what they knew. Here, right in the middle of a metropolitan area, was a chance to fish the same way they did. Full-blown skiffs were out of the question—too big of an investment. Which was fine, because they were probably too big for the water we wanted to fish anyway. We looked at johnboats and Carolina skiffs. Then we heard about microskiffs.

Within three years, most of my fishing circle had acquired Gheenoes—a sort of hybrid of a fiberglass canoe and a tiny bass boat—which we took turns tricking out on long summer nights in our garages, drinking Bud Lights and listening to local country on the radio. We believed, privately, that we were something like our generation’s version of Flip Pallot and Chris Morejohn, who together basically invented the technical flats skiff in the Keys. Our Gheenoes became a matter of personal pride, customized according to our own taste, sense of style, and sense of balance. Poling platforms and tarpon cages are unwieldy on such tippy little boats, but you can pole from a cooler, perched high enough to scan the muddy water for telltale signs of moving fish.

Carp on the flats are a lot like redfish, only harder to catch. On a good day, in clean water conditions (clarity of at least three feet), a redfish angler in Louisiana or Texas, or even the less-productive Georgia coast, can reasonably expect at least a half-dozen decent fish. Carp flats are rarely so clear, and even when they are, carp are just more finicky. You can actually hit a redfish on top of the head with a spoon, and he will still eat; I’ve done it.

Try that with a carp and he will not only freak out, he’ll also dump an alarm pheromone (hypothesized to be something called hypoxanthine-3-N-oxide) into the water. This is the smell of a hurt fish, and it spooks the hell out of all the other carp that might swim through its vapor trail. In other words, missed opportunities on the carp flats have consequences. A good angler, like a slick pool player, can run the table on a flat and pick up multiple fish by carefully selecting his shots and steering hooked fish away from the pod. A bad angler will just bounce fish around like a cueball ricocheting off the bumpers. This phenomenon accounts for why there is such a separation between good and bad carp fishermen.

I’ve seen this scenario play out as I’ve watched my friend Andrew develop as a carp angler. Always a good caster, he differentiated himself from the rest of us through a trait that only the best anglers have: persistence. Over the past decade he has become the wolf of the mud flats, cataloging knowledge on various fishing conditions, water levels, and times of year. He has developed his own flies—wholly unique blends of trout, bass, and panfish patterns. His poling quickly moved from sufficient to stealthy to deadly, looking a lot like the Keys flats guides we set out to emulate.

fly fishing for carp - fly box
GOTTA HAVE A CRAYFISH BOX.

The most difficult thing about carp angling isn’t making the cast or spotting the fish, it’s differentiating a fish that is feeding from a fish that is not. Sometimes, carp are just chilling or traveling. Andrew is now a master at spotting the fish willing to chase a fly. Sometimes it can be easy—one day I thought someone had strewn red Solo cups across the flat, until I realized I was seeing the gaping mouths of feeding carp, likely slurping mayflies off the surface. Most days it borders on the impossible, which is why so many anglers blow shots and start those pool balls slapping around the table.

Carp fishing places you, the angler, in a philosophical conundrum unlike most other kinds of fishing. Because carp are perceived as having little or no value by so many, catching them is, in a way, a crucible—a test of one’s inner self-worth. If you land a trophy carp, do you post it to Facebook or text your friends? The general public doesn’t even want to see a carp most of the time. Fair or not, carp have little cachet. Like Tiger Woods post sex-scandal or LeBron James post “The Decision,” a carp’s Q Score is in the negative.

And so, no one but you (and maybe a few friends) recognizes the skill that catching a carp requires—the stealth, the cautious poling, the flies. Carp represent the biggest expression of Man v. Nature that nobody cares about.

On a recent day on the flats, Andrew and I came up against a tangible example of the conundrum that is carp fishing. Conditions were awful; storms had blown through repeatedly, and one of our favorite flats was running a current consisting primarily of stormwater. Beavers have built an elevated colony at one end of this flat, and their entire compound was overflowing like a backyard water fountain. Visibility was nil. And yet, all around us, every time the sky cleared for more than a minute, carp tails blossomed on the water, inviting a cast. That cast needed to be perfect, so that the fly sank straight to their mudding faces. The approach by boat had to be equally perfect, and more often than not we bumped invisible outlying fish, spooking the tailers. Out of many opportunities, we had a legitimate shot at four or five fish, and we managed to land only one—a mirror carp, rare enough to be interesting, but on the small side at only five or six pounds.

In better conditions, on other days, the fishing can be more gratifying—Andrew has landed more than 15 fish in one afternoon. But as often as we explain the thrill of hooking 20 pounds of orange-gold muscle, we still have trouble convincing most of our fellow fishermen to return for a second try. The skill required to consistently catch carp is formidable, and when confronted with such hardships, many anglers revert to the easy out: “Ahh, who cares, they’re trash fish anyway.”

Ultimately, we chase carp for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest: Because they’re there. Carp are the flats fish of the inner South, the Dirty South, far from the glitz and glamour of Miami, or even the cobbled streets of New Orleans. They swim, like us, through both the filth and beauty of our cities. They have been maligned as we Southerners have sometimes been maligned. Southerners can’t avoid seeing the carp as a worthy competitor, and an equal in some respects. And when we catch them, we do text our friends.