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Almost unkillable

A lifelong quest for carp on a fly

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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.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Joe Irons

“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.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Joe Irons

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.”

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