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Almost unkillable

A lifelong quest for carp on a fly


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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.”

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

“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.

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

“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.”


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