Carp Fishing Tips: How To Fish For Carp and Catch Them

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Although widely disregarded as a trash fish and a nuisance species, anglers all over the world are starting to realize the truth about carp.  They aren’t the little guys like sunfish or crappie.

They are similar to bass in that they are wary, hard-fighting, and challenging fish to catch.  They test the skills of even the most experienced angler. If you’re even a little bit carp-curious, read on to find out what it takes to fish for carp and actually catch them.

Carp are a hearty fish that are going to give you a good battle, and if you want to win that battle, you’ll need to ensure that you’ve done your research prior to your next fishing excursion.

Meet the Carp – A Freshwater Scavenger

Carp are indigenous to Eurasia, where they were originally embraced as an important food source. The Romans were the first to intentionally raise and harvest carp, and the species was quickly introduced throughout Europe, Asia, and beyond.

Carp made their way to North America sometime in the 1800s. Back then, the U.S. Fish Commission distributed over 12,000 carp throughout 25 states. Since carp are prolific reproducers, an astounding population was soon established all throughout the country.

Although carp were originally intended to be an economical food source for Americans, they soon became perceived as an inedible “trash fish.” Carp are primarily bottom feeders, and when they feed, have a tendency to kick up a lot of mud and silt, dirtying up any water they inhabit. People became reluctant to eat a fish living in such “filthy” waters, and fishing for carp soon became a thing of the past.

In recent times, carp have been slowly regaining their reputation as a fish worthy of pursuit. European anglers were among the first to realize what a thrill it is to hook into these fish that test not only your skills but your gear.  Carp are known to perform long, powerful runs and muscle-pumping fights.

Carp Characteristics & Traits

There are many different species of carp throughout the world, but the main quarry of modern carp fishermen is the common carp.

Carp Traits - How to Catch Carp
Standard Carp with Golden Scales.

Believe it or not, the common carp is the largest member of the minnow family. On average, carp grow up to 30 inches long and weigh 10 to 15 pounds, but they can get much larger. Carp in the 20-30 pound class are not uncommon in good carp waters, and there are behemoths out there weighing well over 60 pounds.

Standard common carp have golden scales evenly covering the fish’s thick body.  There are two main variants of the species: mirror carp and leather carp. Mirror carp have large, shiny scales, whereas leather carp have only a few scales near the dorsal fin but are predominantly scaleless. All three varieties of carp coinhabit the same waters and can be fished for using the same tactics.

Carp are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Aquatic insects, beetles, grasshoppers, leeches, crawfish, freshwater clams, minnows, grass, cattails, cottonwood seeds, and leaves are some of the common foods carp eat.  This is not all inclusive as they will eat just about anything and the list goes on.

Where to Find Carp Easily

Carp are one of the hardiest fish on the planet and can live just about anywhere. They can survive in a wide range of water temperatures and have a high tolerance to pollutants and agricultural runoff. Carp can even live in brackish water in coastal estuaries.

Carp generally prefer large lakes, reservoirs, and rivers with slow moving water.  However, you might be surprised at some of the places you can find carp. Ditches, canals, and park ponds can support healthy populations of carp.  This makes the species a popular target for urban anglers.  Usually anglers that fish from kayaks will look at other areas closer to the shoreline.

Chances are, you’re closer to carp than you think. Most cities in the U.S. have carp swimming in waters within city limits or just a short drive away. Since carp are still not widely recognized as a true sport fish, finding information online about where to fish for them may be more difficult.  It’s pretty easy to find information for species like bass or information on  fly fishing for trout. But, if you’re up for a bit of exploration, you may find a prime carp fishery close to home.

Classic Carp Freshwater Hot Spots

Every carp fishery is unique, but if you choose to explore your local waters in search of carp, look for these general water characteristics:

  • Warm Water: In most bodies of water, the shallow waters along the shoreline are often warmer than the main portion of the lake, or main flow of a river. So even if your local river is prime habitat for cold water species, you may find carp in the backwaters and side channels.  This is true especially near the tail out of the river. Ponds and lakes with warm water species like bass and bluegill often support populations of carp.
  • Muddy, Cloudy, Silty Water:  Rarely will you find carp in clear water, and if you do they will likely be very spooky and nearly impossible to catch. Look for turbid waters near the shorelines of lakes and reservoirs or in the side channels of large rivers. Carp are very sight-sensitive and muddy water limits their out-of-water vision to your advantage.
  • Aquatic Vegetation: Stands of cattails or patches of grass and weeds serve as prime habitat for aquatic insects, crustaceans, and minnows. Carp will often treat a patch of aquatic vegetation like a buffet line, foraging through, and eating everything they can.

Six Types of Essential Carp Fishing Gear

While you can catch carp with nothing more than a standard spinning rod and some bait, there are several items that will make your time on the bank more enjoyable and your efforts more fruitful.

1. Rod Holders

Since carp spook so easily, most bait presentations require that the line is absolutely still, with no tension whatsoever. If you hold the rod in your hand, there will always be some amount of movement imparted to the line; a rod holder removes much of this risk.

Rod holders come in all shapes and sizes, from the humble forked stick to the elaborate “rod pod.” When you’re just starting out, you can use a forked stick taken from your backyard to prop up your rod as you fish. But if you want to go all in on carp fishing, investing in either a bank stick or rod pod will be well worth the money.

Bank sticks are basically stakes made of stainless steel or other materials that you drive into the ground to prop up your rod. Some models are telescopic for more height adjustment. The top is threaded for use with either a basic rod holder attachment or an electronic bite alarm.

Rod pods are rod holders that hold two or more rods in a horizontal position. These are preferred by serious carpers as the horizontal position allows the line to peel off the reel with the least amount of resistance. Rod pods come in tripod and four-legged versions, with the latter being slightly more adjustable for use on uneven ground.

2. Bite Alarms

Electronic bite alarms are mounted to your rod holder and let you know when a carp has taken your bait.

Your line runs through a sensor that detects any line movement, alerting you with an audible “beep!” sound. While not mandatory, bite alarms have become a staple of today’s carp angler.

Here are a few great Bite Alarms to choose from:

3. Fishing Nets

Once you hook and reel in a carp, you’ll need a good net if you want to complete the fight and bring the fish to the bank. For carp, you’ll want one of the largest nets you can find, and if you regularly fish from high banks, make sure it has a long handle.

Large, triangular, folding nets with telescopic handles are popular among carp anglers because they are big enough to accommodate even the largest fish. They are also lightweight enough and fold down to a manageable size for transport and storage.

4. Unhooking Mats

Carp fishing is primarily a catch and release activity, and it’s important you release the fish in good shape. An unhooking mat is a padded, folding mat used to protect a carp from the abrasive ground when handling the fish on the bank.

Before laying a carp on the unhooking mat, it’s common practice to first wet the mat.  A dry mat can absorb much of the fish’s protective slime layer, leaving it vulnerable to infection or disease.

5. Hemostats for Hook Removal

Many times, a carp will be hooked in the lip or the corner of the mouth, in which case you can often remove the hook by hand. But, if the hook is deeper in the fish’s mouth, you’ll need the aid of a tool to get the hook out.

A good pair of hemostats are a very handy tool and make quick work of removing deep set hooks in a fish’s mouth.

If you haven’t used a set of hemos before, then it should be one of your next pickups.  Our favorites are below.

6. Chum Throwers

Chumming is widely used by carp anglers to draw fish in and get them to bite. To chum effectively, you need a tool to get your chum out into the water where the fish are.

For close range chumming, specialized slingshots are used. Load some corn or other bait into the mesh holder and fire away.

For mid-range chumming, throwing sticks are your best bet. Throwing sticks are best used with a type of bait called boilies, which we’ll cover later on.

For long-range chumming, you’ll want to use a spod. Spods are rocket-shaped bait holders with a floating cone head that you cast into the water with your rod. You load the bait in the back, cast, then when the spod hits the water, the cone head floats up, dumping the bait out the back.

Choosing Your Rod for Carp Fishing

Most rods with medium to medium-heavy power and moderate to fast action will work just fine for carp fishing. However, within the world of carp fishing tackle, specialized rods have been developed specifically for carp anglers.

Carp Fishing Gear
You’ll want to make sure you pick the right fishing rod to withstand the fight that Carp will give you.

Though just as strong, these rods are generally lighter-weight.  They are also more sensitive than rods of similar strength used for catching catfish or saltwater species.

1. Rod Length

Rod length and casting distance go hand-in-hand. Generally, the longer the rod, the longer the cast.

For short-range fishing in ponds and small reservoirs where shorter, more accurate casts are needed.  This means rods in the 4 to 6-foot range are ideal. Shorter rods are also helpful when fishing in heavily wooded areas with limited casting space.

For mid-range fishing when you need to cast longer distances but still want a lightweight, manageable setup, rods in the 6 to 8-foot range work well.

And for fishing on large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, rods in the 10 to 13-foot range will help you make extremely long casts with more ease.

While not as ideal for tight fishing along wooded banks, 12-foot long rods are often the go-to rod length of most carp anglers and are a good starting point if you’re not sure what to buy.

2. Rod Power

In the U.K., rod power is referred to as “test curve.” Test curve is a measurement of how much force must be applied to a rod to bend the tip to a 90-degree angle from the shaft. In the U.S., light, medium, and heavy, are terms used to describe rod power.

Without getting too technical, most carp fishing is best done with a rod with a test curve of 2.75 lbs by U.K. standards, and medium to medium-heavy power by U.S. standards.

3. Rod Action

For carp fishing, rod action is largely a matter of personal preference. Fast action rods bend mostly in the tip section of the rod and provide a more sensitive feel, but also have a substantial backbone. Moderate action rods bend into the midsection and provide more shock absorption when playing a fish.

Slow action rods are the most flexible, bending all the way into the butt section, and can be very fun to play a fish on.  They aren’t as well suited for long casts or pinpoint accuracy.

Choosing a Reel for Carp Fishing

Spinning reels are the most widely used reel type for carp fishing. Baitcasting reels are preferred by some carp anglers.  They do take a while to get used to and are prone to annoying “bird’s nest” tangles if not used properly. If you’re just starting out, stick with a spinning reel, and choose one with a bait-feeder system.

Bait-feeder Spinning Reels:

The basic carp fishing technique involves casting out a bait, then adjusting reel’s drag so that line can peel off the reel with little or no resistance. When a carp takes the bait it can run off freely without detecting any tension from the line. The easiest way to do this is by using a spinning reel with a bait-feeder system.

Bait-feeder spinning reels have two drag systems: the main drag for fighting fish.  A secondary drag that allows you to operate the reel with little or no line tension (free spool) without adjusting the main drag. After you cast your bait out, simply flip the switch on the bottom of the reel and the reel will let line out freely. When you get a bite, flip the switch or just start reeling to engage the main drag to play the fish.

The Shimano Baitrunner is the original bait-feeder style reel and is still one of the best. Other reel makers, like Wychwood, have taken the concept of the dual drag bait-feeder system and incorporated it into to more “carp-specific reels.” These reels have strong, lightweight bodies, and are designed to cast lighter weight rigs long distances.

Here are a couple of our favorites:

Line Selection for Carp

While monofilament can be used to catch carp, braid and superlines have some significant advantages.

Braided lines have a smaller diameter than monofilament of the same strength, which allows you to load more line on your reel. The smaller diameter also has less air resistance, which helps you cast farther. Braided line is very limp, which is helpful in many carp bait presentations, but it tends to float.  If you want it to lay flat on the bottom, you will need to add a back lead to your line after you cast.

Super lines are essentially high-tech monofilament strands that are woven and fused together. They have many of the same attributes of braided line but tend to perform better than braid at lighter breaking strengths.

What Line Strength is Best For Carp?

The general advice when fishing for carp is to use the heaviest line you can get away with. A good starting place is 30 lb test.

It’s important to note that regardless of line strength, you’ll only be able to apply as much pressure as the drag on your reel will allow. So if you have 30-pound test line, but only a 20-pound drag, you’ll only be able to apply 20 pounds of pressure. Still, higher line strengths can be beneficial when casting heavier weights and when fishing near abrasive structure.

The Best Carp Baits and How to Rig Them

Most carp fishing techniques and rigs are largely determined by the specific bait being used.

Here are two of the most effective carp baits along with one of the most popular rigs used to fish them.

1. Corn – A Cheap Standard Option

Carp absolutely love corn. Corn is one of the most effective and widely used baits for carp fishing and is a great bait for beginning carp anglers.

So What Kind of Corn should I Use?

There are two main types of corn used to catch carp: canned sweet corn found at any grocery store; and feed corn found at most feed stores, hardware stores, or nurseries.

Sweet Corn:

Sweet corn is perhaps the easiest carp bait to use. Crack open a can and you’re ready to fish! Most carp anglers will chum the water with a few slingshots or spods of sweet corn before casting out their hooked corn bait.

The one downside of using sweetcorn is that it often attracts smaller, bait-stealing fish like bluegills or small catfish. If you fish in areas with large populations of panfish, feed corn may be a better option.

Below is a great video from catfishandcarp that showcases the many benefits of fishing for carp with sweetcorn.

Feed Corn:

Feed corn is a very effective yet inexpensive carp bait but requires more preparation than canned sweet corn. Feed corn is sold dry and must be soaked and boiled for several hours before using it as bait. At most feed stores you’ll find bags of both whole kernel feed corn and cracked corn, and many carp anglers like to use a combination of both.

To prepare feed corn for fishing, soak the corn in a pot of water overnight or for at least twelve hours. Using the same water, boil the corn for 2 to 4 hours. As the corn boils it will swell and get softer. You’ll know the corn is done when it squishes easily between your fingers.

Using a combination of whole kernel and cracked corn is great for chumming. The smaller cracked corn pieces will spread out in the water, creating a cloud of scent that will draw carp in from far away.

2. Boilies – Store Bought Favorites

Boilies are by far the most popular commercial bait for carp. Boilies come in nearly any flavor you can think of and can be used straight out of the bag with no additional preparation. They are made of nutritional ingredients that carp love. Boilies are widely available in Europe but are becoming increasingly easier to find in the U.S.

Other than the fact that boilies catch a lot of carp, they are great to use in waters with large populations of small fish that steal bait. Boilies hold up very well in water and are difficult for small fish to peck at.

Boilies - Big Carp Fishing on River Banks
Boilies are store bought Carp favored bait.

There are fishy flavored boilies available, but they tend to attract a lot of catfish.  If you want to focus your efforts on carp, stick with the fruity or corn flavored boilies.

Both sinking and floating boilies are available. Sinking boilies are more all-purpose and are great for use in a hair rig. Floating boilies are called “pop-ups” and are best used when fishing in bodies of water with silty or very muddy bottoms. They can be rigged to float just above the layer of silt so the carp can find them.

How to Rig Corn and Boilies Properly

There are an overwhelming number of different rigs used by carp anglers.  The hair rig is one of the classics and works with almost any bait, in any scenario.

1. The Hair Rig

When using a hair rig, your bait is hung from a small section of leader material (the “hair”) off the bend of the hook instead of threading the bait onto the hook. With the hook and bait slightly separated, the carp is able to mouth the bait before feeling the hook. Then, once the carp is convinced that the bait is good to eat, it will suck up both the bait and the hook.

The hair rig is very versatile and can be used with baits and hooks of all sizes. It allows you to use a very large bait with a smaller hook.  This is particularly helpful when fishing with boilies that are too large and dense to thread onto a hook.

How to Tie a Hair Rig:

To tie a hair rig you’ll need the following:

  • Leader material or braided line:  Braid is often used in place of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material when using small baits like corn.
  • Baiting needle:  This is a needle with a small hook at the point, similar to a crochet needle, used to thread the corn onto the “hair.”
  • Bait stops:  These are small plastic dumbbell-shaped stoppers that hold the bait onto the hair.
  • Strong, sharp hooks:  Sizes 4, 6, or 8 are best for carp. For the highest hookup rates when using hair rigs, don’t use an offset hook; the eye, bend, and point should all be in one straight line. It’s also beneficial to have a hook with a downturned eye, or even a slight curve in the hook shank, like these carp-specific hooks for hair rigs made by Korda.
  • Rig rings: These are metal rings used to keep the hair in place on the shank of the hook.
  • Swivels:   Used to connect the hair rig to the main fishing line.

Hair rigs can be tied just before fishing, or at home ahead of time. With all your supplies ready, follow these steps to tie a hair rig:

  1. Cut an 18-24 inch piece of braided line for your leader
  2. At one end of the leader, double over the last 4-5 inches of line and tie a basic overhand knot to form a loop. Adjust the knot to make the loop smaller. The loop should be just large enough to slip your baiting needle and bait stopper through. Tighten the knot and cut off the tag end.
  3. Take a rig ring and slide it onto the leader near the loop.
  4. Next, you need to figure out how long you want the hair to be. Take your hook and hold the looped end of the leader with the rig ring alongside the hook shank with the loop trailing behind the bend of the hook. You’ll need enough length to thread on your bait, about 1/2″ to 3/4″ for 3 or 4 kernels of corn, or about 1″ for a boilie.
  5. Position the rig ring next to the shank near the bend of the hook.  Position your desired length of leader behind the rig ring. Hold the rig ring in place with your fingers.  Then, tie a basic overhand knot using the unlooped end of the leader through the rig ring to hold it in place.
  6. Now it’s time to attach the leader to the hook. This is done with a snell knot, otherwise known as a “knotless knot.”
  7. Slip the rig ring over the point of the hook and position it at the start of the hook bend. Pinch it with your fingers to hold it in place. Take the tag end (un-looped end) and slide it through the eye of the hook and pull out all of the slack. The line should be snug against the shank of the hook.
  8. To complete the snell knot, take the tag end of the leader and wrap it 8 times over the hook shank (and over the line) just behind the eye. Use your finger to push the wraps tight together. Slide the tag end back through the eye of the hook and pull firmly to tighten and secure the knot.
  9. Tie a swivel to the tag end of the leader and your hair rig is complete! Now you just need to thread on your bait and you’re ready to fish.
  10. To thread corn onto the hair, slide 3 or 4 kernels of corn onto the baiting needle, with the needle going through the center of the flat sides of the corn, like a kebab.To thread on a boilie, slide the baiting needle through the center of the boilie.
  11. Hook the baiting needle into the loop of the hair, then carefully slide the corn kernels or boilie onto the hair past the loop, then unhook the needle.
  12. Slide a bait stop into the small loop. Push the corn or boilie down onto the bait stopper so that it stays in place, nice and snug.

That’s it! You’ve just created one of the all-time best rigs for catching carp!

2. Using a Fish-Finder Rig with the Hair Rig

Now that you have your hair rig complete and baited, it’s time to complete your setup so you can start fishing. There are a few different ways to fish a hair rig, but the most popular is by using a fish-finder rig, otherwise known as a sliding sinker rig.

This rig keeps your bait on the bottom but lets a carp run off with your bait freely without feeling any tension on the line. This is where a bait-feeder reel comes into play.

Setting Up a Fish Finder Rig:

Setting up a fish-finder rig is easy, all you need is a 1 to 2-ounce sliding lead weight. You can use standard egg-shaped sinkers or carp-specific inline sinkers.

To complete your fish-finder rig, slide the sliding sinker onto your main fishing line and then tie on your hair rig. The swivel of the hair rig keeps the sinker away from the hook and bait.

How to Fish A Hair Rig with a Fish Finder Rig:

To fish with your corn-baited or boilie-baited hair rig and fish-finder rig set up, simply cast your rig out into the water and let it sink to the bottom. Reel in any slack, and if you’re using a bait-feeder reel, flip the switch and adjust the secondary drag to let line peel off the reel freely. Place your rod in the rod holder, set your bait alarm, and wait for a bite!

When your bait alarm goes off, let the fish run with your bait for 10 to 15 seconds. Crank your reel to engage the main drag and start playing your fish. Carp have relatively soft lips, so a hard hook set isn’t needed. Most of the time when fishing with hair rigs and fish-finder rigs, the hook sets itself right in the lower lip or corner of the fish’s mouth.

Once you get the carp to the bank, carefully use your net to land the fish. Transfer the carp to your pre-wetted unhooking mat and unhook the fish. Now’s the time to get a photo with your catch before releasing it in the water.

Five Great Insider Tips For Successful Carping

  1. Cover a carp’s eye’s. Unhooking a flopping, thrashing carp can be quite a challenge. If you cover the carp’s eyes with your hand or a wet towel, the carp will usually calm down and cooperate.
  1. Avoid shiny hooks. Carp have very good vision and while they eat almost anything, are very wary eaters. Use dark colored or camouflaged carp-specific hooks whenever possible as a shiny hook next to your boilie could easily send a carp away.
  1. Make sure your hook is super sharp. With use, hook points can get dull or bent, which will greatly reduce your chances of a hookup. Check your hook point frequently and if it isn’t perfectly sharp, use a hook hone or file to touch it up or switch to a new hook.
  1. Dress up your bait. Corn or boilies will often work just fine, but for times when carp are being particularly selective, you might need a little something extra to get them to eat. Use one of the many flavored dips available to soak your bait before casting to attract more carp and get more bites.
  1. Chum, but don’t over do it! The goal with chumming is to draw fish in and get them eating. Ideally, you want to throw just enough chum to get their appetite going, but not fill them up. Too much chum could mean a full carp with no reason to eat your bait.
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