All about big Carp and their habits 25 top tips.
The species of carp most frequently found throughout Britain is known as the common carp. There are three cultivated varieties of this species – leather, mirror and common – and a wild type.
Most common carp have broad, deep bodies and brown backs. Their flanks range from the deep brown and yellow of most leathers to the golden sheen of wildies.
Compared to the more frequently fished cultivated varieties of carp, true wild carp are more barbel-like in shape. Long and lean-bodied, they look every inch a hard fighting, fast moving fish. They lack the distinctive hump behind the head of the cultivated carp and weigh less, rarely reaching 16lb.
Wild carp are descendants of the original stocks of carp kept as food fish in the Middle Ages. Once prolific, true wildies are now in decline, being found in only a few isolated waters, as interbreeding with cultivated carp has diluted the pure strain.
Other species of carp found in Britain include the crucian carp, common in eastern counties and the south of England, and the grass carp, a native of eastern China and Russia, which was introduced into European waters in the 1970’s to control weed growth.
Carp fry feed on plankton and water fleas, but adult carp, with their sensitive feelers (barbels) and vacuum-like mouths, are best suited to bottom feeding.
They spend most of their time rooting around in the mud at the bottom of lakes and rivers, and nothing that lives on or in the mud, including snails, crayfish, bloodworms, mussels and shrimps, is safe from the digging of carp. But as any angler can tell you, carp also feed in mid-water and come up to the surface for floating food.
Though not strictly predators, large carp have on occasion been known to eat other fish. They have extremely sensitive taste and smell receptors and can distinguish one sort of shellfish from another. This is what enables them to avoid baits on which they have been caught before. They can be spooked easily, so be careful – and quiet – when approaching shallow waters.
Temperature also affects feeding. If the water is colder than 14C (57F), carp feed less readily. However, canny anglers have proved that carp can still be persuaded to feed even in winter. Well-aerated water – the shallows and the surface during windy weather also encourages feeding.
Carp only spawn when the water temperature is between 18-20C (64-68F), usually in late May and early June, as you would expect with a fish introduced from the warmer climes of the Continent.
Often the young carp do not have enough time to build up reserves of fat before winter sets in, and so die. Although this prevents them from taking over many waters, carp are so long-lived, surviving for 40 years or more, that even the few which do reach adulthood ensure the survival of the species.
When the water is warm enough, each female lays over one million eggs among the weeds in the shallows. The eggs, small, sticky and yellowish, hatch in three to eight days, again depending on temperature. The larvae live off their yolk sacs for a few days. After that, they begin to feed on tiny water organisms.
Growth is rapid where the water is warm and rich in food. They can reach 0.9kg (2lb) in a year and continue to grow at that rate indefinitely, but many of the waters in Britain are too cold to encourage maximum size.
Fishing for carp
Carp inspire great dedication in a large group of anglers. To catch successfully and regularly, you must start with a thorough knowledge of basic carp fishing. There is no shortcut to catching specimens.
Read everything you can about the species. Spend time studying the various rigs and methods, and – most importantly for the novice carp angler – the sorts of features in a water which appeal to carp.
If you are a beginner, you should try a water with a large head of carp – where bites (or ‘runs’) are not too scarce. An easy water, heavily stocked with carp up to 3.6kg (8lb) is ideal – what you learn about carp behaviour from these small specimens you’ll be able to use to catch bigger ones later on. You will find that tackle dealers and anglers are only too happy to tell you about the carp waters you can fish in your area.
The more experienced angler may prefer the challenge of a water with fewer carp but of a higher average weight. These fish will be wary and more difficult to hook. If you are to get one on the bank you must be prepared to put in the hours.
Lakes are generally best for really big fish. Canals and rivers are neglected and can be worth a try; few of the carp in these waters have been caught before so they often fall to less sophisticated baits and methods.
Finding the fish is the secret to catching them. Walk around the water looking for tell-tale signs. Patches of bubbles and small areas of muddy water indicating feeding carp. Look out for fish topping, rolling or feeding on the surface, too.
During daylight carp retreat to the cover of islands, lily beds, weedbeds and overhanging or sunken trees. A bait cast tight up to these fish-holding areas often produce runs.
On gravel pits it is worth trying a bait along the bottom of gravel bars. You can precisely pin down the location of these by careful plumbing with a float or by casting a lead and timing the drop.
Questions to tackle
To start with, any through-action, 3.3-3.6m (11-12ft) rod with a 0.9kg (2lb) test curve and a decent fixed-spool reel filled with 200m (220yd) of 2.7-3.6kg (6-8lb) line is fine for most carp on most waters, especially at short to medium range. However, if you take up the challenge of carp in earnest you are going to need some specialized tackle.
Before selecting your gear you should ask yourself a few questions. For instance, are you going to fish the margins or at long range. Is the water snaggy? What size fish are you after? If in doubt, get advice from a tackle dealer or an experienced carp angler – especially one who knows the water you want to fish.
For long-range work, you need a rod with a fast taper and a tip action. Long casting also calls for heavier weights, which in turn mean more powerful rods. A test curve of 1.1kg (2½lb) is about right for weights over 57g (2oz). For lighter weights, use a 0.9kg (2lb) test curve rod and for margin fishing with small weights use a rod with a 0.8kg (1¾lb) test curve.
The reel should be of a sturdy, open-faced design and have a spool with a capacity of at least 140m (153yd) of 3.6kg (8lb) line. It should lay the line evenly on the spool, so that a running fish is able to take line easily. A baitrunner facility is useful – it allows the taking fish to run without your needing to take the bail arm off.
On most waters you can catch well using traditional baits. Carp love maggots and caster and are extremely fond of sweetcorn, trout pellets and trout pellet paste. Luncheon meat and sausage meat are also very good, especially when fished over a bed of hemp or sweetcorn.
Carp also like bread, both in the form of flake and floating crust. Dog and cat biscuits make good floating baits, too, though you need to soak them for a few minutes before they are soft enough to put on the hook.
The other great carp baits are boilies. They have the advantage that smaller fish, such as roach, bream and tench, are less likely to take them. You can buy boilies or make them at home. The range of flavours and colours is so wide that it’s impossible to say which are best. You must experiment to find out which ones the carp on your water prefer.
Legering, surface fishing and float fishing all catch carp. Legering is the most popular method because it’s easy and effective. Start with a simple link leger – you can move on to more complicated rigs in later seasons when you’re after bigger, better educated carp.
If the fish are hard to hook, you can try a hair rig. Here, you don’t put the bait directly on the hook, instead you thread it on a short length of line (up to 5cm/2in), which is tied to the hook shank. It works well because the hook is entirely free – so there is a much greater chance of it catching in the carp’s mouth.
The hair rig works well with the bolt rig. This is a ‘self-hooking’ leger – the carp bolts when it feels the hook and hooks itself against the lead, which needs to be at least 57g(2oz).
One of the simplest and best bolt rigs is the semi-fixed leger. Here the leger boom which holds the lead has a short section of silicone rubber tubing which fits snugly over the swivel used to attach your hooklength.
This effectively attaches the lead to the swivel and hence to the main line. So when the carp bolts, the fixed lead pulls the hook home. However, if the line breaks while you are playing a fish, the silicone rubber tubing will pull off in the first snag, so the carp is not doomed to tow the lead around with it, as it might with a fully fixed rig or a paternoster rig. You can buy leger booms with the silicone rubber tubing attached in most tackle shops.
Surface fishing is very simple. Cut a piece of crust from a fresh loaf and fish it freelined or as an anchored floater. You can also use pet food mixers, cereals or floating boilies as surface baits. For float fishing, use a simple float rig that gets the bait down to the carp.
Whichever method you are using, accurate casting and feeding is always important. Find a likely fish-holding spot and cast close to it. Encourage the fish to feed by using a catapult, throwing stick or bait dropper to present free offerings around your hookbait. Sometimes it is possible to intercept margin-feeding fish by dropping a bait right in its path.
When carp fishing, patience is a virtue but if you are not getting results and you can see signs of fish in another part of the water, don’t hang about – move on.
One of the greatest aids to success in modern carp fishing is knowing how to make up and use different rigs. In most carp waters, the standard running-link leger method with a hair rig is all you need to catch bottom feeding carp.
However, in more difficult lakes where the fish are caught frequently and have become wary of baits on the bottom, experimenting with more advanced rigs can make all the difference between blanking and catching big fish. But how do you know when to switch to a different rig?
If most anglers on your water are catching more than you, if you get a lot of small bite indications which don’t produce proper takes, if you are frequently losing fish because they come off, or if the fish you catch are hooked just outside the mouth – then it’s time to change.
If you get lots of twitches, slacken the line so it lies along the bottom, making sure they’re not line bites. If the twitches continue, try to make sure they’re not caused by small fish, perhaps by trying a smaller bait – small fish often suck at a bait too large for them. If you don’t start catching small fish, it’s time to change your set-up.
Softer is better.
Firstly, if you are using a monofilament hooklength, you should try changing it for braided or multistrand line. Mono is much stiffer than these other lines and affects the way your bait behaves when a wary carp sucks it in and blows it out before taking it properly. It may also be that carp can feel stiffer hooklengths more easily with their lips. Whatever, the reason, soft hooklengths certainly work.
The only problem with these types of line is that they are so soft that they are prone to tangles. You should definitely consider using an anti-tangle rig or one of the anti-tangle gels you can buy in tackle shops. These gels stiffen the hooklength for the cast, but dissolve in water, leaving the line soft and supple again.
There are broadly two sorts of anti-tangle rigs – legers and helicopter rigs. With the leger type, a drilled (in-line) lead or bomb is attached to a length of stiff tubing which is longer than the hooklength. This prevents the hooklength tangling with the line.
The lead and tubing is stopped in the usual way with a swivel. You can fish this type of arrangement semi-fixed or free-running as with the standard leger. With a semi-fixed leger the weight is attached to a short length of soft silicone rubber tubing which is wedged over the swivel. This fixes the lead in position, making the set-up a bolt rig, but if you snap off on a carp, the lead pulls off the swivel easily, so the carp doesn’t have to tow the lead around with it.
The helicopter rig is basically a paternoster rig in which the hooklength is free to rotate around the main line on a swivel – hence the name. The hooklength comes off above the lead, making it ideal for soft, silty lake beds where the lead may well sink. With a standard leger, the lead may pull the bait into the mud, making it harder for the carp to find.
If you do use a helicopter set-up, you should use one based on the CV-safety rig. Like the semi-fixed leger, this allows the fish to shed the weight in case of a snap-off.
Whatever type of set-up you are using, even anti-tangle gear, try retrieving it quickly a few times after casting, to see if it tangles. If it does, make the necessary adjustment until it stops doing so.
The original bolt rig was a running leger fished with a tight line in a drag clip. When the fish bolted, it was hooked by the resistance of the tight line. An important variant was the semi-fixed lead where the weight of the lead pulled the hook home.
Carp in heavily fished waters have become wary of sweet-smelling bright balls of food lying on the lake bed or wafting around a few inches off it (as in pop-ups). Screaming runs are rare. Carp no longer belt off when they feel the weight of a heavy lead pulling a hook into their mouths.
Instead of fleeing in panic, they stay absolutely still, mouths working furiously as they suck and blow at the lightly lodged hook. Nine times out of ten they get rid of it.
The first thing to try is a running leger, fished with a light lead on a slack line and light bobbin indicator. However, there are times when even this provides too much resistance for the cautious carp.
But all is not lost. If you think the carp have become too clever on your lake, try extending confidence rigs, which allow a cautious carp to take a few inches of line before it feels the lead – and may fool it into taking the bait deeper into its mouth.
The first rig involves the use of Kryston Super-Stiff, a dissolving anti-tangle gel. First tie your preferred hook and hair-rig arrangement to one end of a 60-75cm (24-30in) length of Dacron, Silkworm or Multi-Strand. Tie a swivel to the other end. Then fold the hook link back on itself to make a flattened S-shape. Tie the top bend of the S to the eye of the swivel with PVA string, then tie the other bend to the hook link, also with PVA. Finally smear the whole hook link with Super-Stiff, allow it to dry, then apply another coat. When this has dried completely you have a stiff, 25-30cm (10-12in) hook link that extends to its full 75cm (30in) once it has been cast out and the Super-Stiff and the PVA has melted. It’s simple but devastating.
A second rig works in a similar way. You need an in-line lead such as a Comet or Zipp drilled lead. Cut a 3-4cm (1-1½in) length of 2mm diameter tubing and Superglue it to the rear section of the lead. Then tie on your preferred hooklength using a swivel, with a shock bead to protect the knot in casting.
Thread a baiting needle through the glued-on piece of tubing to pick up the hook link and draw it back through the tube. Then secure the loop of hook link that has been pulled through to the back of the lead or around the main line with PVA string.
In both cases, when the fish sucks at the bait from a distance, expecting it to pull tight before it reaches its lips, the exact opposite happens – and the hookbait goes right into the fish’s mouth!
Similarly, if the fish picks up the hook bait and backs off, the extending link fools it into thinking that the hook bait is one of the free offerings, giving it the confidence to take the bait into its mouth. Sneaky, isn’t it.
Carp tend to run with a bait This means that for legering, bite indicators that allow the fish to run are often best. Bobbins, monkey climbers and swingers all do this.
All three rise when the fish runs away from you, taking line, and fall when the fish runs towards you – a drop-back bite. Monkey climbers and swingers are simply developments of the original bobbin principle.
A swinger is in effect a bobbin on a fixed arm which allows it to swing upwards or downwards when the fish takes – hence the name. The monkey climber consists of two parts. The ‘monkey’ is a plastic cylinder free to slide up and down a vertical metal needle. The top of the needle is usually enlarged to stop the monkey flying off. The line passes between the climber and the needle. When you strike, the line is freed from the indicator.
All three types of indicator can be fitted with glowing isotopes so you can see them while night fishing. They work especially well when fished with electronic bite alarms.