An American Carpier Learns New Lessons Catching Carp
An American Carpier Learns New Lessons Catching Carp
In the Beginning...
I have fished the Potomac River in Maryland, USA ever since I was big enough to hold a fishing rod (over 25 years ago). My father, an avid outdoorsman, would often take us kids on fishing or hunting vacations. Sometimes we would just travel down to the riverside on weekends just to fish for carp. The Potomac River is a large flowing, rock and boulder strewn tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that stretches from the hills of the Appalachians through the marbled streets of the nations capital, Washington DC and beyond. My particular stretch of river near Hagerstown zigs and zags through forested hills and valleys that played host to the civil war, it is interspersed with deep crystal clear pools, shifting sandbars and riffles that are the haunts for more traditional American gamefish such as smallmouth bass, catfish and tiger muskie. When I was aged 10 we had a summer trailer on the banks of the river where we would spend mornings trolling for bass with dad in our 16 foot jonboat, evenings were spent dipping chicken livers for channel catfish, and the rest of the day was in pursuit of carp cruising the channels and shallows. I have the most vivid memories of dad showing us how to make oatmeal doughballs to tempt carp. Into a channel went the baited hooks and we'd wait for the carp to suck in the doughballs and take off in a screaming run with us holding onto our fishing rods for dear life. From our happy shouts everyone on the river knew we had hooked into a carp.
The Secret Weapon
Our carp fishing techniques in those old days (early 70’s) were pretty basic and down to earth. The rods were 6 foot medium action fiberglass matched with Garcia Mitchell 300 spinning reels. The business end of the setup consisted of size 6 treble hook tied to 8 pound test line. Onto the treble hook we molded our secret carp weapon...oatmeal. Plain old fashioned oatmeal. Convenient, cheap, no mixing, no rolling, no drying...no muss or fuss. Just take a handful and dip it in the water for a moment and begin kneading it into a ball. Add more oatmeal or water as necessary. Once in the water, oatmeal really comes into its own as it gives off a natural scent and flavor trail that is irresistible to carp, an instant bait if there ever was one. There are no limits to the possible uses of oatmeal such as adding bits of other baits or flavors to make it even more attractive, or using it in combination with other ingredients as a groundbait or chum. On the Potomac it is also common for carp to be caught while fishing for something else, there have been a lot of notable catches on the likes of garden worms and chicken livers. A Carp fishing buddy of mine, David, caught the 1996 venue record of 20 lbs on a bottom fished garden worm.
Carping in the 80’s
Over the years our attitudes toward fishing the Potomac slowly evolved but we never saw any reason to change the oatmeal strategy for carp due the long track record of consistently catching carp into the mid doubles size. In 1995 we began fishing for carp almost exclusively since we liked catching really big fish and left the more popular smallmouth bass and catfish by the wayside. We upgraded our tackle now to long surf rods, 12 lb Stren monofilament line and size 6 Eagle Claw single hooks instead of trebles for better hookups. While we had large capacity saltwater Diawa spinning reels holding 250 to 300 yards of line, we still never used more than small split shot weights. At this stage a typical session of carping would yield 4 or 5 carp weighing an average of 15 lbs with the odd 18 lber thrown in for a mornings fishing.
1996 saw two huge floods gouge the Potomac River basin, one in the winter and one in the spring. The river took a long time recuperating as the flow never returned to normal for much of that year. Fish mortality was high and many were swept into the C&O Canal, a historic National Park that runs parallel to the river for 180 miles and gives us unique access to swims all along the Maryland shoreline. I was heartfelt to see that sportfishing groups were coming to the rescue of the stranded fish, saving not only the bass but the carp as well. Maybe the carp was finally getting a little respect.
"Oatmeal Jack" is born (or...A Year in the life of a Carpier)
While surfing the Internet in 1996 I discovered the Carp Anglers Group and the Carp-l mailing list (RIP). With a personal best 19.5 lb Potomac carp under my belt, I signed on with a single-minded determination to learn everything there was to learn about carp and carp fishing with a European twist, all the while pitching the virtues of oatmeal baits and "Oatmeal Jack" was born. The CAG listed a fish-in at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC in April 1997 hosted by Pat Kerwin and I decided to attend. What I saw amazed my eyes as these guys were maniacs and had all sorts of strange fishing gear such as 11-12 foot rods, something called baitrunner reels, specialist terminal tackle called hair rigs, strange tents to sleep in at the water and the weirdest beeping rod holders I ever saw. On top of this, they were all throwing strawberry flavored corn in the water by the bucketful to attract the carp. The angler next to me threaded strange "boilie" baits on his hair rig while I, a "dough chucker", fished with my oatmeal doughballs. Unfortunately I learned that next to maize chum oatmeal doughballs don't really measure up as I went fishless. I had read about all these Euro techniques and tackle on the mailing list and homepages but seeing it for real in action put meaning behind it all. Helping sink the basic principals home was event organizer Pat Kerwin who introduced me to everyone and gave me rundown on what was happening, Fran Slasinski taught me to tie hair rigs, Chris `The Carpist' parted with sinkers and boilies so I could give the new techniques a try, and a New Englander named Nigel Griffin that showed me how to use a float and caught the first fully scaled mirror carp I ever saw.
Old Swim, New Attitude
Anxious to give my newfound knowledge a try, I was very soon back at my old fishing spot with 4 gallon buckets of maize chum in one hand and leading a young 13 year old friend named Craig to one of his first carping sessions with the other, but only after dusting off his long forgotten old Zebco rod and reel out of the garage. After baiting up the swim, the carp proved to be hungry and mean and ran hooked with determination. Craig was blown away after catching first an 8 lber and then a 12 lber, the biggest fish he'd caught in his life. It was difficult enough convincing him that the first one was a baby carp, but the clincher was wrestling the fish from his eager hands to set free to catch again another day. That day we caught 11 more plus another 15 the following day. We also started catching mirrors and fully scaled carp, carp we had never seen prior to chumming. Seeing was believing and I was now a firm believer in European carp fishing techniques, married to our existing American styles, and that chumming, boilie and maize baits as well as hair rigs helped put those fish on the bank.
With rods in hand, I set out determined to break my personal best of 19 lbs and took to the road to learn from other carp anglers and ply new waters. `The Carpist' hosted the Connecticut River fish-in and I hit the highway in search of new friends and bigger fish. `The Carpist' claimed that if I caught 5 fish, one would be over 20 lbs and I wasn't about to let a claim like that go by unchallenged. While my first attempts at setting up with American equivalents to banksticks and bite alarms failed miserably, help was only seconds away as I was loaned proper banksticks and Delkim bite alarms. My hosts enjoyed ribbing me about my first attempt at making boilies calling them “Donkey Chokers” until I caught a carp with one. Then I witnessed an impressive demonstration of the power of carp as a carp pulled an entire rod pod into the water. I was more than familiar with carp pulling a rod into the water but three??!! `The Carpist's' proclamation of this being a big carp venue rang true as I not only matched my PB, but broke it twice with two 22 lbers caught on boilies and maize. My mission was accomplished, and I gained a lot of new knowledge picking the brains of everyone in attendance. I was also restocked with boilies, catapults and a real bankstick by my hosts.
Carping Daze/Carping Nights
With the basics of Euro style fishing under my belt, my carp catches skyrocketed during the summer of 1997. Confidence and a string of successful sessions allowed me the opportunity to experiment further with baits, rigs, chumming tactics etc. and each time the results would prove surprising and astounding. Take the time I decided to see just how "instant" sweetcorn could be as a carp bait. I was all alone at a new Potomac swim one night and decided to include this in my chum and use it as a hookbait. Well, little did I expect that the carp reaction would be akin to a shark feeding frenzy over the chum bed and I would be forced to retreat from a multiple rod setup to a single touch ledgered rod as the fish went absolutely crazy. By the end of the session I caught over 27 carp to 22 pounds and I was in a daze with aching limbs and in a state of disbelief. In the end, I recovered and watched the carp hoover-up the last morsel and kernel in the chum bed. In short time the feeding frenzy was over and the river surface regained its glassy stillness, unmarred by the wakes and crashing of Potomac carp. Summer sessions like this proved to be the rule instead of the exception as Craig was able to join me many times and we both pulled 20+ lbers out of the river with amazing consistency. The incredible carp action attracted the attention of carp anglers from far and near, including Wayne Brazinski from Chicago, Patrick Kelly from Baltimore and newspaper writer Jim Gilmore of nearby Frederick who plyed my swim on the Potomac for day and night sessions and all left with personal bests or 20+ lb fish. Jim Gilmore had just finished newspaper coverage of the new Maryland record carp catch, 47.5 lbs, from a small farm pond not 10 miles away and was so impressed by the fighting qualities and fun of carp fishing that he followed up with a newspaper article on carp fishing tactics. Accompanying the article were pictures of Craig holding his 22 lb carp and me holding Jim's 25 lber.
Autumn and shorter days approached quickly but the fishing remained strong. The venues varied greatly with one day fishing the Tidal Basin in Washington DC with Pat Kerwin of the CAG and other DC carpers (where I might add I achieved a new PB of 27 lbs to strawberry maize thank you) to the Patapsco River in Baltimore with Patrick Kelly and back to my old reliable Potomac swim. All the venues were diverse in type and the stock of carp that inhabited them, but none quite measured up to the secret pools Patrick, Craig and I discovered motoring down the river where the schools of doubles and larger carp were so numerous that up to five would jump and crash simultaneously. Was that a tree I heard falling into the river, no, just a BIG carp.
Doing It My Way
Needless to say, 1997 been a whirlwind and memorable year for my carp fishing. I don't think I can identify one particular ingredient that has resulted in this success. In esscense, what I have done is adapt a lot of Euro techniques to our style of fishing here on the Potomac River. In the rod department, I now have an 11 foot 1 3/4 TC Predator rod purchased from Cabellas and a 9 foot light action surf rod, both matched with Shimano 3500 Baitrunner reels. I have another 7 foot rod with a standard spinning reel plus I also like my Ambassador baitcasting reels. For bite alarms, I picked up some Zenith alarms that never fail to wake me up, and that's important. I picked up a used rod pod and learned to tie my own hair rigs. I use Eagle Claw hooks, 50 for $2.50, along with 12 lb Spider wire hooklengths and Cabella live bait barrel swivels. Many knowledgeable carpers would scoff at the use of these inexpensive hooks and would likely claim they dont hold up to the pressure of big carp, compromise hooking ability and injure the fish but I've had no breakoffs or hooks straightening on fish and they make no larger hole in the fish than other hooks. My banksticks are fabricated as well by a machinist friend.
I'm often asked a lot of questions about carp fishing at my Potomac swims. To newcomers of carp fishing, my best advice is to go to a fish-in, watch and ask a lot of questions. Keep the tackle you currently have and simply switch to a slip sinker and hair rig and see if it improves your catches. When the next season rolls around, consider the longer rods that are available in the US for under $100 and maybe banksticks, rod pod and alarms. If you already fish for carp, you probably have some basics down and just adapt the European techniques to your method and circumstances. Read up on internet carp pages on the Carp Anglers Group and the mailing lists if you have a computer. For bait, switch to maize on a hair or sidehooked sweetcorn. Boilies are fun but beware, I don’t think North American Carpiers need to go into the mysticism surrounding boilies overseas. A couple simple flavors are all you need to start with.
I don't know how many carp we caught this year on the Potomac because they have come too fast and furious. Judging from the mirror carp we have landed and photographed, I know that we are getting repeat catches so the recuperation of the fish after release appears good. I have a feeling that the rate of personal bests will level off a bit next year, but we are happy just to catch these big fish and anything over 20 lbs is a big fish to us. We will remain obsessed with carp fishing like we have been for many years before the hair rig made its presence known over here, but we have learned the new European techniques and will put them to good use here on the Potomac in the USA. After all, we have more carp over here than anywhere else.
By Jack “Oatmeal” Blackford, Potomac River, MD, USA
Kindly edited by Patrick “Patapsco” Kelly, Baltimore, USA