There are a lot of things fly anglers might disagree upon when it comes to fishing for carp on Denver’s South Platte River. One word that might be an exception: evolution. Things have certainly changed on the river over the years. I sat down with Barry Reynolds and Rick Mikesell to talk about fishing for carp – then and now – and the evolution of the South Platte River.
Will Rice (WR): Can you tell readers about how and when you got into fly fishing for carp on the South Platte River?
Barry Reynolds (BR): I grew up catching carp in the creeks of Texas so fishing for carp has long been in my blood. Fly fishing for them was another story and one that evolved over time and with experimentation. I’d rather not date myself but since you asked, the first time I started fishing the South Platte River in the metro area was 1978. At first it wasn’t for carp but instead I was fishing for brown trout. We had found an area just below Chatfield Reservoir where there was a big bend that produced really large brown trout on a regular basis. I figured there must be more pockets of these fish further downstream and closer to Denver. While I didn’t find any more hidden pockets of big browns, I did discover carp and the occasional bass. I found solitude, and in some areas picturesque water loaded with big untouched fish. And so, the obsession began with river carp and it continues still today.
Rick Mikesell (RM): In college, I was doing a lot of conventional bass fishing at the local lakes and ponds around town. Between classes, I would walk to the South Platte River right next to campus and see huge carp swimming in the river and quickly became determined to catch them. Naively thinking the fly rod was the only way to do it, I got a cheapo Scientific Anglers 8-wt package, and dove in headfirst. After struggling for about three months without success, I distinctly remember the first grab, just below the pedestrian bridge at Confluence Park. I put a Beck’s Supper Bugger way in front of a fish, it moved about six feet to the fly, and the fish absolutely lit it up. Not knowing how to fight big fish, I snapped the tip of the cheapo combo rod and had to fight it with just the butt section. I walked away shaking in excitement. From then on, of course with some upgrades in gear and thinking, it was all consuming. To this day, it is a constant, nagging, unwavering desire to find fish and to see them eat my fly.
WR: What’s your approach to fishing for carp now? Have things changed fundamentally on the river for the good or the bad?
BR: Let’s start with the river and the water quality. Today the river is much cleaner as tremendous amounts of debris and trash have been removed making the river through town much more visually appealing. With the efforts of Denver Trout Unlimited it is cleaner than it’s ever been. Along the same line, the water quality continues to improve for many of the same reasons as well as the fact that there is less dumping going on. In addition, some of the stream improvements that have been done in different sections have also helped improve the fishery.
Other things that have changed include the evolution of fly designs that are specifically geared for carp. These imitate specific carp prey items such as crayfish, clams, and leeches. More importantly these flies are designed to be fished where the carp feed most often, close to the bottom in the substrate.
The downfall to all of this is quite simple though, more anglers equal more pressure equals smarter, tougher carp. The carp in the South Platte are becoming spookier and harder to catch due to the pressure and the number of anglers pursuing them today.
RM: The fishing itself has not changed much at all. The recipe for success remains the same: find happy fish, present your fly and make it look like food, and if things all align, watch the fish eat and set. The river itself has become more challenging, as pressure has increased over the years. Of course, flies, and gear quality and angling ability has increased greatly, but aside from being a better caster, I still fish very much the way I did in the early days.
WR: Have your on-the-water strategies changed from when you began? Do you still find fish in the same places?
BR: Locating carp is a fairly simple process, find any slack water areas or sections of the river lacking much current and you are likely to locate some carp milling about. That said, we’re not just looking for any carp but instead we are looking for feeding carp. Once you learn to locate prime feeding areas you will be well on your way to success. Feeding areas consist of pools, flats, tailouts, bridge pilings or any other area where the carp can hold and feed comfortably without fighting strong currents.
RM: The river’s geography has changed quite a bit and continues to do so. Much of it is natural, as sediment moves, and fills, but also there has been a ton of positive stream improvements. That has made it a much more hospitable home for all fish species. The good news in carp fishing is that it doesn’t really matter that much. Carp do not assign themselves to named runs and holes as trout do. They are good at eating and move where there is food. A flat that was flush with fish a few days ago, or even a few hours ago may be vacant when you get there, as the fish have moved to where there is more food. As such the strategy remains the same: pick a walkable stretch, walk it looking for happy, actively feeding fish, present to those fish, and once all shots are exhausted, jump in the car or back on your bike and move to another walkable stretch.
WR: What were some of the biggest fishing challenges you had back when you started?
BR: My earliest challenges with carp on the fly mostly stemmed around fly selection followed by presentation. Early on there was very little information about “fly fishing for carp” and most information found stemmed around bait fishing techniques. As I began the slow tedious (but fun and challenging) self-education process I began to experiment with flies that would mimic what was available in the South Platte River. I found everything from crayfish to clams and leeches. I tied a variety of wooly buggers in size and color and I experimented with flash as well. I quickly learned both color and flash were vitally important in carp flies, too much flash and the fish spooked, too bright of color and the fish spooked. I quickly settled into more subdued tones of olive, black and rusty browns and found the carp far more receptive to the flies in these color ranges. I then turned my attention to how to properly weight my flies so I could get them down in front of feeding carp. There is one more very important factor we have to work through: observation. You need to watch the fish and how they behave and how they react. How a carp moves can and will teach you everything you need to know about how, when, where to present the fly.
RM: The biggest challenge for a long time, and still so today, was not being that great of a caster. The window to present is so tiny, and multiple false casts will spook a fish, so learning to be accurate and present quickly with only one, maybe two false casts is critical. As I became a better caster, I caught more fish. It’s always a joy to fish with Barry as he is an excellent fly caster. I love watching him work, as he is so direct and efficient with his presentations, and that is where I’d like to evolve someday.
WR: When I first started, I was throwing a 9-wt and chartreuse clouser minnows (without much success). Now I’m primarily using a six weight and much smaller flies. How has gear, equipment, tackle and flies changed?
RM: Fly rods and reels, leader and tippet are the best they have ever been, and maybe ever will be right now. For all but the biggest and fastest of fish, gear is stronger, lighter, more powerful, and more durable than ever. I can choose any American made fly rod or reel off the rack, and know, outside of personal action preferences, that I am getting the best. You cannot ask for much more from a gear perspective.
BR: For me this is where very little has changed. I started with a six-weight and still use a six-weight today. Fly lines, specialty lines are now designed for specific types of fishing and this allows us to present weighted flies better and more accurately. For fly line colors, I started with greens and yellows and now have started using more subdued colors like moss or khaki (stealthy colors). Obviously there have been big improvements in leader quality and types since I started and primarily use fluorocarbon leaders that are 9ft in length. Fluorocarbon is more abrasion resistant and that is really important in the harsh conditions of the South Platte.
WR: I remember when I first started fishing I never saw anyone fly fishing on the metro section of the South Platte – except that one time I ran into a guy named Barry Reynolds and he had a film crew with him. Now we have a lot more anglers on the river. In addition to just the volume of anglers, has the culture changed?
RM: It’s crazy how we define pressure. In the old days, it was exciting to run into another angler on the river, as there were so few of us doing it, it was nice to meet someone like minded. Now, if I show up in a stretch and there is one other angler, I get flustered. While we don’t have it to ourselves anymore, it is very exciting to see the Denver South Platte finally getting the respect it deserves. It is not an easy place to fish and requires some dedication to learning its intricacies, and the more invested advocates we have for the fishery, the bigger the voice for continued attention and improvement of the river.
BR: This has probably changed more than any other aspect of carp on the fly. When I first started giving seminars and presentations about fly fishing for carp, I actually had people get up and walk out. Some twenty years later I have given talks on the same subject to full houses where 300 or more people would cram into an area to watch the same presentation. As anglers slowly began to experiment with warm water opportunities around the metro area, they caught the occasional carp and soon learned and discovered what a select few of us knew all along: South Platte carp are big, strong fighters that will test your tackle and your wits at the same time. What’s not to love?
To learn more about fly fishing for carp or to start your own evolutionary journey on the South Platte River, stop by Trouts Fly Fishing. Or, check out this page for more information about Carp School. This is a comprehensive fly fishing class where our expert instructors provide you with the knowledge and on-water tactics to increase your success when pursuing this worthy gamefish.