Brownlining for Carp - with Lee Baermann

Lee Baermann, Southern California flyfishing guideOur host, as we explore the world of the brown liner, is Lee Baermann, native of SoCal, and Pro Guide. Lee grew up on the beach, in fact rumor has it his parents actually found him under some kelp at the high tide line! With a hugely successful guiding service under his belt Lee discovered the fun he could have for his clients in the canals that criss cross the LA and Venture county low lands. We spent a morning shadowing him as he went about chasing down “Mudders”, “Bubblers” and “Bank huggers” at one of his favorite haunts. I could tell you where, but I’d have to kill you....Read on as Lee explains his brown water tactics.

Bubbles trail six feet behind from where they surfaced, signaling a hungry, unseen carp feeding happily away under the murky water.   Judging the speed of the current, I cast my offering three feet in front of the bubbles and 10 feet past them.   I let the fly sink, then twitched it towards where I’ve guesstimated the business end of the carp to be.  The connection where my leader meets my floating line moves back towards my fly rod, passing near where the bubbles emerge.  A few more twitches and the fly should be right in front of my quarry, setting up a battle with the tug boat like carp. The fly stops and the line goes tight as a twelve pounder heads downstream with the current.

Yep, those nasty smelling fish are getting more and more popular with us fly flingers, but there are still a few die hard hold outs out there with no interest in fly fishing for carp.  I have clients who would never be caught dead fly fishing for carp in the waters near them, but yet these are the same people who only get out once or twice a year for some trout fly fishing. 

Lee's main guide service is saltwater flyfishing www.flyfishthesurf.comHere in Southern California, good trout fly fishing is hours away and usually necessitates an overnighter, while carp are in just about any body of fresh water that has current and depth over a few feet.  I have found carp in public ponds, parks, farm run off canals, sloughs, creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, golf courses and even the Los Angeles River.   As a mater of fact, I don’t know of a single fresh water spot around here that doesn’t have them clopping away on the surface at one time or another.

The common carp, or Cyprinus carpio, is the most frequently caught species while the two types of mirror carp, one has a full body of large scales whereas the other has them stop half way down its side, are found along with Koi, in these same waterways.

Baermann in actionMuch is being written about clear water fly fishing for carp, but not much is said about going after them in Mocha Latte colored water.  Being a surf fly fishing guide by trade, I have become a die hard carpoholic, searching them out whenever the surf is too big to fish.  There are three different techniques to use when the water looks like what Augustus Gloop fell into while at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Seeing bubbles break the surface will point to a bottom feeding carp when the water is so opaque that the only indication that carp are even around are those soap suds; you either hypothesize their position without the help of GPS or you do not fish.  But it is the length of the trail that will tell you just how intent this particular carp is in taking a fly, even if you can’t set your eyes on him.

When I find a long footprint of those tell-tale bubbles, I get very excited as I know I have a very eager feeder under there. The more voraciously they feed, the better your chances of hooking up, especially when they leave a path stretching ten or more feet behind them.  It is these carp that present the best targets, so focused on gorging themselves that even a poorly presented fly will not spook them, giving you multiple attempts at hooking up.

It's not all about crystal clear mountain streams!Carp can also feed in short bursts where the volume of the trail is no more then baseball-sized. That’s not to say that these smaller bubble patches indicate a carp that will not take a fly or that you can’t scare them off with a misplaced cast.

Rather, now you have to anticipate where the next cluster of feeding bubbles will show up.  A feeding carp can travel in any direction at any time; there are no set patterns to make it easier on the fly fisherman stalking them in muddy water.  Once you can determine where a particular carp is headed, simply cast you fly ahead of it and time the merging of carp mouth and fly.  I sometimes encounter bubbles coming up making a Morse code dot pattern as well, with one, two and even five feet between showings.  Either scenario commands the same approach when presenting the fly in these circumstances however. One thing to remember is like most fish, carp head into the current so the odds are on your side if you place the fly up stream of the carp’s chops. It is for this reason that I’ll start my stalking of them from a downstream area and work my way upstream.  This way I’m coming up behind them and not walking straight into their field of sight.

Baerman's BugzIn both cases, you need to judge the speed of the current as it relates to where the bubbles break the surface, in conjunction with where the carp’s head is.  Making a cast farther in front of the fish and well past it can give you more room for error and even set up a second chance if the carp changes direction on you. 

If the carp seems to be slowing in its advance, simply move in the opposite direction the carp is heading along the shore or bank, while not letting out any line rather then re-cast.  This moves the leader closer to the carp while not moving the fly, making the angle of fly to prey contact happen sooner.  

No matter what the speed of the current, frequency and volume of bubbles, you need to present the fly as quietly as possible.  So by only lowering your rod tip to the water on your follow through, the fly will land with so little a splash that even the East German judge will give it high marks.

Baggie Black HeadFinding bubble trails isn’t hard, but the distance to where they are from you is what makes things interesting.  When they are close to the bank, a bow and arrow cast can get the fly to where you need it with out much fan fare, while a carp actively feeding across the pond can mean a longer cast.  This is my favorite type of carp fishing as I have to use every ounce of skill to place the fly in the perfect spot, calculating the head to bubble ratio at distances of 40 plus feet.  That may not seem far, but in some areas the brush and trees are so thick that a long back cast is impossible to make.  Got to love a challenge

Seeing a width of muddy water running down along the bank from upstream tells me one thing; there’s a carp mudding into the side of the bank up ahead.  I get goose bumps as I have to approach with the stealth of a ninja so I don’t spook this vigorous feeder.  Here, even the slightest noise or shadow can send the carp fleeing to deeper water and ruining a fantastic chance at hooking into one of these brawny fighters.  This muddy column, wide at the downstream spot where you happened upon it, will get closer to the bank the nearer to the fish you get.  When I spot an active mudder working the bank, I will fix on a landmark near the fish, back away from the bank so I come in directly behind that marker so I’m even with the fish.  I allow about an inch or two of line out of the end guide leaving my fly dangling from it and my 8.5 foot leader.  Now all I do is set the fly as near to its mouth as possible, almost jigging for the carp.  Merely place the fly on the bottom on the up stream side so that you see slack form in the leader, hold it for a few seconds, then pull slowly up until the fly comes out of the water.  Now just repeat as needed until the carp either takes the fly or spooks away. 

Swimming NymphAnother method is to figure out which direction the carp well be heading, then set the fly a few inches ahead of it so it’ll run right into that tasty little bug and inhale it.  There will be times when the carp’s head is down in the mud and you can place the fly right off it’s nose and get bit. Yet other times you need to place the fly ahead of the carp and twitch it back as near to the edge of the bank as possible. All of these techniques are useless if you ‘line’ the carp. If your leader or fly line touches the carp, all you’ll see is a muddy jet wash trail leading to the next county. It is very important not to let any part of your gear, other then the fly, be seen or felt by a feeding carp.

Even though the carp is near the bank, you still will not get a clear view of it because of water clarity, so once again you need to watch your line for any movement or maybe a glimpse of the dorsal fin as it looks like a black line in the water. A carp will drop its head down when picking up a fly, then move on with its catch showing its tail.  This is the signal you are looking for so now you can set the hook on the ever so soft take.

Whether you are making long or short casts or even the method of jigging, you still need to watch your line for any change.

Here, I like to raise my rod tip so the line bows somewhat so when I strip in my line, a half inch at a time, the slack in the bow goes tight and when I pinch the line before my next strip, the weight created by the bow pulls my line to me.   That way I can watch if the slack line moves back towards me, always watching to see if it stops moving.  If it stops, I set the hook with a low side strike.  The only time I pull up on my rod tip to set the hook is when I’m situated above the fish because of a raised bank or canal berm.

Carp will also move into rocky areas along the banks looking for crawdads and other edible creatures, but they will still give off the same tell-tale signs of a mudding carp.  Plumes of mud will rise to the surface and you may even catch a glimpse of a back or tail fin.  Either way, mudding carp along the bank are some of the easiest to catch.

The last technique I use in muddy water is the blind cast.  While it is not the most fun you can have, it does have its place in fly fishing for carp in these circumstances.

The payoff!If you have a run off pipe that empties water from another source into the canal or a waterway that’s fed by smaller systems, these are ideal places to try your luck. The incoming water will kick up food that would otherwise be safely hidden causing the carp to belly up for a free lunch, albeit in a crowded area where there’s added competition for food. This competition increases the chance of a hook up.

Another time for the blind cast is when there’s a raised section, or shoal in the water system.   When this occurs in the middle of the canal, there will be a deeper section to the side along the bank or shore.  Here, blind casting to the deeper water can produce fish that were just resting on the bottom. I have made a cast to this type of zone and have got bitten frequently by carp otherwise not openly engaged in feeding.  Other times I have made these attempts only to see one or more sedentary carp take flight like a flock of flushed quail, leaving the tell-tale signs of a large sector of bubbles and mud clouds. Carp will tell you when they see you or are scared off. 

There’s no right or wrong way to fish for carp, there’s just the way you do it, as long as it works.  I’ll never tell anyone that the way I do things is the end-all way, but rather I’ll tell them to try different techniques and methods to find which one matches them best.   That said, I like to use a 6 wt rod with a floating line and an 8.5 foot leader.

You could use a lighter rod, but I’ve found it unnecessary to wear out a big double digit carp because I was using a 4wt.  If I do go lighter, I do so in my leader material and that’s always fluorocarbon.  I’ll go as low as 2lb depending on the area, but not if there is too many tree branches or too much submerged debris in the water so that a carp could break me off on these hindrances.  Normally I like to use an 8lb leader so that the tussle doesn’t have to last any longer then it need be.  My leader length is simply determined by the length of my fly rod.  I use 9 foot rods so my leader of 8.5 feet will not go in the first guide even when landing a fish.  This helps so I can lift a carp’s head up out of the water and ski him to my net when I’m by myself and not have to worry about my leader breaking at the rod tip.

Carp are also the only species I use a net to land because of the canals and sloughs I fish.  Some have very steep banks and there’d be no way to horse a carp up on 8lb test, and a heavier leader can spook them as the ones I fish for look to be leader shy.

Reels need not be expensive nor have humongous drag systems.  I use an old $35.00 reel with little or no drag, and I just palm the reel to slow a carp down.  Big carp fight like a train pulling one hundred cars in that they make long hard pulls rather then fast jerky runs that break gear and leaders.  Basically, use what you have, and I use the minimum because I will toss my gear aside to net a fish or slide down a muddy or dirt bank.   Smaller carp will fight you better, but even they wear out after 5 or less minutes if you provide enough pressure when they run. 

Not a lot goes into fly selection either as trout nymphs work great.  I don’t get much call for surface flies for clopping carp here, as the areas I fish have little or no vegetation.  This eliminates a lot of surface action because any aquatic insect stays on or near the bottom.  It doesn’t hurt to have a top water fly or two with you however because I have seen carp chasing small minnows near the surface and held up my sinking fly just so it barely touches the water and have gotten bit. 

This is when I put on an Ian's Epoxy Minnow to handle this situation.  The workhorse for me however is a clouser swimming nymph tied using dark colors, like rusty brown tied on a #4 Gamagatsu SS15.  The thing I do however is tie the fly like it were being tied on a #6 or #8 hook. It’s not as long that way but I still have a great bite area.

My other go-to fly is one I call a baggie fly.  I use a Gamakatsu #4 SC15 with a 5/32 black bead head.  Then I cut a 1/8 inch wide length of Zip Lock baggie about 6 inches long and rap it around the hook to just past the bend, shaping it like a funnel.  So the end near the hook bend is tapered way down while the section behind the bead head is the same width as the bead.  You can change the look of this fly by simply changing the thread you use to wrap the hook shank.  I use white, but I have also used yellow and pink, thus giving the fly a different hue due to the thread showing through the plastic.  When done, I coat the entire fly in Loon’s UV Knot Sense.  Even though this fly is covered in Knot Sense, I do not have carp refuse it on smell.

There are a few other flies I’ve tied and used, all have landed carp, but these two are the ones I fish the most.  Plain, simple and easy to do, carp fly fishing in muddy water is easier than it sounds, but still a healthy challenge for any one who fly fishes. 

The thing you have to ask yourself is, when was the last time you had a fresh water fish over 12lbs on the end your fly line?

Lee's guide service covers northern LA County, all of Ventura County, and southern Santa Barbara County--miles and miles of some of the most beautiful surf scenery in the world! Find him at


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