Champlain Explained... by Drew Price
Self confessed fish geek and expert guide Drew Price is totally at home on Champlain where he “hunts” his quarry, being a sight fisherman at heart. “It’s all about finding them, positioning yourself and placing a fly in front of feeding fish” says Drew. He enjoys fishing for everything and enjoys catching everything. So enjoy as he describes Lake Champlain and shares his tactics and catches. Keep up with him at http://dponthefly.blogspot.com and http://www.drewpriceonthefly.com.
Lake Champlain is well known in angling circles for its outstanding bass fishing, trolling for lake trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon and ice fishing for perch. Not many people are aware of the fantastic numbers of large carp that swim in the “West Coast of New England”. This large lake offers a lot to carp anglers as far as numbers and size of specimens caught but can also be very challenging to fish because of very clear water and accessibility.
Lake Champlain is bordered on the west by New York State and to the east by Vermont and the northern portion lies within the border of Quebec. The lake is about 120 miles long, 12 miles wide at its widest, and is over 400 feet at its greatest depth although most areas are considerably shallower than that. The lake can be broken down into five segments: The Main Lake, the Inland Sea, Mallet’s Bay, Missisquoi Bay and the South Lake. While these segments can be dramatically different in many respects one thing that they all share in common is carp.
Carp first got into Lake Champlain in the 1800’s when excessive rainfall caused a New York farmer’s pond to overflow sending many of his prized carp down into the lake. From that accidental introduction the carp has really taken off. Once carp attain adulthood there is no predation from other fish. Between the lack of predation, minimal angling pressure and unlimited food resources, Lake Champlain is a gold mine for the carp angler. According to Vermont State fisheries biologist Shawn Good the average size of carp that they collect in trap nets during springtime sampling is 30-32 inches but they often encounter fish between 36 and 40 inches as well. He states that he has often seen much larger specimens. I have seen at least a dozen fish that I would put at 40+ pounds.
Targeting carp on Champlain with a fly is a definite challenge. Along with the normal difficulties of sight fishing carp (long accurate casts, spooky fish, and finding feeding fish) come very clear water. Sometime in the 1990’s the zebra mussel was introduced which lead to some significant changes in water clarity. These mollusks filter vast quantities of water and in turn remove significant amounts of particulate matter, mostly phytoplankton. While having major ecological impacts on the environment, the water clarity improved immensely. This new invasive treatment process allowed light to reach greater depths which spurred new growth of aquatic vegetation giving the carp even more resources to feed on. More importantly, it made the already wary carp even more challenging.
Gearing up for carp with fly tackle is not very difficult. A 6 to 8 weight mid-flex rod is all you need. I find that a carp rod will have good flex up until it’s mid-point in order to protect lighter tippet but you definitely want a fairly stout back end to be able to pull these fish out of the weeds. The rod needs to be balanced with an appropriate reel that can hold at least 100 yards of backing, 150 yards is better. I strongly recommend using a mid or large arbor reel to help pick up line much faster. This can be critical when chasing down a large carp that has gone on a long run then changed direction.
The line you use is definitely very important and can be easily overlooked by a beginning carper. A weight forward floating line is a must; you will be throwing weighted flies good distances accurately. Color is also fairly important. Brightly colored lines will help you track your cast, but the carp will see it too. Choose a line that is fairly muted or use a permanent marker to change the color of the first 15 or 20 feet of your fly line to something that will blend in. If you are going to spend a lot of time chasing Yankee bones it is worth trying out Rio’s Carp fly line. It is specifically tapered for these fish and the color camouflages well.
Leaders are the key to success when fishing Champlain. I mostly use a 9 foot bonefish tapered leader in 10 lb class then put on two or three feet of fluorocarbon tippet material. Because of the excellent water clarity the fluoro makes a huge difference in getting these fish to take. Fluorocarbon tippet also allows you to use heavier line than monofilament because it almost disappears in the water and provides excellent abrasion resistance. I have a preference for the Orvis Mirage tippet. I have had great success landing fish up to 24 lbs on the 3x and it has held up well in the heavy weed growth often found where the carp are. One note of caution with fluoro though- take your time to learn how to tie knots with it.
The diet of Champlain carp is similar to the diet of carp anywhere- just about anything. Good notes “carp tend to eat oligochetes (worms), beetle and dragonfly larvae and other larval invertebrates, amphipods (freshwater shrimp or scuds), snails and crayfish.” These food sources provide a lot of opportunities for the fly angler and fly tyer to imitate. Check out this page for more information about flies and fly selection.
Carp aren’t the only denizens of the lake that you will run into in the shallows. I have picked up bass, perch, and sunfish frequently while carping. Two other fish I commonly see are bowfin and sheepshead (freshwater drum). Both of these fish are worthy opponents and will take carp flies readily if they are presented well. Use caution with the bowfin however; they have a mouthful of sharp teeth.
I have found the best way to pursue carp on the lake is by boat. Vermont and New York have many areas to easily access Lake Champlain, but there are not many options for shore bound anglers who are looking to catch carp. This is especially true for fly anglers who tend to need more area behind them for back casts. Canoes and kayaks have been very successful for me and others I know who have been chasing carp. Their size and material make them a very stealthy means of approaching carp. I have been within 20 feet of feeding carp without spooking them on numerous occasions. These craft can run in some very shallow water which a larger boat may not be able to get you into. Another fun and useful thing about fishing carp in canoes and kayaks is that once the carp is hooked, they can be used as part of your drag. It is pretty enjoyable to be involved in a Nantucket sleigh ride Champlain style.
I use a broad beam square stern canoe that has a very shallow vee shape. This kind of canoe has a great deal of natural stability and when it is combined with stabilizer floats like those made by Spring Creek it makes an excellent platform to sight fish from. I am able to put an upright angler in the front of my boat while I paddle standing in the rear. When a good location or group of carp is found, I quietly lower an anchor to the bottom and start to fish. I tie a float to the end of my anchor rope so that when a carp is hooked I can easily jettison the remainder overboard. This way I can use the canoe to play the carp and then come back later to retrieve the anchor. A good pulley system makes it much easier to raise and lower the anchor and it does pay to have a couple of different cleats in the boat to attach the rope.
Kayak fishing is very similar to fishing out of a canoe. There are many new models of kayak on the market that allow anglers to easily access great water. There have been many innovative designs to provide anglers with a very stable kayak to stand in for sight fishing. The method of fishing is the same as using a canoe. Damon Bungard of Jackson Kayak has been very successful fishing carp on Champlain doing just that.
One of the biggest downsides to using canoes and kayaks on Lake Champlain is the weather. Obviously it is not that easy to get off the water quickly when in a human powered craft as it is in a motorized boat. Attention needs to be paid to the wind. A stiff breeze can make fishing, especially sight fishing, very difficult, if not downright dangerous if you are in the wrong area. It pays to watch the marine forecasts closely and to choose an area of the lake that is most appropriate for the wind level and direction. Because of the many bays, setbacks and tributaries along the lake there are not too many days where you can’t find a sheltered area to sight fish.
I generally don’t start looking for carp before May. The water is very high and cold until the middle of May, and while the flooded backwaters can and do hold carp earlier in the year, it can be difficult to land a good sized fish in a flooded forest. Between May and early June the carp are spending much of their time spawning. I have had little success chasing after spawners so I generally start my serious carp hunting in mid June. By then the water is in the mid 60’s and the carp are on the feed. Great carp action will last through September.
Sight fishing does require good visibility so concentrate your efforts between the Champlain Bridge in Addison north. The southern end of the lake tends to get a bit murkier. There are a lot of great areas to look for carp in: the South Slang, Colchester Point, and the Sand Bar on the Vermont side of the lake and Ausable Point, the mouth of the Saranac and Chazy Rivers on the New York side are among the many options. Honestly, there are simply too many places to fish for carp along Lake Champlain to be able to list them all. In Shawn Good’s words “really, any backwater area with clear water and weeds will have carp. They are everywhere in the lake, and not hard to find.”
If you are traveling through the area and don’t have the ability to get out in a canoe not all is lost. There are several good carping locations along both the New York and Vermont sides of the lake. Two of the best are the VT Fish and Wildlife access points at Chimney Point and at McCuen Slang. Both offer great access for bank anglers to some large carp. Other places to try out are below the dam in Vergennes on Otter Creek, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, the mouth of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh, and Ausable Marsh, also in New York.
Lake Champlain deserves more attention from carp anglers, especially those that prefer to use flies. There are huge numbers of fish in the lake, the water is great for sight fishing, and access to the water is fantastic. Biologist Shawn Good puts the amount of pressure best “Zero, Zilch, absolutely none. Carp angling is unknown in Lake Champlain, and it's an untapped resource ripe for the picking. These carp are completely unpressured. It's a carp angler's wet dream.” What is stopping you from coming for a visit? The Yankee bonefish awaits your fly.