Prairie Carping...Again! - with John Kelley
We think we’ve discovered a hidden gem in the north of this vast country of ours. The Dakotas, known for their stunning scenery and huge skies are also a sporting paradise. This month we catch up with John Kelly, who with real pioneer spirit, has gotten to grips with carp fishing in the vast expanses of the Prairies. He runs a successful guiding service now and can put you on some incredible carp spots with arguably some of the highest densities of 30 pound fish in the US. And the pheasant hunting isn’t bad either.
I am quite sure that many of you carp fishing fanatics do not know who I am, so let me introduce myself. My name is John Kelley; I live in Madison, South Dakota, am 40 years old and have been fishing since I was four. I must admit, for many of those fishing years pursuing different species, I never really gave the idea of angling for carp much of a thought. That is, until the US Army stationed my new family and me in Kitzingen, Germany for three years in 1993.
Being a fishing nutcase, I of course, had my rods and tackle sent over the pond and quickly started to learn everything I could about how to obtain my German fishing license, and what there was to fish for in my area of Bavaria. I never, in my life, would have thought that the most sought after fish in all of Germany would be the Carp. When I went into the fishing sections of the German stores, every single cover of every fishing magazine had a picture of some guy holding a gigantic, bloated looking Mirror or Leather Carp. Then my landlord introduced me to his non-English speaking buddy who loved to fish, named Bobby, but pronounced Boby. Through sign language, an American/Deutsch dictionary, and finally through another of my landlord’s friends, Alfred, Bobby and I were able to share some fishing stories, and plan our first outing. Bobby brought me to a spot on the Main River near Kitzingen, where a small stream entered the mighty Main River, and I caught my very first European fish, what the English call Bream. I’ll never forget Bobby laughing at my tiny 6.5 foot long walleye rods, and asking me if they belonged to my 5 year old son!! They were quite enough rod for those 2-3 pound Bream, though, and that stopped Bobby’s laughter. I could go on and on about my German fishing tales over the next 3 years, but let’s just say I gained a new respect for what I had always considered a trash fish growing up. I never caught any large carp in Germany, in fact most of them were around the size of a dinner plate, and I would catch a few odd 5 or 6 pounders, from time to time. My last year in Germany, I finally caught a 20 pound mirror, which was almost as big around as it was long. That was my largest European Carp, and it really got me to thinking about our American Carp.
Like many of you, I had read that 1993 article in the In-Fisherman magazine, by Doug Stange, where he took a couple of English Lads to Lake Mille Lacs, and they had a blast catching more Carp in a couple of hours than they could even comprehend. After meeting many German Carp anglers, and hearing their tales of fishing one section of river for a week straight and having one run, I was beginning to understand how these British guys felt. I also knew that whenever a German Carp fisherman caught a common, or ‘Schuppen Karpfen’, they would go crazy, and take tons of pictures, and call everyone they knew because the commons there were so rare, and indeed were considered a real trophy. Then the wheels in my head really started turning!! I knew that back home 99% of the carp I ever saw were of the common variety, and I also knew that they probably would not be nearly as difficult to catch as they were in Germany, because I did not know of anyone that actually fished for them. I dreamed about hordes of German Carp anglers coming to Minnesota to fish for Carp, with me as their guide. Then the Army sent me to Fort Lewis Washington for 3 years, and my Carp guiding dreams were almost forgotten amongst all of the crabbing, flounder and shark, and salmon and trout fishing taking up all of my spare time.
I was honorably discharged from Army service in 1999, and made my way back home to Minnesota to find a civilian job. It is then that the Carp guiding dream started to recur to me, but only vaguely, and fleetingly. I worked in the Twin Cities for one year, until my company offered me the chance to cover their South Dakota Territory. I started working there, fell in love with the lack of people, and the great abundance of wildlife and fish, and soon moved my family out to Eastern South Dakota, where we settled into a small town within shopping distance of Sioux Falls, called Madison. Madison is a nice little town of 5,000 people, with a small University, and surrounded by lakes. I started off the first year here as I had done back in Minnesota, and pursued the walleye with much fervor. I bought a new boat, made many trips to the Missouri River and nearby Lake Thompson, and really focused on catching these easily caught and quite under-fished walleyes, never giving Carp much thought at all. That was all about to change.
One day, while my brother-in-law, Darin, and I were fishing on Lake Thompson, and having very good luck with the walleyes, I set the hook into something big, really big. We had been pitching ¼ ounce jigs and leeches into a shallow channel, and hopping them along the bottom, usually hooking up with a 2-3 pound Walleye on every cast. When I set the hook into the big fish, I could tell right off the bat that I had hooked a Carp, but it was weird, because I actually felt it pick up my leech and jig, so I knew it was not snagged. The fight went on for a good 15 minutes, with me putting everything I had into my 7’ Fenwick, and 8 pound Vanish line. When the fish finally came to the boat I told Darin to go ahead and net this Carp, as I wanted to see how big it really was. We were both amazed at the size, and at the fact that my jighead was solidly inside of this fish’s mouth. I told Darin that I thought I would like a picture of this Carp because it was so huge, and he gave me a weird look, but complied anyways. When we weighed it on my Rapala digital scale, the numbers settled at 38 pounds even. We never bothered to tape it, so I don’t know the length or girth, but it had a fairly smallish head with a very fat body, suggesting to me a fast growth rate. It is my largest common Carp to this day. Then, like a flood of forgotten memories, my European Carp guiding dreams all came rolling through my head at once and made me get pretty excited. I started looking for Carp fishing sites all over the internet, learned how to tie the knotless knot hair rig, and started fishing for Carp on my home town lakes with a fever! I bought some 9’ long rods from Cabelas, along with a couple of Bank Buddy rod holders, and I was off. This was back in 2001, so I have really only been pursuing Carp seriously for 7 years now. Now that you have an idea of my fishing background, I would like to talk about a typical prairie lake and the conditions that I fish in out here.
The lakes around my area of South Dakota are all very similar in bottom makeup, depth, and fertility. I think they could all be classified as Eutrophic in nature, and are all very shallow and highly fertile. The forage base is also very similar in all of these lakes, consisting of snails, bivalves, several different minnow varieties, freshwater shrimp, leeches, crayfish, mayflies and other aquatic insects. The fish varieties consist of Carp, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, Black Crappie, White Bass, Bigmouth Buffalo, White Sucker, Bullheads and Channel Catfish. These lakes are all very shallow, with a maximum depth of about thirteen feet. The bottom content is generally sand or rock, or a combination of them both, with some gravel. The Carp populations in these lakes are very high, and I am sure they make up for more than 50% of the lakes’ biomass density in poundage. They range in size from 1,200 to 16,000 acres. There is not much for aquatic vegetation in these lakes except for algae. We get plenty of wind out here on the prairie, so these lakes are well oxygenated in the open water months.
Many of the lakes have state parks and campgrounds on them, and they all have plenty of public access shore fishing areas. The normal catch are carp from 12-25 pounds, with an occasional 30 pound plus, and an occasional fish that goes below ten pounds. The best lake for a shot at a 40 pound and a mirror is Lake Thompson. The rest of the lakes all have a few mirrors in them, but Thompson has the most that I have seen and caught. The best bait out here is, by far and away, corn. The carp here can be caught on anything if you throw enough of it out there for chum, but corn is the cheapest and easiest bait to use here. Nothing else seems to mess with corn, you don’t have to worry about small fish stealing your bait. I use Scorpion flavored field corn or maize, as my go to hook baits, and cracked field corn, from the grain elevator, as my chum or groundbait.
I learned a little saying back when I was in the Army, and I think it generally holds true to most things in life, and that is “Keep it simple, stupid”. That is how I approach my Carp fishing, and it leaves me with very few headaches. My approach would probably not work in areas wherethe Carp are targeted heavily, but like I mentioned earlier, most of these Carp out here have never seen a hook, and are very un-sophisticated in the ways of being captured by man. I do use nice Warrior rods, usually a rodpod, Shimano 4500 baitrunners, a release mat, and everything that we as carp fisherman consider essential tackle, like most Carpers do, but on the terminal side is where I tend to simplify everything. I do not use bite alarms either, since I am usually right there with my rods watching every nuance of my line’s movement, and I do not do the over-night sessions. I have read about all kinds of different rigs and experimented a little with some, but I find what works best for me is a very simple bolt rig, utilizing a 3 ounce lead or sinker. My rigs consist of a short hooklength of Power-Pro or Fireline 30 pound line to a number 4 Scorpion X2 hook with a hair. Above that, on my mainline, is a number 2 ball bearing snap swivel, followed by a 3 ounce lead, and a bead and Dacron float stop above that. I use the Dacron float stop and bead to keep my sinker from sliding up my line and providing the bolt effect. After cinching the Dacron knot tight onto my line, I leave the tag ends long, so I can easily re-tighten the knot when it becomes loose and starts to slide. I slide the knot right up against the lead, pinning it between the bead and the snap swivel, and I am ready to bait the hair, and get into the water. If I have not done much pre-baiting ahead of time, I like to use PVA bags filled with cracked corn for my ground-bait, as well as throwing scoopfuls of soaked cracked corn into my swim. I like to use Scorpion flavored corn for my hook bait, because it always has the same color as my groundbait, no matter the flavor. Cracked corn is simply field corn, feed corn, or maize that is run through a grinder at the grain elevator, and is sold in fifty pound bags for livestock feed. What I like about it is that it absorbs water much faster than whole kernel corn, and the Carp have to work harder at vacuuming up all of the little pieces. I can buy cracked corn at my local grain elevator for $6.00 per 50 pound bag, so that makes it an economical groundbait as well. I have definitely done the best using corn for hookbaits. I went through a period where I thought I had to force the fish into eating boilies, but finally came to the conclusion that it just takes too many boilies into the water to get the fish feeding on them, and it was not very economical for me, compared to corn. Besides, they seem to like corn anyways, so I give them what they want. If sweet-corn came with same tough consistency as field corn, I would never use anything else, as the Carp out here seem to really love it the best.
The weather conditions in the summer out here on the Prairie can be trying at times. South Dakota is listed as the fourth windiest state in the nation, and I can attest to that fact. We have many days of forty mile per hour wind, and at least a couple of weeks worth of 60 mile per hour days. The normal winds are generally 15-25 MPH; though and so I must usually pick my swims depending on which direction, and how hard the wind is blowing. Growing up fishing for Walleyes really taught me about fishing the windward sides of the lake, trolling into the windward sides of underwater structure, and anchoring on the windy sides of reefs, to catch the most fish. This is not always possible out here when Carp fishing. When the wind is really blowing hard, I have found it much easier to fish with the wind at my back; both for casting, and for chumming out groundbait. Many days I will be fishing into crosswinds from the west or the east, and that is much easier than fishing directly into the wind. When I have the time, I like to use my boat, and dump at least 200-300 pounds of soaked cracked corn into my swim a couple of days before I fish it, but that generally only happens when I know I have guests arriving to fish with me. I generally just bring 1or 2 five gallon pails of cracked corn down to the swim with me, and start hurling scoopfuls into the water as I am fishing. I wish there were more Carp fishermen that lived close by, so we could get more lines in the water and really see how big these Carp get out here on the Prairie, because it is literally an untapped goldmine of Carp, just waiting to be explored.