The black canvas of my shoes so hot that it hurts my toes and I’m wondering how hot it needs to be for the glue that holds these waffled soles together to start melting into a chemical swirl of sticky syrup. The temperature is around 106 degrees right now and it should get a little hotter as the day goes on, but right now it’s close to 11:00 AM and I am trying not to get skunked before I have to go to work.
On a day like today it’s clear to me that I would rather freeze to death than burn to death. In the past I had waded out into the deep cool waters of half frozen lakes for this fishing addiction and felt that soothing numbness as my limbs disappear into the oblivion of icy cool water, but on my new home waters there’s no such relief. Still, on a day like today it’s tempting to wade into this murky mess of grass clippings and unidentifiable scum to try and get some relief from the sweltering sun, but my better judgement is telling me it’s a sure way to blow any chance I have left at slipping a hook into the gaping mouth of one of these saurian scaled creatures.
When I lived in Utah, I’d been a big fan of the Provo and Weber rivers and caught my fair share of handsome trout in them, but my favorite thing was dry fly fishing the small creek systems that run through the canyons of the Salt Lake City area. Now in Arizona, I was spending my days in a cubicle solving Identity and Access Management mysteries. I was haunted in day dreams by mountain streams filled with brightly speckled “Brookies” and Rainbow Trout with bands of pink glinting on their flanks in the summer sunshine.
What I’m chasing now, well, I thought these were the kind of fish that you hit with oars at Lake Powell. They were the kind of aquatic game you should take up bowfishing for. I thought these garbage sucker fish should be killed on sight because they were ruining quality fisheries around the nation. Now that I am here I’m seeing them with different eyes, their ancient mailed backs glowing gold in the sunshine as they feed in the shallows of a small pond. Seeing them like this has made me think I’d formed some hasty opinions.
It was sometime in late April that I first cast a fly at a carp with any real intent. I approached the water’s edge to see tailfins swishing lazily back and forth above the water line, their visages rooting deeply in the sediment scored banks, making small sepia clouds that drifted out into the deeper water. I cast a tiny crimson bugger on a tailing fish’s dinner plate and gave it a couple slight strips. When the fish darted toward, it my heart started to race. When its mouth hovered over the fly, my nerves caused me to rip up a “trout set” that sent the fly up to tightly wrap an overhanging branch of a bank-lining tree. I was baffled. When I looked back toward the spot where the carp had been there was a welt rippling on the surface of the water and a foul brown mud cloud sweeping through the area. I untangled my line from the branch and made a few more casts to other carp I found feeding along the bank. I had another take…this time I tried to set the hook even harder and faster and I felt a little something snag the hook. I saw the fish erupt in horror and swim away snapping my 4x tippet with ease. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t hooking these fish. These fish were playing a joke on me. I went home thinking about buying a bait caster and some corn feed to chum the water with so I could catch one and be done with them forever.
A week later I was back in Utah for a quick visit with friends and family. I set myself up for some serious time on the water since Arizona aquatic life was not yielding to my fly fishing prowess and I needed to catch a fish. I landed some handsome bows on one of my beloved small streams… but I found my mind drifting back to the challenge of the elusive “golden ghost” that I had yet to catch. I’d been out sight fishing them at least 6 times now and had only really hooked into 2. I hadn’t even fought one yet, let alone land one. I wanted to catch a carp so badly but my repeated failure had left me feeling like I couldn’t do it.
When I got home from Utah I went back to the carp pond. I could see carp feeding in a shoulder section of the pond. A floating green fascia separating their world from mine lent me the stealth I needed to approach them. I crept up a few feet from the bank and took cover behind a tree. I slowly stripped out some line trying to limit the reel’s squeal and took a cast that plopped my fly down into the path of the feeding carp. When they were right on top of my fly I felt nothing, not even a twitch, so against every ounce of intuition I made a light strip set. The water exploded! It was like someone had heaved a bowling ball into it. The fish ripped line off of my reel as it bolted for the depths of the pond. It was powerful, but nimble too as it darted back and forth trying to free itself. The fight was a flurry of pure terror. I thought at any moment I might lose this fish. I managed to retrieve a small trout net that was strapped to my back and got the front half of the fish into the net. I put myself between the fish and the water and snapped a quick pic, then put the fish back in the water and watched it speed off into the green murk. When I looked at the picture, I was shocked. With all the excitement and adrenaline I hadn’t taken a moment to appreciate the fish or examine the quality of my photo. Just like the battle, my picture was a blur, it was dark with a poor angle. I couldn’t even tell it was me holding the fish! I was disappointed that I didn’t prepare for a better shot. I also didn’t expect the subsequent rush of adrenaline that accompanied my first carp on the fly and now I had ruined the evidence of my catch.
Since then I have been chasing those spooky creatures in every body of water I can find, from canals and local ponds to large bass fisheries around the state. I have been reading articles, watching videos, tying flies, and observing the behavior of the fish, trying to understand them with that same pedantic fervor of any novice angler. So maybe now it’s clear why I’m standing in this blazing summer sun watching the fish feed and waiting for them to sip down a fly. I didn’t expect that moving to the desert would make me a better angler. It’s only now that I realize I didn’t pick up my first fly rod because I thought it was the best way to catch a trout. In fact, I wasn’t even really thinking of trout. It was the art of the sport and the creativity it required that appealed to me. It was the mystery of the water and the forms that live therein and not their definite species that first intrigued me. It was the belief that what lurks below in an alien world could be understood if one put in the time to understand. So I’m putting in the time, on the water and off the water, to understand an under-appreciated gamefish that is worth picking up a fly rod for.