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Bill May: Bonus carp and catfish

Joe Bruce, our pioneer, used our standard carp gear to take this channel catfish.
Joe Bruce, our pioneer, used our standard carp gear to take this channel catfish. (Bill May photo)

I guess it would be a bit grandiose to compare our discovery of the great fishing for carp and catfish on the Upper Chesapeake Bay tributaries with Columbus’ alleged “discovery” of “the new world.” But it was a discovery of a new world of fishing for our little gang and shared the ignorance and serendipity of the first Columbus voyage.

Ever on the lookout for new snakehead fishing opportunities and aware of snakeheads being caught on Susquehanna flats, Joe Bruce began about a year and a half ago to look for kayak snakehead fishing opportunities in tributaries of the upper Chesapeake. (A major incentive was avoiding the tedious commute to the Potomac River below District of Columbia.) Having taken hundreds of snakeheads in the Potomac, he had an eye for knowing the kinds of weedy shallows that could be productive.

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He had some success in this venture, but felt the current populations couldn’t yet match the Potomac.

But on a trip this summer he came across a flat with big groups of carp. He quickly decided this was worth exploring and called Mike Seal.

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Mike had been shoreline fishing carp waters in Maryland and Pennsylvania for several years and introduced several of our gang to bait fishing for carp. (Billy Zeller in recent years had been taking big carp in Loch Raven and Pennsylvania sections of the Susquehanna by sight fishing with flies he tied on dropshot rigs. This is a very demanding type of fishing.) Joe felt the rivers he was exploring usually lacked the clarity required for sight fishing.

So Mike lent Joe one of his carp rigs and they began kayak fishing for carp. After a few successes, they invited me, using Mike’s third carp rig.

Using Mike’s specialized tackle and techniques this trip was another success. So the carp and Joe and I were all hooked. We invited a couple of more friends and began experimenting with places and tackle and technique innovations.

A second surprise we discovered after those initial trips was that we began catching channel catfish mixed in with the carp using the same baits, tackle and tactics. So far a typical good day would yield double digit numbers of carp, in the 6- to 12-pound range, with the biggest 23 pounds, and equal numbers of channel catfish in the 3- to 6-pound range with the biggest almost 10 pounds.

Mike Seal, our instructor, with a big carp.
Mike Seal, our instructor, with a big carp. (Bill May photo)

All this is new to us. What other surprises are in store?

But here are some things we’ve learned so far.

Tides: Moving tides are necessary with outgoing tides usually, but not always, a bit better.

Stealth: Carp are often spooky. The stealth of kayaks are a big advantage. This also allows for short, accurate casts.

Anchoring: We all quickly learned to use two anchors. First, it keeps the kayak from swinging allowing for good line control and for casting to the same area. Second it mitigates being dragged around by big carp.

Pack baits and rigs: We’re still using variations of basic pack bait formulas Mike Seal gave us, but there are a plethora of homemade recipes on the internet as well as commercial formulas. Many of the latter are advertised as effective for catfish as well as carp. Our experience shows these claims are likely valid.

We use “method sinkers” and specifically the “EXC method feeder sinkers” that come in a four-pack. The diagram on the package shows the setup: the line is run through the feeder tube of the sinker, a small swivel tied on then a leader and hook or “hair rig” added. With the leader, corn, treated or artificial corn, or a dough ball or a boillie, is added. We prefer a hair rig set up, which places the terminal bait in front of the hook.

In any case, pack bait is loaded into the method sinker, the terminal bait and hook is pressed into the pack bait, and the whole rig cast out.

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Our hookup ratio skyrocketed when we began using circle hooks, specifically Gamagatzu octopus circle hooks. We use size 2 hooks with hair rigs; a larger size may work better with dough ball or boillie setups.

Rods and reels: Mike Seal use specialized rods designed for carp and catfish. The rest of us have done fine with the standard 6½- to 7-foot rods we use with most fishing.

Baitrunner reels are the choice for this fishing. Let the fish run a bit on the low drag setting then simply start reeling which engages the fish fighting drag and sets the hook.

With standard baitcasting or spinning gear and hooks, somehow feed slack line to the fish then tighten and set the hook. Keeping the boat from swinging is even more critical with this tackle.

Chumming and Extra Chumming: With the pack bait and method sinker approach, the sinker and bait ball disperses bait into the area of the cast and creates a chum spot. Typically it may take 15 minutes or more for the fish to find this area. Then keep casting to the same area, which is why you want to make short casts and anchor the kayak, so it doesn’t keep swinging out of position.

Tossing out extra corn to this target area by hand, ladle or dog ball thrower “keeps the pot boiling.” If fishing without pack bait, chumming the area is even more critical to catching fish.

This story is just an introduction to this fishery. The internet provides further information on baits, tackle and rigging. But it doesn‘t have to get complicated.

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