Flies that work for carp (and how to make them catch fish)

In this chapter I will discuss various flies and the methods I use to catch fish with each. Note that all the flies photographed in this article have been used and abused and look scruffy to the human eye; interestingly, the more fish they’ve caught and the more beaten up they get, the more the fish love eating them:)

These are not the only flies that will catch carp, but they are my favourite patterns and I usually come right by using one of these when I’m on a carp fishing outing. My fly boxes sport a number of these patterns in different sizes – and weights, which is applicable to the Black Zulu and Bloody Squirmy; I often include carp flies into my arsenal of flies when I go on fishing trips due to the abundance of these fish. I have come across carp on numerous trips when fishing for other species, even when targeting trout in rivers.

Black Zulu

The Black Zulu fly is THE carp fly and every serious carp angler should have a few variations of this pattern in the fly box. Mark Krige and I discussed the magic behind this fly for catching carp years ago and he rightly pointed out that there is great contrast between the black body and red tail of the fly. There is no doubt that carp show a preference to flies with contrast between a dark body and a red tag or red tail. I have tried various contrasting colours, including black and chartreuse, black and yellow and black and hot orange, but the black and red patterns beat the other colour combinations hands down.

The Black Zulu can be tied on a variety of hooks, but I prefer size 10 stainless hooks (Mustad 34007 series hooks work well for this purpose). Although fairly ‘soft’ due to its high stainless steel content, this hook has the correct weight to drown heavily-hackled versions of the fly when casting to fish in open water, and enough weight to ‘sink’ lesser-hackled versions when dipping fish in shallow water on calm days. It also lasts a very long time (in other words, doesn’t corrode easily), even after using it in estuaries, such as Kleinmond Lagoon and Zandvlei.

A lead or tungsten bead may be used as additional weight to the stainless hook on the Black Zulu for dipping carp in thick weeds, in slightly deeper water or on windy days. The fly should then represent a mini-loodkoppie (lead-head jig) and may be used for fish feeding up to two metres deep. Slightly bigger versions can be tied for this purpose; I would suggest a #6 – 8 short shank hook. Remember, even though carp (and especially big fish) have large mouths, they are inclined to feed on small food particles. The odd carp may be caught on large streamers, but the majority of fish will accept small flies (tied on #8 – 12 hooks).

The two variations (weighted and non-weighted) I use most frequently consist of a black dubbing or chenille body with a black soft hackle collar and a short red wool tail, or a body identical to the ZAK fly with a red wool tail, respectively. The original ZAK nymph’s body consists of two strands of stripped peacock herl, two strands of normal peacock herl, a black hackle feather (with short hackle fibres) and a strand of crystal flash twisted together in a ‘noodle’ after being tied in above the bend of the hook and wrapped around the shank of the hook to form an iridescent, life-like body (as described by its creator, Tom Sutcliffe) – adding a black hackle fibre is optional with a carp fly. Both work equally well, but the ZAK-bodied version is deadly for catching picky fish in murky or slightly turbid water – these fish will often reject the plain Black Zulu (tied with black dubbing or chenille), which is the hint to change to the ZAK-bodied version.

Note – when dipping carp with weighted or non-weighted flies, remember to ALWAYS fish the fly with an off-set angle, almost horizontal with the hook pointing upwards when hanging on the line, straight down below the tip of the rod. The jig-knot or the ‘snag-less’ loop knot (https://themissionblog.com/?p=9525) may be used to prevent the fly from changing its angle to the knot; alternatively, the fly’s angle should be checked and corrected every now and again if attached to the line with a clinch knot.

A heavily-hackled, non-weighted Black Zulu fly with a ZAK-style body

A heavily-hackled, non-weighted Black Zulu fly with a ZAK-style body

A non-weighted Black Zulu with a sparse collar hackle and plain black body

A non-weighted Black Zulu with a sparse collar hackle and plain black body

A Black Zulu tied "loodkoppie"-style with a heavily weighted tungsten bead

A Black Zulu tied “loodkoppie”-style with a tungsten bead


Red-butt Woolly Worm

The Red-Butt Woolly Worm was originally designed to catch other freshwater fish species, but a modified version of this pattern works exceptionally well for carp and especially big fish. A fishing companion of mine, Gerald Penkler, came up with a variation that works surprisingly well for skittish carp – especially those temperamental river carp and/or the experienced lunker carp.

Gerald ties it fairly sparsely on a #10-12 scud hook and he doesn’t add weight to the fly. He also adds a thin red chenille loop as the ‘hotspot’ above the tail of the fly. I didn’t have much confidence in this fly at first, but after catching a 15 kg carp on it (33.33 lb) and several incredibly fussy river fish, it changed my whole outlook on carp fly fishing. It opened the doors for catching fish that generally turned my fairly bushy Black Zulu’s down – a frustrating experience, since I had nothing else in my box that could replace the Zulu patterns to get a positive response from these fish. My mind-set was such at the time that I didn’t consider tying a smaller, more slender and sparser fly on a thinner hook for a more subtle presentation to successfully target picky fish in fairly clear, open water – which actually makes a lot of sense thinking rationally about it (or by comparing it to flies for picky trout in clear water for instance).

The light weight means that it does not easily penetrate the surface of the water, but once it does, it sinks very slowly, giving the fly a lot of ‘hang-time’, which I believe (in addition to contrast and size) is one of the keys to success. Simply wet the fly well before fishing with it and when casting to fish, ensure that it penetrates the surface – watch the fly. If it floats, drown it with a short, hard strip or recast the fly with a slightly harder cast to purposefully drown the fly. This is a ‘sight-fishing-only’ fly and should be used in clear water, when casting up to thirty metres to cruising or feeding fish. The behaviour of the fish will give away the take; I’ve noticed that a slightly delayed strike, even after you believe the fish has eaten the fly, results in more successful hook-ups with fish.

A properly messed-up Woolly Worm - the fish displayed in the photo at the bottom of this article was caught on this fly

A properly messed-up Woolly Worm – the fish displayed in the photo at the bottom of this article was caught on this fly


Girdle Bug

The girdle bug, or at least the version I will be discussing here, was described by MC Coetzer. MC used this fly to catch Clanwilliam yellowfish with fairly good success. After trying it out on ‘Clannies’, Mark Krige and I used it to catch (also with fairly good success) several other fish species, including sawfin, witvis, smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish, largescale yellowfish, Breede River redfin, Clanwilliam redfin, tench, smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, rainbow and brown trout, and last but not least, carp. We were so surprised by its success that Mark jokingly remarked: “Fish eat the fly to kill the ‘ugly-looking thing’ before it multiplies”. All these fishes accept this ‘ugly’ fly on a dead drift, as it slowly sinks to the bottom of the river/dam.

The ‘original’ colour combination (the fly that MC described) consisting of black chenille and hot orange legs is the one I’ve caught the most fish on. I prefer it in sizes 8-10 (standard shank nymph hooks), but smaller girdle bugs (#12) work well for skittish and/or river fish. I have seen carp swim over a metre to eat this fly, which makes it fairly unique if compared to other fly patterns. The fish in the Orange River are particularly fond of it, where I’ve caught smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish as well as carp on it by swinging the fly across and down the current and by casting to visible fish feeding in shallow water.

A black girdle bug with hot orange legs, a great fly for all cyprinids

A black girdle bug with hot orange legs, a great fly for all cyprinids


Bloody Squirmy

The Bloody Squirmy is a weighted bloodworm imitation that has the desired amount of movement to entice takes. I fish it along the bottom when carp can be seen grubbing in the sediment in fairly clear water. The fly should be cast out over a feeding fish and allowed to sink down in its feeding lane or in its window of vision. It can be twitched or lifted slightly and dropped again to entice the take, or to make sure the carp has seen it – it may take a carp grubbing along the bottom some time to spot even a well presented fly. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to try it, I believe that this fly will also work well when dipping carp in all water depths (as shallow as a few cm up to 2 m deep).

The Bloody Squirmy

The Bloody Squirmy

Note – when casting weighted or bead-head flies to sighted carp, do not ‘plonk’ the fly into the water right above the fish. Cast it well over and slightly ahead of the fish and strip it back on the surface before dropping it down into the feeding lane or window of vision. Avoid shiny materials in carp flies; carp generally do not respond well to flash in flies.

The Red Butt Woolly Worm strikes again! The author with a river carp caught on a Woolly Worm

The Red Butt Woolly Worm strikes again! The author with a river carp caught on a Woolly Worm

One Comment

  1. Andre Van Wyk 10 February, 2015 at 14:45 - Reply

    Thanks for this post Leonard, great read and a ton of info for us new Carpoholics…. tied up a few Squirmies over the weekend, and a couple Girdles which worked well for me on Saturday getting an eat when everything else was refused point blank…
    Need to add some of those Zulus and Wooly bugger variants…
    Thanks so much for the share!

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