Fly Fishing for Carp: Location and Timing
Where and When:
Where is relatively easy. Most bodies of water contain carp. All the Finger Lakes, the Canal system, the Susquehanna, Chemung and Mohawk Rivers, Oneida Lake, the Great Lakes, carp are truly everywhere! The New York DEC even has a page dedicated to carp fishing.
In the immediate Ithaca area (Cayuga Lake), popular shore fishing spots include:
Beyond basic location, where to fish depends on your timing- what season you're fishing in. It's easiest in the spring when the carp are stacked in a few locations, and when they spawn. After the spawn, the carp disperse into the warming lake waters and weed growth becomes an issue.
Shallow flats. Most common at the North and South ends of the Finger Lakes. Prime carp spots will feature big shallow flats with cat-tails and emergent vegetation. Look at maps to find the largest shallow area of the lake. The steep sides of the Finger Lakes mostly limits these areas to the extreme North and South ends. A small creek that enters a shallow flat will be an excellent source of food and warm water for the carp and worth a first look. The presence of cat-tails is almost always a good indicator of good carp habitat. On the water, look for mud trails or large mud slicks. In April, find last years cat-tails and you'll find this springs carp!
In Cayuga Lake the entire area North of the railroad tracks is an early season carp's wet dream- acres and acres of one to three feet of water with a soft mud bottom. Once the weeds come up this area is difficult to navigate. The Canoga Marsh on the West side of Cayuga also holds large numbers of fish. On Seneca Lake, the Catherine Marsh, canal, and South end fishing pier are good spots. Fly fishing for carp off the pier would depend on luck (fish being in the area) more than other spots, but other species are certainly possible too. The North end has plenty of fish as well- start looking in the "corners" of the lake.
The spawn. It's May, and carp are in the same locations, just with a little more lovin' on their minds. Those shallow muddy areas are prime spawning habitat, and as the water reaches 60 and above the carp begin to spawn. These fish will not be your target: it is not worth casting to actively spawning carp. They are certainly fun to watch as they squirm through 6" of mud or heave themselves out of the water, but getting one interested in your fly is hopeless unless you tie a two-foot carp-tail fly and try to turn on a horny carp. The strikes would be savage!
Given that the carp spawn is such a group activity there will certainly be fish in the area who are willing to take your fly. These fish won't be as noticeable- they'll be the proverbial flies on the wall, hanging alone, perhaps tailing quietly, ideally foraging on the bottom. These are the carp you should look for.
While the spawning fish often seek out water shallower than themselves, the feeding ones do not. Nor do they bask in the sun: if you spot a carp or two resting near the surface, it's doing just that, resting, and any approach will simply scare it off. What you want to see are tails up and noses down- a sign the carp are rooting for food. Even at the height of the spawn, with carp splashing everywhere, there will be some who either finished or have yet to start- the task is ignore the showy fish and concentrate on finding feeding carp.
Summer through Fall
It becomes much harder to fly fish for carp in open water in the summertime. In the lakes, weed growth has taken over the shallows and carp can easily bury themselves. Food sources are numerous and "matching the hatch" isn't as easy, though nymphs and woolly buggers should still catch plenty of fish. River fishing may be a better bet during the summer.
I spent a good 20-30 hours last summer trying to catch carp in Cayuga and failed completely. My best guess why is a relatively simple one- by June the lake trout were in shallow and I was fishing for them! I'd only go carp fishing when the lake trout bite died- high sun on calm days. These are tough conditions to catch anything. This summer's goals include patterning carp past June- when I do, I'll update this section, but for my money the hottest and best action is April and May.