The Golden Bonefish

February 4, 2009 by  

Our Outdoors
Nick Simonson

Nick sporting the largest fish on a fly to date

Nick sporting the largest fish on a fly to date

It was a heavy Tuesday morning; the air was a humid blanket over the dew-soaked grass. There wasn’t a breath of wind according to the neighbor’s flag. Storms were brewing on the southwestern horizon, and I hoped to get some fishing in before work.

I had walked the dog, like every morning, a mile up and a mile back across the gray and orange bridge on the Sheyenne River near Mercy Hospital. As I looked down from that vantage point into the river I saw no schools of rough fish. In previous days, bullheads by the hundreds and carp by the dozens had patrolled the mirror-like face of the water in search of food – but not this humid morning.

On lunch break the day before, I had tied on a small Carey Special nymph with the hope of hooking up with one of the smaller carp on the edges of the bullhead schools. The wind was high, however, and the carp were nowhere to be found under the choppy surface. I was honestly disappointed, as the sporting quality of carp on the fly is highly touted. I felt ready to test my skills with the long rod against the often-hyped power of the fish, and the immediate opportunity had seemingly passed me by.

They have been called “The Golden Bonefish” in homage to the highly-pursued saltwater bonefish species; a fish which brings to mind travel agency posters of the blue waters, warm sunny skies, and white sand beaches of the Caribbean. This moniker was most likely coined by anglers who majored in public relations, or were retired boxing promoters, to help the carp overcome its notorious reputation as a rough fish.

Carp are not native to the upper-Midwest and were transplanted into American waters in the late 1800s by immigrating European anglers for sport and table fare. A century later, the carp has invaded many watersheds and is regarded as a trash fish, better left on the shore than in the water. But on that humid Tuesday morning, they were the focus of my trip to the river, a star for at least a half-hour or so.

While I returned to the river to try again, I observed a larger carp jumping about ten feet from shore. Excited that a worthy opponent was indeed present, I tied on a new fly, an emerald estaz woolly bugger. A slight breeze picked up, and I remained hitless for several minutes. After a few casts in the shallows, I dropped the fly under a set of trees near a deadfall and an emerging weedbed, just beyond where I had seen some distinctly nervous water. I twitched the line a few times, felt a bump and lifted the rod tip.

The teal line streaked toward the center of the river, much of it disappearing into the depths. I’d seen this several times this spring when a wily smallmouth would dart from the cover of a nearby deadfall and smash my offering. In my experiences, the truly big bass make a powerful first run to the middle of the river. With the surge this fish was on, it could be my biggest on the fly.

Carp or The Golden Bonefish are exceptional fighters

Carp or "The Golden Bonefish" are exceptional fighters

Suddenly, the fish began shaking its head violently as it moved. I expected the tippet to snap then and there. The fish continued downstream. Yards of line peeled off in a blue-green blur, the handle whacked my knuckles repeatedly until I wised up and moved them away from the screaming reel. The end of the six-weight flyrod was doubled over in agony, pulsating with each wave of energy the beast sent up the line. I began to wonder from the head shakes if it was a pike that had walloped my woolly bugger. If so, I was lucky to have it on for so long. I let the reel spin, hoping the razor-sharp teeth would not cut the 3X tippet.

After several minutes, the first run stopped and I began to retrieve the line, attempting to turn the monster’s head. Each gain of a foot or two was short-lived. Time and again the fish surged in runs that blew away any other freshwater duel I could recall. Cars drove by, the drivers looking at the electric arc I held in my hands. Sometimes the rod would pump wildly with the fish, other times it was frozen in full curve as if the leviathan had anchored itself to the bottom.

My forearm and wrist became tired as I attempted to narrow the gap. Six feet of line went out, eight feet came in; then four out and three in. The gains were slow, but the leader connection finally surfaced. I was seven feet away from seeing my unidentified opponent.

A quick shot with the fly rod before it was released

A quick shot with the fly rod before it was released

The fish rolled up to the surface. The early morning sun shone down upon the armor-like rows of golden half-moon scales. The smallmouth-turned-northern materialized into a massive carp – fifteen pounds or more. The fish rolled back under and bulldogged another short run. Just then, a couple was coming across the bridge.

“Looks like you’ve got a big one there,” they shouted.

“I’m hoping to get some pictures, can you help me? It’s the biggest carp I’ve ever had on!” I stated, truthfully, as it was the only carp I had ever had on the fly.

I dug in my pocket and handed my camera over to Bob, a neighbor from across the street and two houses down from my place. He had sprinted the last twenty yards to see the fish.

“Just start snapping” I told him, “I’m going to get a little wet.”

I stepped into the river and shortened the distance between me and the fish, now thrashing in eight inches of water. The estaz bugger was square in the corner of the carp’s mouth, a clean hook-up. I reached down and cradled the fish and held it up.

It was as if I had a 50-inch muskie, a 20-inch smallmouth, and a 30-inch walleye in my arms, all at the same time. The morning coffee surged through my veins, the adrenaline pumped in my arteries and the excitement from head to toe was unbearable. It was the greatest battle on hook and line I had ever experienced. I posed for a picture and thanked Bob for his help as he rejoined his wife on their walk. With a new found sense of admiration I released my opponent on the mud flat and watched her idle away.

That morning, it wasn’t just a carp I did battle with; it was The Golden Bonefish, an adversary that had topped the efforts of all others I had faced off with in the past. The arena was a far cry from the Caribbean, but the excitement was the same. In fifteen minutes the carp had gone from carrion to champion in my mind.

With that experience under my belt, I headed home victorious and eagerly began making plans to defend the title against another gilded opponent…in our outdoors


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