Flats fishing the Dirty South

ATLANTA, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND, is not a particularly good fishing town. We have a striped bass run, as well as some nearby mountain fisheries for brook trout, but on the whole, it’s tough being a flyfisher in the Dirty South. When I moved to the city a decade ago, I took a stab at stocked trout fishing (tragic), before quickly turning to alternatives. Back then, there was one resource no one cared to exploit: carp flats. The South is blessed with plenty of oxbow lakes and backwater sloughs, perfect habitat for the ubiquitous, invasive, common carp. Other than a handful of bow fishermen, few people cared that the carp were even here. They didn’t much invade traditional gamefish waters and thus were largely ignored. As a result, they were large, naive, and available. It didn’t take me long to identify a few prime flats. The carp awakening was sweeping the flyfishing world about that time, and several of my friends also expressed interest in casting to these previously maligned fish.

fly fishing for carp

Flats fishing was part of the appeal. All of us had manned the front deck of a skiff at some point or another, whether in the Keys or the Bahamas or Mexico. We respected the guides that poled us around, and we wanted to know what they knew. Here, right in the middle of a metropolitan area, was a chance to fish the same way they did. Full-blown skiffs were out of the question—too big of an investment. Which was fine, because they were probably too big for the water we wanted to fish anyway. We looked at johnboats and Carolina skiffs. Then we heard about microskiffs.

Within three years, most of my fishing circle had acquired Gheenoes—a sort of hybrid of a fiberglass canoe and a tiny bass boat—which we took turns tricking out on long summer nights in our garages, drinking Bud Lights and listening to local country on the radio. We believed, privately, that we were something like our generation’s version of Flip Pallot and Chris Morejohn, who together basically invented the technical flats skiff in the Keys. Our Gheenoes became a matter of personal pride, customized according to our own taste, sense of style, and sense of balance. Poling platforms and tarpon cages are unwieldy on such tippy little boats, but you can pole from a cooler, perched high enough to scan the muddy water for telltale signs of moving fish.

Carp on the flats are a lot like redfish, only harder to catch. On a good day, in clean water conditions (clarity of at least three feet), a redfish angler in Louisiana or Texas, or even the less-productive Georgia coast, can reasonably expect at least a half-dozen decent fish. Carp flats are rarely so clear, and even when they are, carp are just more finicky. You can actually hit a redfish on top of the head with a spoon, and he will still eat; I’ve done it.

Try that with a carp and he will not only freak out, he’ll also dump an alarm pheromone (hypothesized to be something called hypoxanthine-3-N-oxide) into the water. This is the smell of a hurt fish, and it spooks the hell out of all the other carp that might swim through its vapor trail. In other words, missed opportunities on the carp flats have consequences. A good angler, like a slick pool player, can run the table on a flat and pick up multiple fish by carefully selecting his shots and steering hooked fish away from the pod. A bad angler will just bounce fish around like a cueball ricocheting off the bumpers. This phenomenon accounts for why there is such a separation between good and bad carp fishermen.

I’ve seen this scenario play out as I’ve watched my friend Andrew develop as a carp angler. Always a good caster, he differentiated himself from the rest of us through a trait that only the best anglers have: persistence. Over the past decade he has become the wolf of the mud flats, cataloging knowledge on various fishing conditions, water levels, and times of year. He has developed his own flies—wholly unique blends of trout, bass, and panfish patterns. His poling quickly moved from sufficient to stealthy to deadly, looking a lot like the Keys flats guides we set out to emulate.

fly fishing for carp - fly box

The most difficult thing about carp angling isn’t making the cast or spotting the fish, it’s differentiating a fish that is feeding from a fish that is not. Sometimes, carp are just chilling or traveling. Andrew is now a master at spotting the fish willing to chase a fly. Sometimes it can be easy—one day I thought someone had strewn red Solo cups across the flat, until I realized I was seeing the gaping mouths of feeding carp, likely slurping mayflies off the surface. Most days it borders on the impossible, which is why so many anglers blow shots and start those pool balls slapping around the table.

Carp fishing places you, the angler, in a philosophical conundrum unlike most other kinds of fishing. Because carp are perceived as having little or no value by so many, catching them is, in a way, a crucible—a test of one’s inner self-worth. If you land a trophy carp, do you post it to Facebook or text your friends? The general public doesn’t even want to see a carp most of the time. Fair or not, carp have little cachet. Like Tiger Woods post sex-scandal or LeBron James post “The Decision,” a carp’s Q Score is in the negative.

And so, no one but you (and maybe a few friends) recognizes the skill that catching a carp requires—the stealth, the cautious poling, the flies. Carp represent the biggest expression of Man v. Nature that nobody cares about.

On a recent day on the flats, Andrew and I came up against a tangible example of the conundrum that is carp fishing. Conditions were awful; storms had blown through repeatedly, and one of our favorite flats was running a current consisting primarily of stormwater. Beavers have built an elevated colony at one end of this flat, and their entire compound was overflowing like a backyard water fountain. Visibility was nil. And yet, all around us, every time the sky cleared for more than a minute, carp tails blossomed on the water, inviting a cast. That cast needed to be perfect, so that the fly sank straight to their mudding faces. The approach by boat had to be equally perfect, and more often than not we bumped invisible outlying fish, spooking the tailers. Out of many opportunities, we had a legitimate shot at four or five fish, and we managed to land only one—a mirror carp, rare enough to be interesting, but on the small side at only five or six pounds.

In better conditions, on other days, the fishing can be more gratifying—Andrew has landed more than 15 fish in one afternoon. But as often as we explain the thrill of hooking 20 pounds of orange-gold muscle, we still have trouble convincing most of our fellow fishermen to return for a second try. The skill required to consistently catch carp is formidable, and when confronted with such hardships, many anglers revert to the easy out: “Ahh, who cares, they’re trash fish anyway.”

Ultimately, we chase carp for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest: Because they’re there. Carp are the flats fish of the inner South, the Dirty South, far from the glitz and glamour of Miami, or even the cobbled streets of New Orleans. They swim, like us, through both the filth and beauty of our cities. They have been maligned as we Southerners have sometimes been maligned. Southerners can’t avoid seeing the carp as a worthy competitor, and an equal in some respects. And when we catch them, we do text our friends.

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Zach Matthews
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  1. No good fishing in Atlanta? You must not live here or you don’t know crap. Don’t pull this elitist crap and talk about our city this way.

  2. “ATLANTA, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND, is not a particularly good fishing town. We have a striped bass run, as well as some nearby mountain fisheries for brook trout, but on the whole, it’s tough being a flyfisher in the Dirty South”…Wow Zach, I could not disagree more…Atlanta happens to have trophy shoal bass fishing along with a world class Kentucky spotted bass fishery (3 out of 7 IGFA records) and excellent trout fishing (with wild browns) right in the city limits! How dirty can the South be? You are correct in that the carp fishing is excellent as is the striper fishing but you could not be more off base with your first comments. Lefty, Whitlock and Blanton all continue to come back to fish our “not particularly good fishing town” waters. Oh Yeah… Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Fly Fishing loved our fishery enough to include it as a destination in their catalogue too :)`

  3. I obviously have been misled I have always thought Atlanta was a great fishing town! I am a native Georgian and I have traveled to at least as many destinations as the author and find the “Dirty South” fisheries as diverse as many places I’ve traveled in the world! Personally I find the fishing in Atlanta, the Georgia coast, and surrounding areas to be very good to excellent! I’ll have to admit, I’m a bit confused over this one!

  4. Two state record brown trout have been caught on the Chattahochee River in Atlanta one 18lbs in 2003 and the other 21lbs in 2014. I have had a fishing guide service on the Chattahoochee River since 1994 maybe you need a good local guide to help you fish so you can appreciate the exceptional natural resources we have here in the “Clean South”.

  5. I’ve got to agree with the other comments. The ATL is great town to live and fish. River striper, lake striper, hybrid, shoal bass, carp, wild trout, trophy Browns all within a hour or less of downtown. Reds, smallmouth, musky with in 4hours or less. Add to that all of our great guides and fly shops. What’s not to love?

  6. Like the other comments above, I also believe we have an outstanding diverse fishery here in the Atlanta area. I have ran a fishing guide service on the Chattahoochee River for the past 6 years, and it has been nothing but great! Where else can you catch wild brown trout in a metropolitan area with a population of 6 million? Anglers can be fishing for brown and rainbow trout in the morning, carp in the afternoon, and shoal and striped bass in the evening. I disagree with the “not a good fishing town”, I think it is freaking awesome!

  7. The first 3 sentences of this otherwise good article are an unfortunate bit of sophistry. Having lived and fished in numerous regions and cities in this country, I am of the opinion that Atlanta offers a hard to beat combination of mild climate, reasonable cost of living, fabulous career opportunities, and excellent and diverse fishing resources. While the trout waters of Wyoming are legendary for their productivity and beauty, try earning a living there as, say, a lawyer or an engineer. You say that you are a Southerner, well then, show some pride to the readers from other parts of the country, and don’t contribute to the wide spread notion that the south is dirty and unappealing. I challenge anyone to name another city where one can fly fish for 10 lb stream born Brown trout in cold, clear water, 30 pound striped bass in a river environment, and 20 pound carp on the flats, not to mention all the bass fishing that the south is known for, all within an hours drive of the comforts of home. That kind of access is only to be dreamed of by even the most die hard fly fisher in, but is in fact reality for those of us fortunate enough to call Atlanta home.

  8. I live and guide in Richmond, Virginia. Within 1.5 hours west of Richmond we have musky fishing, native brookie fishing, trophy brown trout fishing. Smallmouth bass/catfish/gar/carp/striped bass fishing out the back door, excellent snakeheads and largemouth bass fishing an hour north and striped bass, sea trout, and redfish an hour east.

  9. Cool, but you missed the point of my comment entirely. Trashing one’s hometown on the national stage is dumb, especially when what you said is not true (hence my comments about the good side of Atlanta fishing), and is guaranteed to piss off the local fishing community, as has happened in this case.

  10. I was born and raised in South Florida and was spoiled by the abundance of fresh and sal****er fishing opportunities. I moved to Atlanta 10 years ago and can honestly say the Atlanta fishing “scene” has far surpassed my expectations. Trout year round, stripers on the lake in the fall/winter/spring, river stripers in the summer, carp, spotted bass, shoal bass….all to be caught on the fly rod. No complaints on the dirty south whatsoever here.

  11. Having lived in Atlanta for over 24 years, I couldn’t disagree with the article or agree with those who have left responses any more. Zach you are lost son…Your article seems more like more of a self-serving tribute than a positive for [our] Carp fishing.

  12. I tell people all the time there is no way that I could work inside of Atlanta to have to deal with that traffic! And I don’t… but I will definitely risk driving in the madhouse on a weekday to get to some of the best fishing our state has to offer! The South has a huge variety of great fishing opportunities and a good many of them lie inside the perimeter!

  13. Well, shoot! Another fine fly fishing periodical fails to properly vet their articles. Oh wait, it’s the Drake… and Matthews. Nevermind. As we say in this old dirty south, Delta’s ready when you are, buddy.

  14. I was born and raised in Atlanta and do not agree that we do not have good fishing!
    Being the owner of one of the largest fly fishing shops in the country “The Fish Hawk” I’m sure most of my customers would strongly disagree. With 40 miles of tailwater that runs thru Atlanta and over 4000 miles of trout streams in North Georgia what more can you ask for???
    I know it’s not Bozeman, Mt. or Islamorada, Fl. but its pretty damn good!
    Did I mention all the ponds and lakes for bass and panfish? How about stripers in the river and Lake Lanier?
    Oh by the way we have carp too!

  15. I agree with the above replies regarding our fisheries. But most importantly, I couldn’t disagree more with your statements. Your thoughts on fishing in Atlanta, or rather your lack of success, must be due to a lack of knowledge or experience. You claim to be a writer who loves the sport, but your comments are reckless and ill-informed. Last time I checked, there were not many places in the United States where you could have the opportunity to catch a trophy striped bass in the morning and in the afternoon drive forty-five minutes south to fish the Chattahoochee for wild brown trout. Not to mention the opportunity to fly fish for large mouth bass, Kentucky spotted bass, shoal bass, hybrid bass, white bass, rainbow trout, several species of panfish, and common carp, all within in an hour or less drive time from downtown Atlanta. You should know better than to attack your own local fisheries without the evidence to support your claims. The entire Atlanta fly fishing community, OUR hometown, deserves an apology from you. I hope you think twice before publishing something so ignorant in the future.

  16. Give the guy a break. You critics focus on the first three sentences of a well written and interesting article. And, I fully understand that several of you (outfitters/guides) have a monetary interest in trashing the notion that Atlanta is not a fly fishing destination. Truth is, it isn’t. We enjoy what we have.

  17. These folks aren’t defending it as a destination, they are defending it as a great fishing city. How often do the words great, city and fishing get mentioned in the same sentence…not often. Atlanta is a great fishing city….oh and not all Redfish eat the fly thrown on their heads, at least I have yet to find one.

  18. I have to agree that Atlanta is a great fishing town. And also I disagree with less productive Georgia coast. Georgia is not Louisanna and Louisanna is not Georgia. The State of Georgia is a amazing fishery period. It’s not LA but you can catch monster reds (on foot, not in LA),

  19. The first few sentences of print articles are sometimes called “the hook”. In this case, I think that an otherwise great piece suffers mostly by a poor and inaccurate hook-set…

  20. I don’t typically write ‘comments’ but I feel a need to respond to Zach’s article on behalf of my many friends and acquaintances that have flyfishing related business interests in the ATL that may suffer as a result of this article. Take it from an avid fly fisherman that grew up in Michigan fishing many of the legendary rivers of that great state… The metropolitan area of Atlanta is a wonderful area for flyfishing! With Lake Sidney Lanier for striped bass, largemouth bass, and world record spotted bass (two of the seven current tippet class IGFA world records for spots have come from Lake Lanier); Lake Altoona for hybrid bass, striped bass, largemouth bass, white bass, and spotted bass; the Chattahoochee River tailwater for rainbow trout, brown trout, striped bass, shoal bass, largemouth bass, and carp; the Toccoa tailwater for brown trout, rainbow trout, and the occasional brook trout; the Etowha River for striped bass, and spotted bass; the Soque River with trophy rainbow trout and brown trout; and the Flint River with world record shoal bass, all within two hours driving time of Atlanta, you’d be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area in America with similar opportunities for fly fishermen. In addition to all this great fishing we also have a large community that supports, and is supported by, flyfishing in Atlanta. Guides, fly shops, fishing clubs and numerous TU Chapters, all of whom would love the opportunity to show off our great fishery. So if you really want to know if Atlanta is a good destination for fly fishermen, the next time business requires you to head to the Atlanta area, make sure to pack your fly rods and gear, I promise you that you’ll be glad you did!

  21. Come on Zach… REALLY???? “Not a particularly good fishing town.” and it’s “tough being a flyfisher in the DirtySouth”. Those are both pretty bold statements especially coming from a flyfisherman as experienced and knowledgable as yourself. It is really very disappointing you of all people have to start off an article in such a brazen way. To address your first statement yes, Atlanta may not be a mystical far off destination of adventure for which you must travel around the world to get to, but if a flyfisher, or any fisher for that matter, is looking for a well rounded place to search out a large number of different finned species all within an hour drive from their front door, then I say you cannot do much better. But what do I know. I believe I can say I have done a little bit of traveling around the world and have fished a few different destinations but I don’t recall ever being able to fish as many different species within an hour travel from my primary destination. Maybe that doesn’t create what you consider a “GOOD” fishery but I sure enjoy it. “Tough being a flyfisher in the Dirtysouth”. You totally lost me on this one. I really don’t know what to say. To me there seems to be a damn strong community of fishers here in the “Dirty South” who enjoy what they have, which is a lot of great fisheries, and are not afraid to share them with others to experience as well. I don’t know what makes that so tough. I really am just confused by your statements though so please feel free to reply to anything I have said. I really would like to hear why you feel so inclined to share what you have. What could have possibly been a decent article about carp fishing has been ruined for me by just a few statements. For you to live here Atlanta for a decade in this situation is horrible. I personally feel sorry for you.

  22. Tha Atlanta area has great fishing opportunities for those who look for them. I understand wanting some recognition, but be careful what you wish for.

  23. What is the best color backing for Atlanta carps? Or should I worry more about the reel? Rod? Is there any particular rod that really lays it down?

  24. Atlanta isn’t a good fishing town? Maybe it is the angler and not the town. Maybe that’s why you are just recently seeing carp as a query for fishing. There are a few guys that have also replied here that have been putting Atlanta carp in the net for over a decade let alone countless other species.
    Maybe next time before bashing an amazing fishing town and then spilling the beans on what was somewhat of a hidden gem in town you should open your eyes and try to realize just how good we have it in regards to fishing in and around Atlanta.

  25. No offense to Zach but cone on. For South Atlanta striper, bass, state record trout, and being just an hour from wild bookies what more could you possibly ask for. This kind of thinking will never make sense to me. Look at all of the great fishing stories that come from here. You can also sat that it’s the guide services saying it but half this town fishes. I think it is very cool to show the great carp fishing but it’s a shame to putthis recourse down when it is thriving.

  26. I just caught my first pooper in the second largest city in the US, now that is something that TRULY no one cares about, Atlanta phishsh

  27. That’s kind of the thing with blogs these days though. Anyone who writes something is a “blogger” and therefore it demands some kind of attention or recognition. However, the person writing the article, no offense, I am not from Georgia, may not be the best person to be seen as an ambassador to their area or the sport for whatever reason. But, being naive or inexperienced may be a couple of those reasons. Its okay though, you learn and move on. Blogs are super watered down these days and there is a staggering amount of incredibility. The same may be said for guides. I put up a website and now I am a “guide.”

  28. Another Johnny Carp lately. Maybe we should give him a break he does have a blog, which is full of great gear reviews of stuff he probably got for free. The old saying don’t shit where you eat definitely applies here. Lawyer’s don’t surf.

  29. After living in the greater ATL area for 8 years and fishing quite a bit, I would have give ATL fishing a solid B rating. I definitely wouldn’t go to ATL just to go fishing, but I do try to go fishing there when I return to visit. ATL isn’t a “particularly” excellent fishery, but it is probably one of the better urban fisheries (both warm and cold water) around. There are some horrific drawbacks to fishing in ATL though: 1) the traffic is something out of a Stephen King novel, 2) yuppies gear up behind their freshly waxed Mercedes Benzs while smoking cigars and talking about golf, 3) Lake Lanier allows ocean-going yachts to troll the shores which create tsunami-like wakes that swamp smaller vessels and 4) unannounced dam releases can make your life flash before your eyes.

  30. There is a difference between hating on our local waters and admitting that they are not the best that is out there. Zach simply did the latter and it was misinterpreted and blown way out of proportion. I fish with Zach and I know that he has no less love or respect for our water than any of you do. Our fishing community losing their minds and getting petty and personal over one comment does way more to hurt our reputation than anything Zach said in his article.

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