Hook and leader avoidance: how to fool educated fish.

What the carp hole carp can teach us about fishing for educated fish

In two years fishing the carp hole I discussed some of the lessons I’ve learnt fly fishing the same same spot for carp over an extended period of time. In this post I’d like to delve a little deeper into some practical lessons that have come out of those countless hours. Specifically learned hook, fly and leader avoidance and how we can use those lessons fishing for other species in other environments.

First off a little background. When I first started fishing the carp hole, the carp were naive and easy to catch. When I started, the rig I used was a 9ft leader, usually terminating in 10-12lb tippet and pretty much any of the flies I happened to have (glo bugs, wooly buggers and the like), which at the time wasn’t many. Fishing to those naive carp, this was more than adequate. At the beginning I had most success with gaudy patterns, glo bugs, hot head nymphs, purple flies. They all worked a treat. They attracted attention and fish actively swam over to them meaning presentations didn’t always have to be exact and the “dinner plate paradox” could sometimes avoided simply by casting a bit further away from the carp. Given my fly fishing talents at the time that was a blessing. Those were the days.

Hanging out
Hanging out

They didn’t last long though. Pretty quickly the carp wised up to anything too gaudy. At first it became harder and harder to get eats, refusal rates skyrocketed. For a while you could still present a fly, have a refusal change flys and get an eat. Pretty quickly though that  stopped and instead of just refusing a fly, carp would flat out spook as soon as they saw a pattern that they “recognised”. From there I moved to more and more naturalistic patterns. Smaller patterns, more muted colours, browns, greys, olives and the like, sometimes with the odd big of peacock herl for some “bling”. Those flies caught fish and worked for longer, changes in flies become far less common because the carp were far slower to wise up to them. My leaders slowly increased in length, 12, 15, 18, 20ft and decreased in weight as I moved to fishing 3X and 4X tippet most of the time rather than 1X or 2X.

Then, slowly refusal rates started to climb and climb and then suddenly the carp stopped eating my flies almost entirely (if I got them in a great “mood”, sometimes I’d catch one). Unlike the experiences with gaudy flies in the past, this was a little different. As long as you managed a good presentation, they would react positively, sometimes racing over like they had a strong desire to inhale the fly. And then, they would stop a few inches from the fly and turn away. This happened hundreds of times, over and over and over. I went back to the vice, tried lots of different flies, nothing changed. So I started further downsizing leaders. Fishing light leaders to big fish definitely has its drawbacks and I was reticent to go lighter than 5X, but given I wasn’t catching fish, I did. So this summer I found myself fishing 7 and 8X (2lb) fluorocarbon tippet most of the time. It work, suddenly I was once again hooking lots of fish in the carp hole, it turns out the patterns hadn’t been the problem. There was a small hitch, I landed very few of them. Light tippets and average fish being 5-6kg, combined with rocks and weed doesn’t make things easy. Sometimes I’d try 5X for a while in hope of landing a few more and they would close their traps once more. Fishing for the carp hole can be incredibly frustrating. To illustrate the point these carp had got to, a mate came down one afternoon to fish bait. I pointed him in the right direction, put him in a spot where lots of carp hang about and then casually asked him what leader he was fishing “6lb flourocarbon” my response was “good luck fooling one”. He looked at me like I was some madman who had been sent crazy by choosing to fish those silly fly things, surely they would eat actual food right? The carp proved me right, despite more than a dozen fish happily munching on the corn and bread in the area, they gave a wide berth to the leader. They did exactly the same thing they did to my flies, they would swim over looking like they were about to eat, stop abruptly and turn away. It didn’t matter what he tried (hook completely invisible etc etc), the “heavy” leader was enough to clue the fish in.

Tough times in the carp hole... Hooked up on the banty. The fight ended in more broken 7X soon after this shot
Tough times in the carp hole lead to strange experiments… Here, I have hooked into a good fish on the banty. The fight ended in more broken 7X soon after the shot

So what are some of the lessons we can learn from my carp. Firstly, if you are fishing heavily pressured waters, it important to remember that over time fish can learn to identify common aspects of specific patterns, leaders and other forms of danger. I’m not going to get into exactly how they might do this, thats delving into things I don’t understand well enough; foraging theory, fish learning, fish personality and a whole load of stuff like that. Maybe one day I’ll tackle it. Just remember that they can. As a fisherman fishing heavily pressurised systems, its important to understand where and when this is most likely to happen? A few things to look out for might be areas that a) have low fish densities but where they are likely to regularly encounter anglers e.g. some backcountry rivers b) places that are heavily fished c) fish that have territories or fish that are unlikely to move into un-pressured areas regularly d) all of the above. If a bunch of those factors (and potentially others) combine, you might find that same “patterns” seen in the carp hole are playing out on larger pieces of water. The problem is you probably won’t be able to notice and break them down so easily. The carp hole is instructive because of its small size and the amount I have fished it. It makes for a small but potentially useful case study (albeit most likely an extreme one).

7X carping. It definitely rewarding, even when its only a little fish like this guy
7X carping.  Rewarding stuff when everything comes together and the fish hits the bank

So if you find yourself blanking on a piece of water where you think this might be going on, what are some things you can do to improve your catch rates?

Go natural. Its obvious, match the hatch to the best of your ability. In the case of the carp hole naturalistic damsel nymphs are still producing fish while while other less natural patterns have long been retired. Get rid of things that fish may use to key in on the fact your presentation might not be natural. Things like flash, gaudy colours, big hot spots, gold beads and the like. Those things work brilliantly in a lot of places, but the cartoonish exaggeration of traits that makes them so appealing in some waters may also work against you when it comes to fooling heavily pressured fish. Giving them something to key in on that is a clear sign your offering isn’t real.

One of many carp hole damsel patterns. Other favourites are Adam Hopes carp damsel, the living damsel, other damsel patterns as well as small soft hackles (size 16 peacock body with green hackle is a favourite) and bushy grey, brown and black unweighted nymphs.
One of my many carp hole damsel patterns (size 16). Other favourites are Adam Hopes carp damsel, the living damsel, damsel in distress, other damsel patterns as well as small soft hackles (size 16 peacock body with green hackle is a favourite) and bushy grey, brown and black unweighted nymphs.

Go small. One of the things that has worked pretty well with the carp, is downsizing patterns. My rationale is that it gives them less to “focus” on. Detail in the bigger patterns stands out, the detail of a size 16 damsel nymph or soft hackle is a little harder to discern. Big may be easy for them to spot but it will also be easy for them to inspect and refuse if it isn’t perfect. So as long as your target species eats small things, it might be better to try and replicate those rather than bigger prey items when fishing for educated fish. If you are using bigger patterns, realism is ticket.

One of my carp soft hackles (size 16)
One of my carp soft hackles (size 16).

Lighten up. To me fishing the carp hole this summer has really hit home how important leaders can be. You can be doing absolutely everything right, but if fish are noticing and avoiding your leader you won’t get a touch. Downsizing leaders really is one of the best tools we have in the box when it comes to fooling heavily pressured educated fish. If you know there are fish about, you are happy with your lure or fly pattern but just keep getting refusals, lighten your tippet. It can make all the difference. To illustrate the point, my parents neighbours in Eden are some of the best bream fishermen I know. They both have numerous stories of fishing for spooky bream where small differences in leader weights were the key to fooling skittish educated fish. Last spring I chatting to them about one of their recent sessions. They were both fishing flourocarbon straight through, 2lb and 3lb respectively. After a few hours the score was 11-1. Same lures, same boat, similar angling talent. At that point rods were swapped. After the rod swap, that flipped and the score over the next couple of hours was 2-8. At the end of their session, 2lb had accounted for 19 bream, 3lb for only three. I have to admit that at the time I was sceptical that such a small change could make such a big difference. After my sessions in the carp hole this summer I don’t doubt it at all. Sometimes leaders can have a huge effect on your catch rates.

Try something different. Early in my time fishing the carp hole, all you needed to do to catch fish that had wised up to a particular pattern was to tie on something different. The carp would be all over it. In many situations tying on a different or novel pattern or trying a new technique can be the difference between a poor session and a great one and could just be the difference when it comes to fooling educated fish. Given fishing tends to have “fashions”, plastics, vibes, certain brands of hardbodies, it makes sense that in some systems, over time, fish might “wise up” to certain lure or fly types. That fact may even be behind some fishing fashions. Sometimes all it takes to fool a fish is to show it something it doesn’t see regularly.

The overriding lesson of all this is fish can learn. As anglers, knowing this and factoring it into our fishing practices should help us catch more fish in some circumstances. Of course, most of the time these sort of considerations probably aren’t all that important. The problem is that when they are, they are. Its in those situations having these sort of ideas in the back of your mind might just turn a slow day into a belter. If that fails, you can do what I’ve done with the carp hole recently. Leave it alone for a while so the fish have some time to forget…

Good luck on the water




Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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