Flats Fly Fishing for Carp in the Snake River's Illia Dunes State Park

Updated on September 29, 2019
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!).

"Golden Bones" cruising the flat
"Golden Bones" cruising the flat | Source

Illia Dunes

Season: June-September

Species: Carp

Difficulty: Difficult

"Golden Bonefish." "Bronze Permit." "Sewer Trout." "Overgrown Goldfish." "@$!%&*@#*$@!!." Carp get called a lot of things, but the idea that they can offer a thrilling target for fly fisherman is slowly gaining traction. Yes, they are a far cry from a silvery steelhead leaping in a turquoise rainforest river, but anyone who turns up their nose at this game doesn’t know what they’re missing.

The Dunes are better known as a party spot for WSU students, being the closest thing to a beach in the Palouse. It is essentially a sandy deposit in an eddy on the Snake below Lower Granite Dam, and is favored for its knee-to-thigh deep water with firm sand bottom that extends almost halfway across the river in low water. Its popularity with the party crowd is a mixed blessing at best, as the area is occasionally so heavily littered that it is closed to the public, and the drunken noise of the crowds seems blasphemous for such a beautiful place.

So why am I wasting typing on this as a fishing spot? First, because the crowds can be fairly easily avoided by those that want to. And second, well, carp could be generously called “opportunistic” with their habitat and feeding choices…

To address the first point: the most direct route to access the Dunes is over Lower Granite Dam, which opens at 7 am and closes at 5 pm. The majority of sunbathers have to therefore leave no later than 4:30 pm to get back over the dam, and can’t get to the beach earlier than 7 am. As luck would have it, the hours from dawn to about 8 am and from 5 pm until dark are the best times to find actively feeding carp here, often tailing in the shallow water like bonefish on a tropical flat. If you’re not interested in committing to spending the night here, the alternate route crosses the Snake at Deadman Creek on Hwy 127, meeting up with Hwy 26 in the town of Dusty. Yes, it’s longer, but not overly so, and it allows you to be here when it’s likely to be drunken partier-free.

On the second point: carp have a spectacularly varied palate, and they are just as happy to munch on waterlogged bread, chips, fries, and other “people food” left by the day’s crowd. They are also fond of crayfish, which move into the flats as the sun fades to take advantage of this same bonanza. Once the revelers clear out, the carp move in, following their sensitive sense of taste to feed well into the night and the following morning.

The result is a superb training ground for anyone planning a trip to chase tropical flats species. An angler can practice spotting fish, sight casting to spooky targets in shallow water, have dozens of “shots” a day, and fighting strong, resilient adversaries, all about an hour from Pullman. Even when the partiers descend, the carp are still here in huge numbers, they just move away to the downstream end of the flat (it’s a bit muddier and rockier here, so less popular with sunbathers).

The mighty Snake River hosts some of North America's best fly fishing for carp, and Illia Dunes is a great place to start.
The mighty Snake River hosts some of North America's best fly fishing for carp, and Illia Dunes is a great place to start. | Source

Flies To Use For "Golden Bones"

In terms of pattern, any of the Carp Patterns being tied and created can work, but there’s no need to get fancy to pique a carp’s interest. Dropping a tan or brown chamois or San Juan worm in front of a cruising carp is often all it takes. Time it so that it’s at face level as they lumber by, or so that it’s on the bottom when they get to it, and only give it the slightest movements or they will spook and steam off into deeper water.

Another very productive pattern is a Wooly Worm (remove the red tag from the back if it has one), fished the same way. The rockier areas of the downstream side of the flat are stuffed with crayfish, so small crayfish patterns are an excellent choice as well. I like pale tan, small (size 10 or even 12) Zirdle Bugs. Crayfish are pale tan when they’ve just molted and their shells haven’t hardened fully yet, and are therefore a lot more palatable for soft-mouthed carp. The water here is all pretty shallow, so you don’t need weighted flies, they just make it more likely to hang up on the bottom or spook your target. When in doubt, smaller is better.

When it comes to carp flies, simple is often the best. The tried-and-true Wooly Worm is about as good as it gets.
When it comes to carp flies, simple is often the best. The tried-and-true Wooly Worm is about as good as it gets. | Source

Random Advice for Catching Carp on the Fly

Rub your fly in the local mud before you cast it, and be very careful to keep from touching flies with hands covered in sunscreen, bug spray, lotion, or any other unnatural chemical.

Carp are shockingly intelligent, with large eyes, extremely sensitive lateral lines for sensing vibrations, and a sense of smell/taste that rivals that of a shark or catfish. They will examine your fly not only visually but chemically, and their usual food will taste like, well, mud. Make your fly tastes right, or expect a lot of unexplained refusals.

Strike fast, not hard. NO “TROUT SETS”.

Carp feed with suction, and have soft, fleshy lips. They are even faster than trout at eating and spitting a fly, so you need to be on a hair trigger. If you can see the fish, watch for a flash of orange at their mouth as they extend their lips to create a vacuum. If you can’t, maintain tension with your slowly-dragging fly, and the second you feel resistance, give a short (6 inch) quick strip. If you feel weight, LIFT the rod to plant the hook, NEVER rear back like you’re setting a dry fly on a trout. I can’t tell you how many fish I’ve missed because my instincts took over and I reared back, only to rip the fly out of the carp’s soft mouth or pull it away from them before they could close their mouths. It hurts. NO TROUT SETS.

They can literally smell each other’s fear. Work upstream, and keep moving if you spook a fish.

Your quarry is a member of the minnow family, and is therefore sensitive to “Schreckstoff”, or the “fear scent”; carp that are startled, stressed, or injured release a pheromone that can be detected by other carp. Practically, this means that any fish you scare leaves a scent trail that will spook any other carp before they get in range. Luckily, The Dunes are in a river, so you can get around this by starting at the downstream end of the flat and working upstream. If you scare fish, keep moving.

The 2 Carp Fly Fishing Books You Need to Own

Carp on the Fly: A Flyfishing Guide
Carp on the Fly: A Flyfishing Guide

There isn't a ton of literature on the subject just yet, but it's catching on. For now, these are the two indispensable books you have to have in your library.

 
The Best Carp Flies: How to Tie and Fish Them
The Best Carp Flies: How to Tie and Fish Them

The go-to guide for Carp Chow, covering all things Plant and Animal that carp like to stuff into their gullets...

 

Should You Choose to Accept This Quest...

...expect exhilaration and frustration in equal measure.

There is a reason that Permit, Tarpon, and Bonefish haunt the fantasies and nightmares of so many anglers, and carp are cut from the same cloth. They can be unbelievably spooky, will constantly test your resolve and sanity, will snub you without reason, and leave you with an understanding of why so many people choose to chase these fish with bows and arrows rather than a fly rod.

But the payoff is worth it. The image of two huge fish slowly cruising through knee-deep water, a perfect cast dropping in front of them, the sudden acceleration and abrupt stop of the fish over your fly, the soft peck as the fish finally inhales your fly, the strip set meeting head-shaking resistance, and the initial surging run of a strong fish on a flat add up to an experience that anglers will chase to the most remote atoll on Earth. I got shivers just writing that.

And it’s only an hour from Pullman, all summer long.

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