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Photo courtesy of Fish Schnitzer

How Denver Anglers Got Hooked on Carp

This month, the city hosts the 15th annual Carp Slam fly fishing tournament, and its success highlights how local anglers have put one of America’s most scorned gamefish on the national map.

What do we really know about carp? Ask your average angler, and nearly 200 years of collective cultural disdain for the grayish-brown, wide-eyed, slow-moving bottom feeders might color his answer. But if you’re Barry Reynolds, a Denver-based fly-fishing guide and author, when you see carp, you see cunning opponents unfairly maligned by notoriously snobby fly anglers.

“In the early 1990s, when I was doing fly-fishing seminars around the country, I started to introduce a little bit about fishing for carp,” Reynolds says, “and I’ll be honest with you, people would walk out.” Nearly three decades later, carp’s reputation among fly anglers has changed. Far from being smeared as dumb, ugly bread eaters, they’re now considered to be intelligent fish known for putting up fierce fights. There are Instagram hashtags, Facebook groups, and even glowing write-ups in the likes of Field & Stream devoted to fishing for them—and Reynolds and a Denver carp tournament have played central roles in that rebranding.

For his part, Reynolds quite literally wrote the book on the pastime. Published in 1997, Carp On The Fly outlines the techniques Reynolds developed in the early 1980s as he and his friends explored the urban portion of the South Platte River; it’s a standard for anglers looking to target the often misunderstood fish. Slowly, the South Platte became a mecca for carp fishing as more and more local casters realized that instead of driving an hour or more to battle the crowds on one of Colorado’s famous trout streams, they could be tussling with river monsters averaging eight pounds just 15 minutes from their front doors. (For comparison, landing a six-pound rainbow would be the catch of a lifetime for many trout hunters.)

Then, to help show off his hometown river, Reynolds—sometimes called the Carpfather—served as a consultant for the Denver chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization, as it launched the inaugural Carp Slam fly-fishing competition in 2006. The contest pairs amateur anglers with professional guides to compete for some serious prizes, including pricey fly rods, Colorado-made reels, and $1,000 for the largest carp caught by a nonprofessional.

Anglers compete in the Carp Slam on the South Platte River. Photo by Russ Schnitzer

“The current Slam is probably the biggest carp-on-the-fly tournament in the United States in terms of fundraising,” says Patrick Mapes, founder of the fishing blog Urban Anglers USA, a pro competitor, and general manager of this year’s 15th anniversary event, which takes place on October 23. “We have people come from across the entire country to participate.”

To enter, contestants raise donations from friends, family, and other anglers, which Trout Unlimited then gives to various restoration projects along the South Platte, from water temperature monitoring stations to research efforts looking for strategies to keep trash out of the waterway. With more than $20,000 raised in 2020 alone, the competition has become an important part of the coalition of nonprofits, municipal governments, and federal agencies that have transformed this section of river—once described as an open-air sewer—into a fishery worthy of its own chapter in New York Times contributor Chris Santella’s book Fifty More Places To Fly Fish Before You Die.

In a way, the tournament and Reynolds have been too successful. The more popular the urban South Platte becomes, the harder the carp are to catch. And Reynolds? Well, he’s never won the competition he helped inspire. “I think I’ve come in second seven times,” he says, “and I had a few years where I didn’t catch anything at all.”

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