Fly Fishing the Olentangy River
I have made the claim and will make it again, the Olentangy is the "LA River of the Midwest." For those of you familiar with carp and urban fly fishing will smell what I am stepping in (and it's not just the river). The Olentangy is a gem of an urban carp river and could rival the cult following that the LA River in California has amassed. But, that is not likely to happen any time soon because for the past several years I have never crossed paths with another fly angler. So why let the "secret" out?
Letting the secret out about carp fishing on this river is, well, not really a secret. The entire length of the river has a bike path that parallels its banks and numerous onlookers have seen the carp that inhabit the waters. More than once I have asked these bystanders to help snap a photo of the carp I have brought to the bank. Yet, I continue to wade the miles of fishable urban water without another fly angler in sight. There is plenty of river to go around, and frankly it could use a lot more river stewards, so I am glad to share what knowledge I have about the Olentangy. Also, beyond carp fishing, this river contains some fun smallmouth, saugeye, sunfish, and rock bass fishing which I will briefly cover.
Before you continue on to the read the article, the only thing I ask is that if you fish the river (or any river) please bring a small bag (like a grocery bag) and fill it up with garbage on your way out. It is an urban watershed and needs some care, it is something we can all do.
Where to Fly Fish on the Olentangy
Along the banks of the Ohio State University is a fantastic place to fish the flats for carp. At the intersection of King Avenue and Olentangy River Road there is a gravel parking lot under the Highway 315 bridge. Park there, grab you gear and walk across the bridge to the bike path on the east side of the river. From there, stalk, wade, and fly fish northwards to Lane Avenue. Like other stretches of the Olentangy, this area can have very consistent and ideal fly fishing water for carp.
Another stretch of river can be accessed at the Whetstone Park of Roses. Wade northwards and although the current is typically 'stronger' here you can find some massive carp feeding along the undercut banks on the outside bends of the river. If you enjoy nymphing for carp, check this area out, but be prepared with stout tippet as plenty of sunken tree branches could break you off. The largest carp I have seen in the river have been along those banks, but they have broken me off every time.
Finally, a third stretch is from the confluence with the Scioto to Goodale Street. You can park at The Boat House restaurant (it is also public parking) and walk the bike path or wade the river upstream. It can be more pocket water fishing amongst the rocks and boulders, but carp will sit in small eddies and be easier targets. Remember the spots you see carp because they frequently return to the same holes.
When to Fly Fish the Olentangy
The best months to fish for carp are from late May to early October. The summer months typically have lower flows so the river runs slower and clearer. Check out the USGS River Gauge at J. H. Herrick Drive (which is just upstream of King Ave) for river flows. If the river is below 200cfs it can be wadable. If it is below 100cfs the carp will really start working the river flats in the morning. If it has been consistently at or below 100cfs for a couple days then the water is about as low, clear, and stable as it will get. Go carping!
Clear skies, no more than a slight breeze, and warm/hot air temps are also key conditions. When all of these factors come together then I will fish the river from 9am to 1pm during the summer months. You could land your personal best carp during these times, especially earlier on in the summer (like June).
Those are the primo conditions to wade the flats for carp, but even when the river is muddy (which it usually is) then bank walking is more effective. With high and off-color water the river is still fishable, you will just need to find a higher vantage point on the banks, look for slow/stagnant water, keep in cover, and then take your time spotting carp.
Another key time to fish the river is when a rain storm moves through the area or north of Columbus. The river will rise and carp will push to the banks and aggressively feed in the weeds. It can be an absolute party with the number of carp grazing on the banks. This is tough to predict, and the window is very short, but it is crazy fun. Just find any spot along the banks where the water is slowly rising amongst the vegetation, because these carp will move in there like vacuum cleaners.
How to Fly Fish for Carp on the Olentangy
Fly Fishing Gear/Tackle for Olentangy Carp
The fly fishing set up that I have preferred on the Olentangy is a 7 weight fly rod, a reel that has decent drag, and a floating fly line. Rather than breaking the bank on the fly reel or rod I put more of my money towards the fly line which would land softly on the water and not aggressively turn flies overs. This helps me to delicately cast the fly (which is more of a glorified lobbing motion) when I am just five to fifteen yards from carp, which is the distance that I hook into most of them. Also, I will use a 9-10ft leader tapered to 1-2x fluorocarbon.
A 7 weight seems just about right for the weight and size of the carp on the Olentangy. It is enough to slow a hefty carp down and turn it away from underwater debris that could break you off. My reel is also simple (around $100, standard disc drag system) and I keep the drag set low. The carp do not powerfully sprint down the river but rather act like freight trains. With the drag set low I can ensure it will not 'stick' while letting line out and if more resistance is needed then I will palm the reel.
When it comes to fly patterns my top three patterns are:
Carp Bitters- sizes 6-8, olive, black, rusty orange, and white/wine colored.
Hybrid Carp Worm- sizes 6-8, black, olive, olive/yellow.
Carpinator- size 6, this is a local pattern that Mad River Outfitters (here in Columbus) convinced me to tie and try out and I have had great results with it.
If you really get into carp fly fishing and tying your own carp flies (which I highly recommend), then it is worth checking out Jay Zimmerman and his book The Best Carp Flies.
Tactics for Carp Fly Fishing on the Olentangy
For general tactics on carp fly fishing I would rather refer you to the Fly Carpin blog which provides a ton of invaluable videos and lessons on carp fly fishing. However, I can provide a few specific tactics that I have used on the Olentangy to help you out.
Find the feeding carp, especially the ones that are aggressively churning up mud clouds amongst rocks in shallow water. Cast your fly and strip it in front of the carp but outside of the mud cloud. If the carp does not initially see your fly just wait for it to stop feeding at its current location, then twitch the fly. The carp will most likely suck down your fly or at least check it out. If you get more than a couple refusals then change colors and then fly patterns.
There can be a lot of river carpsuckers feeding is the same spots as the common carp. These carpsuckers look very familiar to common carp but are very difficult to fool with a fly since they are mostly feeding on vegetation amongst the rocks. I bring this fish species up because I was very frustrated that with the carp fishing on the Olentangy until I realized I was targeting the river carpsuckers. A quick way to identify them is by their more slender bodies, blacker fins, and they tend to not be as spooky as carp (I have almost stepped on some while slowly waded in the water). So do not get discouraged if you are struggling with catching carp, you might be going after the river carpsuckers instead (the good news is that where they are found common carp will also be in the same area).
Try to stay out of the water as much as possible, keep a low profile, and try to stay behind cover. If you are forced to wade in the water then walk without sending up much of a riffle. The carp blend so well into the mud but in shallow water they cannot see as far. You can carefully wade, come upon a carp just ten feet from you, and then make a simple cast to it with success.
Check the bridges and overpasses. Carp will feed around the pylons and back eddies, and at times numerous carp will stack up in these zones.
Walk across the bridges and take your time looking down into the river. I greatly improved my carp spotting abilities by spending some time watching the river, spotting a carp, then watching its feeding behavior and movement.
Look for coves of water that are surrounded by shallower bodies of water. Carp love to move into these areas and feed for only a few minutes. You can find stretches of river that have cove after cove with depths no more than a foot or two with carp moving in and out of them. The rockier the riverbed the better.
Other Fish Species in the Olentangy
Finally, fly fishing the Olentangy is not just limited to carp. Without making this an overly long article (than it is already becoming) I will just list out some species and common places to find them on the river. Smallmouth bass can be caught north of the confluence with the Scioto since they will hide in ambush amongst the boulders. The stretch of river from King to Lane Ave is also decent. Besides that, anywhere the river constricts and has a moving current is worth prospecting, especially directly downstream of the current in the eddies.
Saugeye can also be found north of the confluence with the Scioto. The Dodridge Dam (north of Dodridge Street) can also hold some numbers of saugeye. They can be lethargic on the Olentangy so slower retrieves are a bit more necessary. Rock bass and panfish can be caught throughout most of the river. Small poppers and streamers are effective for catching these fish when targeting the slower pools and eddies that have nearby current.
Beyond what is listed above, there are over ten miles of the Olentangy within city limits with plenty more places to explore and catch a variety of species. Add in a kayak or paddle board and the river really opens up.
The Olentangy River may be passed off as another midwest muddy urban river, I sure passed it over before finally giving it a shot. Yet, my personal best freshwater fish have been pulled out of its current, and that was just a fifteen minute walk from where I lived. These urban rivers and passed over watersheds are all throughout, and might offer up some exciting and fun fly fishing experiences for you as well.