Clockwork Carping: Mulberry Madness - The Fisherman

Clockwork Carping: Mulberry Madness

When the berries begin falling from the trees, carp will readily take berry flies.

Ripe berries drive carp crazy!

Morus rubra produces its fruit in early summer each year. These plants make a berry that transitions from white to red to almost black as it ripens. This may be a little confusing since the tree’s common name is the red mulberry. To confuse further, white mulberry (Morus alba), has infiltrated the range of the native North American tree and even hybridizes with the red mulberry, and neither one is just white or just red. Both trees produce lovely and edible berries with a mild but sweet flavor. And whether the tree is native or not matters very little if ones branches happen to dangle over a body of water with another transplanted species. Cyprinus carpio – common carp – have an extraordinary affinity for the sugary fruits.

The interplay between berry trees and carp is well known in parts of the Midwest, where the trees themselves are more abundant and overlap with carp water more. In the Northeast, the occurrence is a bit less talked about. It does happen though, and the discerning angler can find trees overhanging good carp water and reap exceptional rewards.

Mulberries come in a variety of colors from light green, to soft yellow, to bright reds and some may even appear black. Dave Anderson Photo

The Berry Blitz

The mulberry bite is more akin to a blitz than the typical slow and methodical feeding behavior of carp would ever suggest is possible. They’ve been described as getting almost drunk on the berries, and in some cases the berries seem to have such an impression on the fish that they’ll respond to an imitation of one for months after the last tree has dropped its yield. When the drop is at its peak in early summer, the frenzy beneath the best trees is visually spectacular as dozens of carp race each other to the falling berries. Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be said, but the event creates one of the easiest scenarios in which to catch a carp on an artificial lure or fly.

My personal introduction to the mulberry and carp interplay happened by happy accident. Targeting carp, especially with a fly rod, had long been and obsession of mine. But the mulberry thing seemed distant. Videos and articles would que up, all from the Midwest. Though a mulberry tree in fact grew right at the end of the driveway of my family’s Connecticut home, there never seemed to be any overhanging the carp waters I knew. Years passed without finding any such thing before I moved to a watershed about 100 miles east.

I moved in during the winter and didn’t find the carp themselves until spring. A substantial array of riverine, canal, and pond habitats provided ample opportunity and abundant fish, but I didn’t know just what I was in for until summer arrived. The memory will stick with me forever. Walking the path along a target rich stretch of river, I’d struggled to find success with the fish I was seeing in the shallows. They seemed woefully underwhelmed by any sort of fly presentation.

Then some unusual ripples appeared. They were visible quite far from their source, which appeared to be a relatively clear and weed free stretch of water about 50 yards ahead. Working towards it, the situation soon came into clarity. There was a large tree overhanging the water and berries were falling from it. Below the tree was a school of twenty some carp that weren’t acting at all like the carp I was used to here. These fish were just about losing their minds, rushing to the sound of every berry that fell. My heart rate sky rocketed. I’d just found the mother lode.

Reckless Abandon

That first experience provided an important lesson as well…sometimes you don’t need something that looks anything like a berry to catch mulberry eaters. They are so fired up that they will come to anything that hits the water. That first time, fish were caught on everything from mop flies to classic trout-sized dry fly offering like a Parachute Adams. Such is the madness of the mulberries: when it is really on, the carp get stupid.

Scientifically speaking, carp are actually an exceptionally intelligent fish. This generally shows itself in their feeding habits and especially when you try to get them on anything artificial. They’re downright maddening at times. This makes any feeding event that could cause carp to throw caution to the wind a way to pad the stats a bit. Sure, it’s better to be able to catch them when they’re difficult by having the shear skill and patience that requires, but there’s a near gratuitous level of fun to be had watching them flip the switch and go bonkers.

Though mulberry trees and carp may not overlap to the degree that they do in the Midwest in our part of the country, persistent effort can find the places where it does. My first encounter was accidental, but there are range maps that show where different mulberry species are present. With patches existing sporadically throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts – and carp being a fairly ubiquitous fish – it only takes a bit of legwork and research to find the glorious combination. Recognizing the trees isn’t too difficult, especially when they are fruiting. The leaves are deep green and vary a bit in shape, generally something between teardrop-shaped and glove-shaped but always with a pointed tip. The edges are serrated. The berries grow from the base of leaf clusters in small groupings. Birds and squirrels are often very active around the trees and can make it easier to notice one from a distance. The scattered berries on the ground help too.

Of course, when the tree is ripe and over a waterbody with carp, there can be no mistaking the activity going on below that tree.

The author with a solid mirror carp caught beneath an active berry tree.

Ripe For The Picking

There’s more to the game than simply finding a mulberry tree over carp water and fishing under it when the berries are ripening. Two factors play into getting optimal and easy fishing. Weather plays the biggest roll because it directly impacts the number of berries dropping into the water. For most carp fishing, I want calm and sunny conditions. I have had good mulberry days in that weather, but the absolute best coincide with rain and heavy wind. Both cause the trees to drop a lot more berries, and the more berries are dropping the crazier the fish get. Timing peak ripeness with the day a storm blows through isn’t terribly hard once you familiarize yourself with your trees, and that is important.

I’d love to say that every tree is ripe in the last week of June, but each tree has a different peak. Once you’ve found one, visit it somewhat regularly and log the progression and number of berries. It will differ a little bit year to year, but if you have multiple trees with staggered ripening rates, they will likely match up each season. Simply put, if one tree ripens first before the other one year, expect that to happen yearly. Then watch the forecast for the windiest, rainy day.

Fishing pressure is also impactful. When I started mulberry fishing, I naturally wanted to catch as many as I could out from under every tree. I’ve since learned that doing that will decrease the fishing quality over the course of the season. Carp learn fast. They recognize when multiple of their buddies get hooked and they get more and more shy. The fishing remains better both for yourself and others if you only pick off a few fish each visit. Actions like fighting the fish away from the bulk of the school and only fishing one or two trees a day if there are a bunch in an area also serves to lessen the impacts of individual fishing pressure and keep the action going longer for anyone who may have found one of these magical bites.

A group of carp waits for the ‘plop’ of a falling berry below the branches of a mulberry tree.

Fake Fruits

The bulk of the talk around mulberry carp is centered on fly tackle, and though I’m certainly biased I do think the fly is the best way if you are intent on catching on artificial presentations. The rods of heaviest use are a 9-foot 6-weight, which I fish in most open water scenarios, and a 7-foot, 6-inch 8-weight, which is applicable in tight quarters with loads of potential snags for the fish to get into. Leaders are relatively simple, 6- to 8-feet in length and tapered to 10-pound tippet. The flies are simple spun deer hair imitations of the berries in white, red, and purple on size 4 and 6 hooks.

With spinning tackle, the outfit needs to be able to cast relatively light lures, because the mulberries are neither very big nor heavy and a fast sinking lure will fall out of the view of the fish quickly. Perhaps the simplest “lure” is simply a cut off piece of some soft plastic lure, less than an inch long, oblong, and rounded, threaded and potentially glued on a size four hook. The Fisherman’s own Dave Anderson came up with a more elegant solution: beautifully realistic line-thru berry plugs. Of course, all of this effort in building plugs and tying flies matters not if you are simply trying to catch the fish. Pick a handful of berries and free-line one and you will catch mulberry focused carp even when they aren’t being easy.

Dave Anderson’s line-thru mulberry ‘plug’ drew lots of attention and landed many fish once the design was perfected.

Playing The Angles

How the lure or berry is presented plays into success as well. Carp are very responsive to the “plop” sound the berries make when they fall. Anything landing in the water with the same sound within 3 feet, at times as much as 5 feet, will draw their attention. The fish expect the berries to either float or slowly sink though, so if the imitation has sunk to the bottom by the time they get to the area it landed the carp will lose track of it entirely most of the time. Therefore it is worth landing any sinking lure or fly closer to your target fish.

Another factor is the direction the fish eats the lure. If the fish is facing directly away from the angler, there is a high likelihood that the fish will feel the leader and reject the offering. I typically try to present on ‘my side’ of the fish so that they are coming towards me when they eat it. Free-lining a berry can be done in similar fashion, sight casting to actively feeding fish. One could be still-fished on the bottom under the melee. This is plenty effective and could even catch more fish, but it’s the surface feeding that makes the mulberry event so special. I tend to prefer something that floats. It’s just so much more exciting to watch a carp rush over and slurp down a berry imitation from the surface.

There’s just something about fish behaving entirely contrary to their typical mode. Carp are perceived as slow moving bottom feeders, and that perception does hold up in reality much of the time. They’re also almost always picky, refusing artificial offerings in a way that drives anglers crazy. The fact that the mulberries cause these realities to be turned on their heads is a remarkable thing. The fish start behaving completely out of hand, chasing things down and racing each other to the plop of anything falling into the water. It’s jarring a jarring experience, like seeing your strict high school math teacher drunk out of his mind in a casino. There isn’t much else in the way of naturally occurring forage that seems to have the same effect on carp. It’s like the palolo worm for tarpon, salmon eggs for Alaskan rainbows, or Hexagenia mayflies for big brown trout. The only thing that comes close is periodical cicadas and that happens on a twelve year clock, not annually.

The mulberries drop every year for a couple weeks and like clockwork, the carp lose their minds. If you’re obsessed with this quirky species, you owe it to yourself to experience mulberry madness.



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