There I sat surveying one of the many schools of carp as they cruised the shallows of a small inlet. I watched on quietly, not moving muscle, as small puffs of sediment rose off the bottom in the crystal clear waters. It suddenly dawned on me that I knew all about the best man-made carp baits from corn, boilies, pellet baits, pack baits, scents, attractants, hemp, etc., but I thought, what are the foods that carp naturally eat in the wild?
What Do Carp Eat?
Carp are omnivores, meaning they eat both aquatic vegetation and other bottom-dwelling creatures. Carp are very well adapted to locating high-value food sources both visually and by taste. This makes it very easy to target and catch them with a variety of different baits.
Foods that Carp Naturally Eat in the Wild
Always the opportunistic feeder, carp will feed on a variety of things. Once a food source has been found, carp are pretty likely to return to the location often and create habits that anglers have developed tactics to exploit. One such example are areas where people feed waterfowl bread and birdseed, if one looks closer, one will see carp using the same area feeding on the leftover bits on the bottom.
One good sign of carp feeding in the wild will be clumps of aquatic vegetation floating or washing up on shore. When the carp feed vigorously, they stir up the bottom, often dislodging aquatic vegetation. Full plants with roots intact can be found floating on the surface. Carp will feed on the roots, main plant and also seeds of aquatic vegetation.
While foraging in weedy areas, carp will often forgo eating the actual vegetation and instead focus on invertebrates that are using the vegetation as cover.
Like most other fish species, carp will not pass up the opportunity of a leech as a meal. I have been told by bass anglers that they have mistakenly caught carp on imitation leech baits.
Snails and Other Crustaceans
Just like clams and mussels, if a carp happens upon a snail or other crustacean, its molars will make quick work of the protective shells that these creatures use as defences versus most other predators.
Fresh Water Clams & Zebra Mussels
With the Carp’s naturally powerful molars, it is able to crush the shells of mussels exposing the edible flesh inside.
Detritus is decaying plant matter that has built up on the bottom of some water bodies, usually at river mouths where the fast-flowing current deposits the detritus in calmer waters. Carp can be seen sifting through detritus, picking up invertebrates and edible plant matter then discarding the inedible morsels with their accordion-like mouth.
Nuts and Berries
Carp will frequent areas with overhanging fruit or nut trees. Fly fishermen have also been known to target carp with imitation mulberry flies in such locations with much success.
Many times while fishing on calm days, I have spotted carp slowly cruising the shallows. They slowly creep to the surface to inhale dragonflies, damselflies or any other surface-dwelling insect with the tell-tale suction-like sound.
Being a bottom feeder, it is no surprise that the carp will feed on other bottom-dwelling creatures such as crayfish. Crayfish are fairly large compared to other foods carp forage for this is one creature that would be high on the target list.
Carp have been known to feed on other live or dead fish. Anglers have even had success catching carp on imitation minnow baits.
Being such a large fish, carp are required to eat often and in large quantities. Perhaps this is why carp will feed on such a variety of items and try or taste most objects before actually ingesting them.
How do Carp Find Food?
Although Carp eat many different things, at times, they can be quite fickle about what they eat. Often one can see carp ingesting food that they find only to see them spit it back out again. Carp will repeat this process over and over while they test whether objects are edible or not.
The Common Carp is a naturally well-developed forager. They have many features that greatly aid them in their search for food and determining whether it is edible or not. Carp feed on the bottom of bodies of water the majority of the time, but when conditions are right, they will use their natural senses to locate and feed on objects in a myriad of other locations as well. Some of these features are:
Two whisker-like barbels jut out from the sides of the carp’s mouth, and two more are above the carp’s mouth. They aid in the search for food. These help the fish find things directly under its mouth, as this is one of the few blind spots the fish has and can’t actually see.
Once the food is in the carp’s mouth, strong molar-like teeth (located in the throat) are able to break down the food into smaller particles before ingesting it. Even hard prey such as crayfish and mussels are no match for these formidable molars.
As almost every carp angler can attest, carp have an excellent sense of vision. I know from experience while trying to sneak up on carp, even the tiniest movement can spook them. With their eyes being on either side and higher up on the head, carp are granted very well all-around vision.
A long leathery tube-like mouth sucks up sediment off the bottom and separates the edible particles from the debris. It then discharges the debris in a puff and moves the edible bits into its mouth.
The large rounded tail provides excellent propulsion, which is needed for traversing large areas of water in search of food. Even in fast-flowing rivers, carp have no problems maneuvering and pivoting to stop and investigate food sources.
The pectoral fins of carp are more advanced than other species of fish. Carp can quickly adjust their speed with these to slow down and hover to inspect possible meals on the lake or river bed. Carp can also be seen wafting the bottom with their pectoral fins as they closely inspect possible food sources.
With all these advanced senses for detecting natural food in the wild, it is no wonder there are so many advanced carp baits on the market today. From scent attractants to bright neon-coloured baits, there aren’t many that anglers haven’t thought of to take advantage of the carp’s keen senses in aiding them in their effort to catch these formidable fish.
Where do Carp Feed?
Location, location, location!
Now that we have covered what carp feed on and how they find their food, I will touch on where carp find their food.
Carp Food Hot Spots
There are some areas in bodies of water that naturally have an abundance of foods that carp naturally eat in the wild.
Locations where a river empties into a larger body of water are perfect spots for carp to find food. With the change in current, back eddies and calm spots are formed, and the food that has been carried by the current is then deposited in these areas.
Shallow Bays with Deeper Water Nearby
Shallow bays with warmer water are a magnet for carp during the spring and fall. The carp are attracted to the warmer water, if you can find a bay with a deep pocket nearby, it will be a carp magnet. The carp can shelter in the deep area and transition easily to the shallow area to feed.
When current is forced into a river bend, it is naturally faster on the outer part of the bend creating a deep pocket. The edges of this pocket are where the current is weaker, and food will be deposited. Carp move from cover in the deep pocket and feed on readily available food nearby.
Scouting for Carp Feeding Locations
Google Earth is a great tool for scouting possible carp fishing areas. When zoomed in on a selected area, if the water is clear enough, you can spot shallow water and where it drops off into deeper water. I will cover this topic further in this article on Scouting Carp Fishing Locations.
How Weather Effects What and Where Carp Eat
Carp tend to gravitate towards areas in a body of water that provide oxygen, ideal water temperatures, shelter/cover and good sources of food. Weather can play a key factor in these habitats.
In my early days of carp angling, I always tended to fish in calm and shallow waters where I would be able to see the fish easier. Now that I know more about carp behaviour, I realize this was a mistake.
The majority of the time, anglers that set up in a wavy windy location where shallow water quickly drops off into deeper pockets will catch more fish. Rain and wind are two main factors that, at the right time of the year, can turn a relatively slow day into a flurry of action by triggering feeding behaviour. For more information on this, check out our article on Carp Fishing in the Rain.
This is due to the wave action. The waves stir up the sediment on the bottom, making it easier for carp to find food. The natural motion of the waves also increases oxygen levels in the water, thus allowing for greater carp activity.
What Carp Eat at Different Water Depths
Where in the water column carp are feeding can play a key factor in successfully catching a lot of fish and finding out exactly what they’re feeding on.
Carp prefer a variety of water depths for a variety of different reasons. They prefer deeper water for protection and shelter from predators, they like to suspend mid-water column when weather, water temperature and food conditions are right, and they also enjoy the shallow water for basking in the warm sun, finding abundant food sources and breeding. If you can find locations that provide most of these characteristics in a small area, you will surely notice an increase in carp activity and the amount of carp that you will catch.
Carp Feeding on the Bottom
The majority of the time, carp can be found cruising on the bottom of lakes and rivers. Most of the foods carp naturally eat in the wild can be located here, and it is where most anglers target the species in general. Foods that carp naturally eat in the wild on the bottom include crayfish, mussels, snails, aquatic vegetation and small invertebrates. There are a lot of man-made baits for targeting carp that feed on the bottom, including boilies, corn, pellet baits, pack baits, hemp seed, worms and bread. How to fish these baits will be covered in greater detail in future articles.
Carp Feeding Suspended in the Water Column
On occasion, carp can be found feeding in the middle of the water column. This happens when the vegetation or bottom substrate is not conducive to carp feeding. When feeding on foods mid-water column, carp are usually targeting taller vegetation or nymphs that are hatching and making their way to the surface. In these circumstances, it is best to use baits that suspend in the water column, such as pop-up rigs/boilies, suspending imitation flies while fly fishing or using a float with a sinking bait hanging from it.
Carp Feeding on the Surface
On warm, calm days, carp can often be easily spotted basking in the sun near the surface of the water. Some foods that carp feed on in the wild on the surface include damselflies, dragonflies, water striders, floating aquatic vegetation and hatching nymphs. When they can be found easily by sight, it makes for some exciting angling opportunities. Carp rarely feed on the surface, but if one can entice a carp to take a fly or imitation bait with a fly rod, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in carp angling.
Active Water Temperatures For Carp Feeding
In my experience, water temperature can be a huge factor in the feeding habits of carp. Optimum water temperatures for feeding carp are as follows:
In conclusion, Common Carp are well adapted to locating food in their natural environment. I hope this article was informative and aids in your angling adventures trying to catch these amazing specimens.
If you’re searching for more information on bait, be sure to check out Improved Carp Angling’s Guide to Carp Fishing Bait.