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Fishing The Drop-off

By Bill Luscombe, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


As I rowed the little boat slowly across the water´s glassy surface I stared into its depths for the gentle slope I knew was there, somewhere. The midday sun was beaming into the water and my polarized glasses gave me an excellent view of the bottom. Weeds were abundant and I could see the scuds swimming amongst them. I soon found the drop-off and anchored about 15 feet off its deep edge. With it being close to noon and the sun at its zenith, I didn´t expect a lot of action, but I tied on a #10 Golden Shrimp pattern and began to cast anyway.

Ten casts later I had a strike. Not a hard smash but rather a soft, sucking hit; the type that you often don´t notice until it's almost too late. I set the hook and the fish took off. She was into my backing when she finally decided to stop and take to the air. We fought for about five minutes before the trout finally came to the net, a nice 16-inch Kamloops rainbow.

I fished for another hour but came up empty for my efforts and then headed back to camp. I was a bit disappointed that I hadn´t done better, but after talking to a few other anglers I discovered that I was the only person to have any luck at all. I´d had that happen before, I´d just played the odds.

I started fishing a long time ago, first as a boy with my older brother, then by myself or with a friend or two. One problem always seemed to perplex me every time I arrived at a new lake . . . where to start? It took me years to figure out the answer and for me it is the drop-off.

Many people are puzzled by the same predicament every year. They often waste hours or even days of their holiday trolling around the lake banking on sheer luck. This is totally unnecessary. The problem in such a case is actually two-fold: they don´t know where to start and they are in a hurry to get on the water and start "enjoying" their holidays. The second problem is more easily solved than the first.

When you first arrive at a lake your usual urge is to burst forth from the vehicle, run down to the lakeshore to have a look and then grab the boat and gear and get out on the water as quickly as possible leaving the camp setup for later. You´re much better off setting up camp and allowing the initial excitement to wear off and then getting the boat on the water. With the excitement under control you´re now better able to logically tackle the other part of the problem . . . where to start fishing.

I recommend the following tactic. Load the boat with your fishing gear, leave the spouse and kids on shore, and casually row your way around the lake if it´s small enough or around the accessible parts if it's large. I suggest leaving the spouse and kids behind because this initial scouting will drive them crazy with boredom and they will end up driving you crazy with their whining "Daddy, when are we going in?"

Stay about 20 to 40 feet offshore and use your polarized sunglasses to look search the bottom for weedbeds and shoals. When you find one turn the boat away from shore and row out slowly. Watch the bottom for the point where the bottom drops away into deeper water. Sometimes this is quite abrupt, other times it is more gradual. At that point look up and mentally note a few landmarks such as old snags and things so that you will be able to find the same spot again.

I often follow the drop-off along its length to see the extent of it. Proceed along the shore again repeating the performance for each shoal you find. Some lakes are very clear and the bottom color is in sharp contrast to the color of the water. In such cases locating the drop-off is easy since the bottom stands out distinctly; other lakes don´t exhibit such marked contrast and you have to search out the drop-offs.

This whole process may take hours and if you´re the type of person I described earlier you will find this rather tedious, but it is worth the effort. You can justify it in your own mind by considering the fact that if you weren´t doing this, you´d probably be trolling around the lake with no particular place in mind as to where the fish are and probably have no fish as well. At least now you have a good idea of where to start.

Drop-offs are good spots to fish. They meet the criteria that fish require. They offer dark, cool, deep water that will protect the fish from surface predators, and are a reliable source of food in the form of shallow water insects that often swim over the edge, thus becoming easy prey.

I almost always use a fast sinking line when fishing the drop-offs unless the fish are onto an obvious hatch in which case I fish a floating line.

When there is no hatch on, the fly patterns I prefer to use are a crystal scud, Forbes´ damselfly nymph, D.D.D. (dragonfly nymph), Doc Spratley, and a black woolly bugger. I start with a wooly bugger because leeches make up a substantial part of most trout´s diet and it is included in their diet almost continuously throughout the season. If there is a hatch on I will go with the hatch but I still anchor just off the drop-off. The big fish come in from deep water as the sun sets and the light starts to dim and it gives me first crack at them.

Generally I use the same method to fish the drop-offs regardless of the time of day. I position the boat about 15 - 20 feet off the deep end and there I anchor. I make my first cast parallel to the drop-off´s edge and hand twist or strip retrieve the line back. Then I angle my next cast more towards shore and, with successive casts, I carve out a 180 degree arc until my last cast is sent parallel to the opposite edge. If I don´t get a strike I will move the boat further along the drop-off´s edge and start again. This method allows me to cover a maximum amount of area while presenting my fly naturally, that is, retrieving from shallows over the edge of the drop-off.

Now many fly-fishers may argue that flies like the damselfly nymph migrate from deeper water to the shallows where they crawl up the reeds to eventually become adults. That´s true, but the majority of insects at the drop-off are milling around in search of food (i.e. scuds) and this often causes them to swim out over the drop-off´s edge exposing themselves to the fish lurking below. I have had great success fishing damselfly nymphs as well as many other patterns using this method.

Although I strictly fly-fish, fishing the drop-off areas of a lake should produce for spin-casters and gang-trollers as well. The same principles apply for spin-casting, but gang-trollers will have to troll along the drop-off´s edge in order to avoid snags. Watch out for the fly-fishers too!

The drop-off is one of the primary areas that consistently produce trout. If you take my advice and give it a try I´m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the results. It´s a great place to start.

Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his 42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.

Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner (Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants. He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional forester since 1982.

He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various outdoor magazines in western Canada.

Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association. "Catching fish is not hard. You simply need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like a fish, you will catch fish. It´s as simple as that."


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