When learning how to fly fish lakes or improving your stillwater skills, you may hear other anglers mention targeting drop-offs in order to locate and connect to fish. Drop-offs are productive lake structures that should be considered when making a plan for your day on the water. However, what exactly are drop-offs, how do you locate them while you are on or off the water, why do fish gravitate to them, and what are specific fly fishing tactics that you can use around drop-offs? This article aims to answer those questions and also provide comprehensive insights into effective tactics and techniques for fly fishing drop-offs in lakes. By understanding the behavior of fish and employing specific strategies, you can increase your chances of success and enjoy thrilling fishing experiences.
Before we dive in, this article primarily takes my experiences I have learned from fly fishing for stillwater trout, yet much of what is written here can also be applied to other lake species such as large and smallmouth bass.
What Is a Drop-Off in a Lake?
Simply put, drop-offs are where shallow water transitions quickly into deeper depths which creates prime feeding zones for fish. At times, drop-offs can literally be underwater cliffs, at other times they can be less exaggerated but the change in depth is still abrupt, more like a steep hillside.
To effectively fish drop-offs, it is crucial to grasp their significance and the dynamics they create. Since drop-offs often occur along underwater structures such as ledges, rock formations, or submerged points, these areas serve as natural fish highways, providing both shelter and access to food. Furthermore, understanding the structure of the lake and identifying potential drop-off locations through map research or a fishfinder can significantly enhance your chances of success.
Why Do Fish Gravitate to Drop-Offs?
Fish are often drawn to drop-offs for several reasons, and by identifying and fishing along drop-offs, you can increase your chances of encountering fish that are actively feeding or seeking refuge, leading to more productive and rewarding fishing experiences.
The first reason fish gravitate to drop-offs are feeding opportunities. Drop-offs serve as transition zones where shallow water meets deeper depths, and these areas create a buffet of food sources for fish. The drop-off also acts as a natural funnel, concentrating prey such as baitfish, aquatic insects, crustaceans, and other organisms.
Drop-offs are also strategic ambush points utilized by predatory fish. The sudden change in depth provides them with an advantage. They can patrol along the edge of the drop-off, concealed in the deeper water, and wait for unsuspecting prey to venture out from the shallows. When prey comes within striking distance, the predator can swiftly attack, using the deeper water as concealment.
While predatory fish use drop-offs to ambush prey, these areas can also be places of protection and security for other fish. The structure of a drop-off can have plenty of nooks and crannies for fish to escape potential predators, and the nearby deeper water is an additional buffer against harsh environmental conditions. Fish can retreat to the deeper depths when they feel threatened or seek shelter during unfavorable conditions, such as extreme temperatures or excessive sunlight. When conditions are more favorable, and when fish need to feed, they can move back into the shallow water.
Around drop-offs, there can be a significant gradient in oxygen levels and water temperature. During summer months, deeper water tends to have higher oxygen concentrations (up to a point), which is crucial for fish survival and they may seek relief from warmer surface temperatures by moving to the cooler depths along the drop-off. Much of the food may still be within the shallow water nearby, so fish may not stray far from the drop-off because it gives them quick access to feeding areas. On the other hand, in colder weather like the beginning of spring, fish may seek out shallower water where the temperature is relatively warmer. This shallow water heats up much faster than the rest of the lake which increases the food supply and fish will again use drop-offs to quickly transition to these grocery stores. This is especially true during the time right before spring turnover.
Lastly, drop-offs can act as navigational aids for fish, guiding them along as they move between different areas of the lake. They may not linger too long around a drop-off, but they still may use this fish highway to get to a specific cove or deeper trough of water.
How to Locate Drop-Offs in a Lake
Before you ever hit the lake, one of the more important planning tools you can utilize, which will help you to have success while on the water, is to review the satellite imagery and depth map of the lake you plan to fish. A depth map (also referred to as bathymetric maps) measures the depth of bodies of water like lakes. These maps are similar in appearance to topographic maps used for navigation on land.
When you review the depth map of your lake, pay attention to the where contour lines converge closer together. Contour lines on these maps show changes in depth, and anywhere these lines are closer together can be a potential drop-off. Take a look at the images below, the first is an aerial map of the lake and the second is the depth map laid overtop:
Looking at the depth map, we can see the contour lines which are set at five foot intervals. Spots where these contour lines are spaced further apart are indicators that the lake gradually deepens. On the other hand, spots where the contour lines are pressed closer together indicate drop-off locations.
We can also see these abrupt changes in depth when looking at the aerial view of the lake. Shallow water is more lightly colored and the deeper water is darker blue. Places where this color change is sudden denotes our drop-offs.
Now that we have studied our depth map and aerial imagery a little, we can begin to pick out drop-off locations for us to try when we hit the water later.
Choosing Drop-Off Locations and Tactics While Anchored
Looking at the next image, we have several drop-off locations to try while fly fishing from an anchored position:
In Spot A, there is a long drop-off that quickly plummets from five feet to around twenty five feet. The shallow water is quite narrow so fish may not venture up into that water often. However, this area could be a good highway that fish travel as they navigate down the lake. The boat in Spot A is anchored right along the drop-off so that both anglers have a casting lane to present their flies parallel to the drop-off and in front of any traveling fish (denoted by the orange fly lines). Sinking lines, like a Type III to VII, could effectively get your flies to depth where the fish might be. While retrieving your flies, vary the speed between hand twist retrieves and quick 6-8 inch pulls, and add in the occasional pause as well to imitate the erratic movement of baitfish.
Spot B is still a drop-off but there is additional broken up structure that was only visible on the aerial map when compared to the depth map. This structure (in this case large stacks of rocks/boulders) has built a great ambush zone that can pin prey between the boulders and the drop-off. The boat in Spot B is stationed in deeper water in order to avoid spooking any fish that may be hunting in this area. Here, an intermediate line could work well in order to expose the flies up and over the broken structure in order to resemble vulnerable prey.
In Spot C, there is a nice point of land that drops abruptly into deeper water. The point of land could be large enough that fish would move up and feed in the shallow water. However, if we suspect the fish to be in deeper water (due to sunlight, warmer water temps, etc.), then we would want to anchor the boat on the point which will allow the anglers to hit three sides of the drop-off where fish might be stationed. At this spot, sinking lines (intermediate all the way to Type VII) can be used, the more critical part is hanging the flies before the end of the retrieve. In other words, once there is about a rod's length of fly line left in the retrieve, you should hang your flies right along the drop-off. This can give any pursuing fish the last bit of motivation to attack a piece of food before it disappears up and over the lip of the drop-off. Adding a jigging motion during the hang can also produce explosive results.
The island in Spot D is essentially a three-sided drop-off but it is large enough that the anglers can only focus on one side of it. Yet, where the boat is anchored has allowed the anglers to cast over the acute angles of the island's drop-offs in order to present their flies to fish that are unaware of the boat's presence. Hover or intermediate lines could both work well here in order to keep the flies from being dragged down into the island structure.
Lastly, Spot E is a more subtle drop-off that pinches in close to a large, shallow cove. This pinch point may act as a natural funnel to fish moving in and out of that shallow cove. There are multiple anchored positions that may be used, and in this particular case the boat at Spot E has chosen to anchor more in the cove, and this allows one angler to target the funnel while the other casts into the shallow water for any fish that may feeding there (the boat is also stationed in the sunlight which gives the anglers a chance to target all of the shaded water). For the angler targeting the funnel, a sinking line (intermediate up to Type V) can be used, and for the angler focusing on the cove a hover, midge tip, or floating fly line will help keep the flies up off the shallow bottom.
In addition to the spots above, there is also another location:
The cliff line above the water has a slight curve in it which creates a point that juts out into the lake. The cliff line extends under the water (as seen on the depth map by the very compressed contour lines) so fish may only be moving along this cliff. However, this point of land could be an ambush spot for a large fish and an accurate cast could produce exciting results. So, while this spot my not warrant extended time to stay anchored at, it may nevertheless hold one hefty fish lying in wait, and a cast or two could answer that question.
There is another condition that may entice fish along this cliff line and that is during a windy day. Wind-induced waves can push food items (baitfish, chironomids, scuds, zooplankton, etc.) into these cliffs/drop-offs and concentrate it for the fish, thus making prospecting this area more valuable.
Drifting (Loch Style) Tactics for Drop-Offs
Besides anchoring near drop-offs, another tactic to employ is drifting loch style along a drop-off. Fishing loch style along a drop-off is often a Goldilocks situation where conditions need to be just right: you have a prolonged drop-off that runs in a relatively straight direction, and you also have wind that is blowing consistently parallel to the drop-off. When these condition align, you can efficiently cover water along a drop-off.
When fishing loch style in this situation, the boat will drift parallel with the drop-off with the bow or stern facing perpendicular to it. The anglers in the boat will then be casting in front and to the side of the boat as it drifts along the drop-off. The image below demonstrates this:
In this example, once the drift is established, the angler on the bow of the boat is able to cast into the shallow water and retrieve their flies over the drop-off. A floating, midge tip, hover, or intermediate line can work here. The bow angler can also cast parallel to drop-off as well with a faster sinking line. The angler in the stern position will cast their flies into deeper water and retrieve them back towards the drop-off. A Type III-VII sinking line will work for this angler, or if fish are higher in the water column feeding on emerging insects then an intermediate, hover, or midge tip line can work.
In this example, one of my favorite lines to use while loch style fishing is a parabolic line. This line travels underwater in an arc and can present your flies to fish that may be stationed along the drop-off at various depths. However, whichever line you decide to use, just remember to allow the flies to hang near the end of the retrieve.
If you are in a float tube or pontoon, you can also drift loch style. In a float tube, you can typically just use your flippers to slow your drift down. In a pontoon, you can use a drogue, and here is a great video by Phil Rowley to watch on how to set up this rig.
Lastly, if you do not have a drogue, then trolling along the drop-off is definitely worthwhile. However, you will most often spook fish that are further up on the water column so using faster sinking lines to get down to fish that are deeper and not yet spooked is a better rigging option.
Additional Fly Fishing Tactics and Techniques for Drop-Offs
Indicator fishing is another tactics to use while anchored near drop-offs in a lake. The idea is to focus more on the deeper water rather than the shallow water above the drop-off. At times, the drop-off depth might exceed twenty feet and this can be challenging for indicator rigs to be effectively utilized. When the depth is twenty feet or less, then I will rig up my indicator set-up so that my point fly is a foot off the bottom, and then the next fly or two are two to four feet further up the leader from the point fly. Of course, this requires knowing what the depth is near the base of the drop-off and that information can be gleaned from either the depth map or your sonar if you have one.
When indicator fishing, I will give my flies enough time to settle down in the water column and then after a minute or two I will give a long, slow pull of the fly line and then pause again. It is often right after the flies stop moving after this slow pull that a fish takes one.
Using a Washing Line Technique
A washing line is pairing a sinking line with a buoyant floating fly, and maybe an additional fly in-between the buoyant fly and the fly line. Take a look at the image below which shows this rigging technique:
In this image, we are using a sinking line (such as a Type III, V, parabolic, etc.) and have a buoyant fly tied in as our point fly and then a weighted (or non-weighted) fly as a middle dropper. This rigging technique gets the flies deep and the floating fly stays suspended off the bottom keeping it and the other fly from routinely snagging the lake bottom. This is a great technique to use when fishing from either an anchored position or while loch style fishing.
Buoyant flies that can be used include patterns like FABs and Boobies, anything with enough foam and/or elk or deer hair to add buoyancy, and I have even used small bass poppers in this manner. Often, that point fly is some sort of attractor pattern that does not really mimic any particular food source, so I will at times tie in a second fly that imitates a food that I think may be available to the fish (leeches, baitfish, chironomids, scuds, etc.). This middle fly can be also weighted or non-weighted, and if regulations where you fish allow then you may even be able to tie on a third fly as another dropper. The spacing of these flies is around four or five feet in order to allow enough separation during the retrieve.
When you are in an anchored position, it is important that you prospect as much of the water around the boat before you pick up anchor and move on to another spot. This means not only casting in different directions but also changing your fly line out to strike different depths of the water column. Fan casting is also important while fishing loch style, although you are more limited to casting in front of the boat or out to the side (depending on the speed of the drift).
Gear and Fly Recommendations
Already in this article we have covered some fly line recommendations to try out when targeting drop-offs. Needless to say, drop-offs can require an entire spread of line options from fast Type VII sinking lines to midge tip and floating lines. When it comes to deciding on which line to use it is best to adapt your tactics and fly line choice based on the specific conditions, the behavior of the fish, and the characteristics of the drop-off you are targeting. Additionally, it is important to know how and be willing to change out your fly line if the fish are not responding. Observe fish activity (or inactivity), adjust your retrieve, presentation and depth, and be open to experimenting with different lines until you find what works best for the given situation.
When it comes to fly rods, I normally use a 10ft 6 weight fly rod for most stillwater applications when going after trout. Any fly rod in the 5-7 weight and 9-10 foot range is a good rod to use for the tactics covered in this article. I just prefer the long rod because it roll casts better, provides a better 'hang' at the end of the retrieve, and I can fight fish and keep them away from anchor lines. A heavier weighted rod is also nice if you find yourself doing a fair amount of loch style fishing because you will be making a lot more casts with two or three fly rigs and the heavier rod won't ware your arm out as quickly.
When it comes to fly recommendations, the answer is all over the board and patterns can be dependent on the food sources and current availability in the lake you are fishing. However, I quite often use at least one attractor pattern when fishing the deeper water around a drop-off. Patterns like Boobies, FABs, Blobs, flashy streamers, and large colorful/flashy wet flies can all draw a fish in, and if they don't go for the gaudy pattern then they may turn and take the more subtle, imitative fly you also have tied into your rig as a dropper.
(Read: How to Clean Your Fly Line)
In summary, fly fishing drop-offs in lakes can offer an abundance of opportunities to target a variety of fish species. Understanding the structure of the lake, choosing the right gear and equipment, fly selection, presentation techniques, and reading the water and locating fish are all essential components of successful drop-off fly fishing. By paying attention to seasonal variations and fish behavior, anglers can adjust their tactics accordingly, increasing their chances of success. Finally, it is essential to be patient, observe, and adapt to changing conditions to become a successful drop-off fly angler. With these tactics and techniques, fly anglers can master drop-off fly fishing and enjoy thrilling fishing experiences.
Thank you for checking out my fly fishing blog, if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email. Also, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website: FlyFishSpokane.com