Of Shoals and Drop Offs

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Of Shoals & Drop Offs

article and photos by Gordon Honey

SHOALS, the trout's grocery store, and understanding the structure of shoals is crucial for the fly angler, as 90%, of the Kamloops trout food is derived from foraging these shoals. In our interior lakes we are blessed with perhaps the finest shoals of any lake systems in the world. Shoals are those areas that extend from the shoreline to the drop-off, the drop-off being either the gradual or sudden edge of the shoal that ends in the deep-water zone of the lake.

Back to drop-off in a moment. The shoal area begins at the shoreline, typically a shore covered by a tulle bed, reeds or bulrushes this area will be the shallowest of the entire structure and is made up of tulles and fallen timber at the shoreline, creates a habitat for the small fish, fry and juveniles. Trout from 2 to 12 inches thrive and grow in these protected areas of the shoal where food is abundant for them. As we move further out onto the water the shoal gradually deepens, the bottom is made up of noticeable patches of dark and light, the dark being weeds such as chara the light patches are mud or marl. The combination of these two create a virtual food factory producing such foods as dragonfly, damsel, sedge and mayfly nymphs as well as shrimp and both chironomid larvae and pupa and of course the ever present leeches.

Now back to the drop-off area or the beginning of the deep-water zone of the lake. This area is also food abundant, but more importantly provides an emergency exit from the shallow water of the inner shoal. If threatened by their predators loons, osprey and man they can quickly escape to the dark of the deep water.

We can consider the drop-off as the fish's freeway where they can travel, forage or simply hang around waiting for a hatch to begin inside the shoal. As these hatches such as mayflies and caddiesflies begin the trout simply move in quickly and begin to feed. The angler armed with a good pair of Polaroid sunglasses can easily observe these foraging fish as they cruise in these clearwater shoals. Remember the dark patches or chara area, these areas not only provide food but protection as well, the trout with their dark green backs become almost invisible as they move silently onto these dark patches, and therefore protected from the osprey.

Shoals because of their grocery store quality provide we the flyfisher the best opportunity, to catch our quarry, but to produce well conditions must be right, if it is a flat clam day the trout will not move onto the shoals and if they do they are extremely wary and difficult to fool with an artificial fly. A light breeze creates perfect conditions as it provides cover for the trout from their aerial predators. Boat traffic especially gas motors will chase the majority of trout from the shoals. I'm sure you have had it happened to you, you are anchored nicely on the shoal hooking the odd fish and being observed by numerous trollers as you continue to hook more fish they troll closer and closer until guess what, the fish are now back out at the drop-off, in hiding. I remember Jack Shaw telling me that as the trollers move in, cast to the bow of their boat and you will usually pick up the odd fish as they are being pushed or herded by the trollers boat.

Back to shoals. Now that we have a little understanding of shoals, let's consider how to best approach them from an angling strategy.

Perhaps the best place to begin your day on the water is the drop-off. Remember this is the fish's freeway where they can move with some safety from the predators above, it is not only a place of security but also is abundant in the basic food chain, i.e., shrimp, leeches, dragon fly nymphs etc. The drop-off zone is also a staging area, trout will maintain a position here waiting for a major hatch to occur. Positioning your craft, be it a boat or tube, is critical in all aspects of successful angling. It is however, always predicated by our friend and enemy THE WIND. Perfect conditions for anchorage to approach the drop-off would be a nice fife or breeze coming from inside the shoal, in other words an offshore breeze. In this scenario you would anchor half a cast back inside the shoal allowing you to cast out into the deeper water and retrieving back onto the shoal with the majority of your retrieve contouring the grade of the drop-off from deep to shallow and presenting your fly with maximum effect. That scenario is somewhat utopic as we all know as THE WIND will usually dictate our position. Scenario # 2 could very well be the norm with the breeze coming from the deep water to the shoal. In this situation anchor just outside the drop-off or right at the edge, allowing you to cast along the edge of the drop-off quartering the wind, i.e., if you are a right-hand caster then you would cast with the wind off your left shoulder, in this way the fly as you cast it does not become a missile bent on attacking you or your companion. This position allows you to maintain a retrieve always in the correct zone along the edge of the shoal.

When the hatch begins to happen on the shoal itself, it is time to move in, no sense staying on the freeway when the fish are in the grocery store!

Positioning yourself correctly is again critical, if it is a mayfly or a caddis hatch it becomes very apparent where the fish are as their riseforms give them away. One important factor to remember, when there is a breeze on the water, always position yourself up-wind of the feeding zone as trout will always turn their heads into the waves, simply because that breeze and those waves are drifting the food to them so it is important for you to make your cast to allow your fly to be naturally drifted into the all important feeding zone.

One final tip, if a damsel hatch is on, and this is the time of the season for them, they migrate from the deeper water into the shoal heading for the tulles where they will crawl up on to emerge as adults. Your anchorage should therefore be well inside the shoal allowing you to cast toward the drop-off so that your retrieve mimics the migration path of to damsel nymphs. Good luck out there in natures grocery store!!

Gordon Honey      gordon@flyfishingservices.com

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Of Shoals and Drop Offs