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Boreal Community Media

The turnover: Tracking fish as summer turns to fall

Aug 31, 2018 07:57AM ● By Editor

Paul Pollock holds a 54-inch muskie he caught on Lake Vermilion while fishing with his friend Garret in October of 2006. Submitted photo.

By Paul Pollock from Hometown Focus - August 31, 2018

It was a cold October morning with taconite grey skies and a hint of snow in the air. My friend Garett and I were trolling a shoreline break with big crankbaits, when the silence was rudely ended with the sound every muskie troller lives for – the reel clicker making its distinctive sound as the fish hammered the bait.

I quickly reached for the rod, and immediately knew it was a big fish. My heart raced as I began fighting the fish. After a jump, which was an accomplishment considering the substantial girth of this fish, she made her first appearance near the boat. We could see she was lightly hooked and needed to be netted quickly.

I moved her towards the net, and after a couple tense moments, the fight was over. After some high fives and huge sighs of relief, she stretched the tape to 54 inches, with a big girth. After a couple pictures, she slowly swam off into Vermilion’s depths to resume fattening herself for the long winter on whitefish. To this day, that is my biggest muskie in terms of pounds, and still makes me smile at memories of Garett and fall fishing on Vermilion.

As the first hints of fall make their appearance, and the last vestiges of summer start to fade, my excitement builds, as this is one of the best times of the year to fish. The days grow shorter and the mornings colder, as changes are coming within the water column of area lakes.

Late summer and early fall, for a short time, can be simply an extension of summer conditions. The changes may be barely discernible at first, but will become more pronounced as the calendar moves through September and into October and colder weather arrives in earnest.

Muskies will continue to frequent the same rock and weed structure as they have throughout the summer, but will gradually slide deeper as the water continues to cool. As the cabbage weeds die off and lose much of their oxygen-producing capacity, areas with coontail weeds become key, as well as windblown points, islands, and reefs that have produced throughout the summer.

Muskies will also suspend over open water basins much like salmon and lake trout. This is not just a fall phenomenon, as the fish have done the same throughout the summer. The key element is finding pods of pelagic baitfish (whitefish and tullibees) and casting soft plastic baits or trolling big crank baits.

Fall will also bring a gradual movement of walleyes back into some of the smaller bays along with a transition to the edges of the deep water drop offs within main lake basins.

Lake trout will begin the summer to fall transition in their deeper summer haunts, and gradually move to slightly shallower areas adjacent to the reefs and shorelines they will later use for spawning.

Fish which have at times been sluggish will become more aggressive with the onset of the cooler water and turnover. The bite leading up to turnover and after can be very good. For a period of time during turnover, it can be slower, as the fish can become much more scattered.

Turnover is a complicated process, but in the simplest of terms, is the surface layer (epilimnion) becoming cooler and mixing with the middle layer (metalimnion) and then mixing with the bottom layer (hypolimnion.)

As the top layers become colder and more dense, wind mixes the layers and the temperatures become more uniform top to bottom. As the displacement is occurring, bottom detritus from weeds, wood, and nutrients will greatly decrease water clarity for a time, before dissipating and the water becoming much clearer top to bottom.

The very beginning stages of turnover occur when the water temperature hits the mid to low 50s. This will vary from lake to lake and is heavily wind and air temperature aided. The colder the air temperature and the higher the winds, the faster it occurs.

As the water temperature reaches the mid-40s and continues falling, the changes in water clarity and uniform temperatures become evident. I could write an entire article on turnover alone, and its effect on various species, but I’ll digress.

Muskie tactics change somewhat in fall. Initially, many of the standard summer baits such as bucktails, spinnerbaits, topwaters, jerkbaits, glide baits, and soft plastics will continue to be effective. After turnover and its ensuing late-fall conditions, the same structural elements, especially rocky shorelines, reefs, points, and islands will continue to produce, only slightly deeper off the edge of the first break (drop off.)

Later yet, as the lakes approach freeze up, whitefish and tullibee spawning areas (gravel/ rock shorelines and reefs) become go-to locations. Ancillary structure such as islands and points can also be good producers.

Diving into some more specifics on the walleyes, my two favorite fall tactics are jigging and trolling, as they are throughout the season.

From a jigging perspective, look for transition bottom areas adjacent to deeper holes in main lake basins. Mud bottom transitioning to gravel/hard pan/sand will produce fish, much the same as in spring and summer.

Walleye will also be found on bottom in the deepest part of the drop off. Boat position is key. Keep your line as vertical as possible and use a light popping action on the jig/minnow combo. Work these areas with a kicker or electric troller all the way from the deepest water up breakline onto the transition, and move slowly.

Trolling shallower bays, along shoreline breaks, or out in the deep water basins produces a lot of fish. Try the gaudier color crank baits such as Rapalas and Flicker Shads in orange and chartreuse, as well as more natural colors like black, gold, silver, and white. Cover a lot of water, and when locating a concentration of fish, continue to work that area. The fish will still be schooled in specific areas, though randoms can be caught simply by covering water.

On Lake Superior and local trout lakes in September, focus on long stretches of shoreline, adjacent to the shallower areas in which they will later spawn. Specifically plateaus or table tops in from the main lake drop off. Long stretches of mostly uniform depth are areas to focus on.

A simple program of trolling spoons behind downriggers, leadcore, and Dipsy Divers near bottom is most effective, but some lakers can still be caught on inline planers or board mast lines closer to the surface.

I lean towards silver, black, blue, green, and purple color combinations on spoons and stick baits, but don’t hesitate to try some orange and chartreuse colors.

Changes are occurring on the water right now. Cooler temperatures, morning frost, and the visage of fall colors to come all make for some of the best fishing of the year. Get out there and enjoy the best time of year on our area lakes! Have fun and be safe! 

Paul Pollock is an avid fisherman and hunter who has been fishing area lakes as well as Lake Superior and Lake Michigan for more than 40 years. His articles have appeared in Esox Angler/The Next Bite Magazine and Hometown Focus.

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