Gary Engberg: Fall turnover can make fishing difficult … but wait

Article taken from Wisconsin State Journal  

I just got finished talking to a fishing guide and good friend, Russ Smith, in northern Wisconsin to check on the early fall muskie fishing action.

Smith lives in Minocqua and guides most of Vilas and Oneida counties for muskie, walleye, and smallmouth bass.

I can always depend on “Smity” for some good information and what are the hot lakes when I give him my fall call. He just told me that many lakes were just beginning to turn over and fishing will be slow for a while until the lakes clear up.

Muskie fishing in northern Wisconsin is now in a state of flux, according to Smith, with the dreaded fall turnover just starting to take place on many of the smaller lakes — before the larger lakes begin their turnover. But it is also important to remember that in dealing with larger lakes all of them do not turn over at the same time. Lakes that are only 20 feet deep and less (such as Lake Winnebago) usually don’t experience turnover and the same is also true of rivers.

Turnover happens when a lake’s water temperature reaches anywhere from 50 to 55 degrees and this magic temperature is different on most lakes. The cool fall nights cool the water’s top layers while the bottom layers of the lake warm. The warmer bottom water rises to the top and turns over or flip-flops, bringing all the bottom’s weeds, algae, and leaves to the top. There can also be green algae foam and a bad smell from the decomposing organic material as the lake turns.

While lakes are turning over, fishing can be the toughest of the year. What is important to know is that not all lakes turn over at the same time and at the same temperature; larger lakes turn over last with smaller lakes turning first; after turnover, the lake’s water temperature will be constant from top to bottom; and the extremely clear water that follows the turnover is one of the year’s best times for big muskies and all gamefish.

Many muskie anglers switch to big and black suckers for their fall fishing. I would suggest suckers from 12 to 15 inches for fall fishing. Most of the good muskie guides that I know in Wisconsin will always pick the blackest and darkest suckers that they can find. I recommend that you do the same.


Next, hook the sucker on a Bait Rigs Quick-Set Rig, so that the fish can be released unharmed after caught. Be sure to have a bolt cutter, a hook remover, and a cradle, so the fish can be kept in the water and released unharmed. Another little tip is to attach a “tail-gunner” on the suckers’ tail. A tail-gunner is a small hook or pin that has a spinner blade on it to attract fish from long distances. Every time that the sucker moves, the blade flashes and hopefully brings in the fish.


After turnover, look for tight schools of baitfish with big hooks under them in the clear water. The big hooks are muskies feeding on ciscos or other forage fish. Cisco spawn in the fall and if they are present, you should be in for some action. In the fall, the best time of the day to fish is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the sun is high and it’s also the warmest part of the day. One or two degrees can make a big difference in a muskie’s activity.

Another good fall technique, where legal, is trolling. Troll the open water basins looking for balls of baitfish and big hooks (muskies) nearby. Good baits for trolling are Depth-Raiders and Grandma Baits in cisco or natural colors (black, silver, and white) or try to match the forage base in the lake you are fishing.

Some good locations for muskies in Vilas County in northern Wisconsin include smaller waters: Armour, Boulder, Clear, Fishtrap, High, Irving, Little Arbor Vitae, Horsehead, Muskellunge, Wildcat, and Tenderfoot lakes. The larger lakes to fish include: Trout, Twin, Plum, Presque Isle, Pokegama, High, Flambeau, and Fence lakes. But fish those later in the season.

In southern Wisconsin, you can fish muskies until the end of December while the season closes the last day of November in the northern zone of the state.

The Madison Chain of Lakes is another good place for fall fishing and they turn over later than the northern lakes. Lakes Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa and Wingra have sizeable muskie populations with 50-inch-plus fish present. The past two years these lakes have frozen over before the close of the season, but who knows what this fall will bring.