Somewhere between early and late fall in the walleye belt is a relatively short period that could be easily classified as the Twilight Zone, where nothing is as it seems. It’s fall turnover, a phase in which time seems to stand still and most anglers run into a brick wall—primarily because they misunderstand much more than they know about the phenomenon and its dreaded effects.
What is known, of course, is that turnover literally flips a walleye’s underwater world upside down, from top to bottom. During summer, lakes that are deep enough stratify as surface waters warm, separating the water column into distinct layers, with the warmest, lightest layer—the epilimnion—sitting atop the cooler, heavier metalimnion layer, which rests above the hypolimnion.
The onset of cold weather in fall cools surface waters to the point that they become denser and heavier than lower layers, turning the water column upside down and allowing all of the lake’s waters to mix. The mixing process is more pronounced if turnover is accompanied by a hard wind.
The annual phenomenon is notorious for bringing a hot fall bite to a screeching halt, and the passing of time seems to be the only cure. But you can still catch walleyes—and lots of them—during the turnover period. Here’s how.
The Real Cause
The first step is changing your perception of why turnover typically causes tough fishing. Most anglers believe the mixing process itself is the culprit, but a more likely cause is simply rapid temperature change.
Remember that fish, as cold-blooded creatures, are subject to their environment—they must physically adjust to new conditions. This is a chemical process, and it takes time.
To get a better idea of what a quick drop in temperature can do, think back to the last time you absent-mindedly dumped a bunch of minnows into cold water. If it was cold enough, they probably went into shock, and most if not all likely died unless you quickly brought them back up to their prior temperature. I learned this the hard way a long time ago after icing down a couple hundred dollars worth of redtails on my way to a tournament, only to find them doing the backstroke an hour later.
The same principle plays out for walleyes—and all fish for that matter. Once you understand this, you can start to get an idea of how to beat it.
At the most basic level, that means you need to fish waters that haven’t yet turned over, or those that have but have had time to stabilize.
For example, although rivers don’t turn over, they generally cool faster than lakes, shallow or deep, and should probably be the first to be avoided in the event of a rapid cool-down. Small, shallow lakes would be next on the avoidance list, followed by large, shallow lakes; then small, deep waters; and finally big, exceptionally deep lakes. In other words, the bigger and deeper a lake is, the later it will turn over.
Especially large, complex lakes, such as Lake of the Woods, straddling the Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba border country, are turnover wild cards, as they can be made up of all of the above. In such cases, you can often avoid tough fishing by simply heading for a deeper or shallower bay off the main lake, depending on conditions.
When the last of these lakes begin to hit the turnover wall, it’s usually time to go back to the beginning and take another look at rivers. Being the first to cool down, rivers are also the first to recover, making them the best place to expect the action to heat back up again, followed by small, shallow lakes, and so on.
Remember that weather dictates turnover’s timing and effect, and that can vary dramatically from year to year. A quick cool-down accompanied by a hard frost can spur the process. A gradual cool-down on the other hand can delay turnover and prolong the process itself, which can extend productive early fall patterns and make it possible to catch walleyes all the way up to—and even through—the turnover period.
The Silver Lining
Professional fisherman and full-time guide Richie Boggs of Nisswa, Minnesota, keeps himself and his clients busy catching big walleyes right through turnover and until ice-up. Not surprisingly, he has unconventional opinions on the period.
“I actually like to see a quick fall cool-down because it gets the whole thing started,” he says. “On a lot of the lakes I fish, tons of walleyes bury themselves in the weeds through our open-water season—that is until turnover.”
Boggs says the onset of the process kicks these walleyes out of shallow weed flats and into deeper hard-bottom areas.
“A lot of guys hate turnover, but it can actually let you easily find fish with electronics in an area where you can finally get at ’em,” he says. “Instead of being holed up in thick cover, they’re out in the open and the action can be incredible.”
So how deep will turnover walleyes go?
“I’ll fish as deep as 60 feet, but I know there’s fish in even deeper water,” Boggs says. “I really like to work deep hard-bottom breaks close to weed flats. It doesn’t have to be rock or gravel, like most guys think—in fact, a lot of my fall hotspots have sand bottoms, although rock or gravel certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Once turnover wraps up and things settle down, walleyes acclimate to their new environment and many of them head back to standing green weeds.
“That’s when patterns set up that aren’t much different than what you might find in spring—shallower weed flats on the north side of a lake are key,” Boggs says. “Like in the spring, it’s a matter of the north side getting more direct sun and the benefit of warmer southerly breezes that can bump up water temps a bit and turn fish on.
“The weeds are still holding plenty of food including immature panfish, perch and minnows, and all of that forage really brings the walleyes back to the flats.”
He targets these fish by rigging the deep edge of the weeds with big chubs.
“I like a bigger minnow in fall because the baitfish have grown up and a super-sized chub more closely matches what the walleyes are eating.”
But Boggs doesn’t limit himself to live bait presentations. He also casts shallow-running crankbaits like No. 5 Shad Raps and retrieves them over the weedtops, especially if it’s windy.
“Weeds can keep producing through the fall, right up until first ice,” he says. “The later it gets, however, the more the action becomes concentrated to just before and after dark.”
Fellow pro Dan Plautz of Muskego, Wisconsin, has also learned to adjust when his favorite lakes are turning over and cooling down.
“When the going gets tough I’ll get going and head for a river,” he says. “River fish don’t seem to be affected as much by cold fronts and colder water temps as the lake runners, so the action can be a lot more consistent.
Plautz typically begins by working deeper holes with a jig-and-minnow but he also finds fish extremely shallow.
“Last year on a late trip to Wisconsin’s Fox River we stumbled into big fish in a foot of water in the middle of the day,” he says. “We caught them pitching jigs and crankbaits into super-shallow water behind main-river rock or sand points.”
On larger rivers like the Mississippi, Plautz uses a three-way rig to help locate fish. His go-to rig consists of a 2- or 3-ounce bell sinker on a 1-foot dropper and a minnowbait on a 4-foot leader.
“I troll downstream if I’m looking for fish, and upstream if I’ve found some and want to work an area over more thoroughly. The key is to keep your line at about a 45-degree angle, which helps you adjust to the current.”
Plautz’s hottest three-way rigging spots include the front of deep holes below a dam, and areas of reduced current, such as holes below main-river points and in front of and behind wing dams.
Get In the Zone
Turnover has a bad reputation, and much of it is deserved, but there are ways to get around the pitfalls and actually beat the beast. So do your part—build a better understanding of the “Twilight Zone,” then adjust where and how you attack your core waters.
Tip For Recognizing Turnover
Water temperature is a big key to detecting the turnover, although a pungent smell and dead weeds and debris floating on the surface are other indicators. Surface temps that fall into the lower 60- to upper 50-degree-range would suggest that you’re headlong into the turnover. The mid-50s would signal the end.
Water clarity might be another clue that the end is near, after which time fishing can improve dramatically.
Brainerd, Minnesota, guide Richie Boggs uses a “canary in a cage” to see if it’s time to fish deeper water. All it consists of is a live bait rig and a minnow.
“I can tell if it’s time to fish deeper water if I can work a minnow deep and it survives. If the minnow comes back dead, then the mixing process hasn’t taken place and there isn’t sufficient oxygen in the deeper levels.”