After the fall turnover, when the turmoil of turnover lake soup settles, you might be asking yourself where have all the muskies gone. All of the sudden, the water starts to get super chilly, and it seems like the fish have all but disappeared. A lot of fishermen ask themselves these same questions and the answer is easier to understand than you might believe, it just requires a little science to get back on track.
You might read a thousand articles each year about lake turnover and what’s happening and why, and maybe it sinks in or maybe it doesn’t, but there is a much easier way to know where the muskies go, just follow the warmer water. Many professional guides and old timers might know this by heart, and bless them if they do, but newcomers or weekend warriors are fighting an endless battle of locating fish in colder weather.
When we follow the 40-degree water, everything comes together and begins making sense. After fall turnover, all of the water is right around 40 degrees from top to bottom in your transitioning lakes. In fact, the water turns over because the surface water cools making it denser and it begins to sink. When the lake normalizes at 40 degrees, turnover will be complete. So, after turnover, when the water is a similar temperature throughout, another cycle begins taking place where the surface water starts to chill from the cold air temperatures of winter.
As surface water becomes cooler, it becomes less dense than the 40-degree water below and simply sits in the higher columns. So as winter sets in, the water in the deeper parts of the lake are actually warmer than the water near the surface. Now we can start to wrap our minds around how to locate the fish. Since the deeper temps are warmer, muskies and other lake fish, will begin staging in much deeper areas of the lakes. As muskies are predatory, the only option becomes the deepest structure or you may even see them stage on the bottom with your sonar.
Deep staging muskies are not finished eating, you will just need to change your efforts. Fishing for deep water muskies, prior to ice up, requires a bit more finesse. You will often see people trolling, jigging, or soaking live bait. Follow their lead and use the same tactics. Check your lake maps and look for good deep water staging grounds, like mentioned, the deepest structure where a sneaky predator might hide or a deep-water edge will be a good bet. Use a line counting reel to make sure you are getting your trolling baits down to optimum deep depths, and don’t be afraid to use some live bait and jig right off the bottom to pull up a monster.
It's sounds contrary but that deep water staging is almost the only way to target predators after the fronts of winter come knocking. You have to be patient, but putting in the time is worth boating the last trophy of the season. Once the ice moves in, you lose your chance in the North Woods, but keep that tidbit of knowledge because the same cycle will happen next year.