Targeting Pre-Turnover Muskies
By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
Morning fog enveloped the lake as we looked down on it from our cabin’s window. The thermometer on the deck read 40 degrees, less than half of the air temperature the day before when I’d caught two big muskies in about 15 minutes. Yesterday we’d fished in shorts and T-shirts, but this morning we’d be pulling on all the clothes we’d brought with us.
A cold front had hit like a sledgehammer, but conditions couldn’t have been more perfect. Before the day was out, my friend Charlie Buhler had boated a monster musky. The next day, we raised one of those legendary fish that instantly tells you that you’ll be back to try for it again next year … same time, same place.
The pre-turnover period is rapidly becoming my favorite time for fishing muskies. No matter how tough I think the season has been to that point, muskies always seem to bite during late summer and early fall. It’s a dream pattern for someone like me who prefers to cast when musky fishing, and many of the biggest fish in the lake are shallow. What’s not to like?
During summer, muskies tend to be spread out throughout a lake system, and literally are shallow, deep and somewhere in between. Many suspend over deep water, and exactly how deep depends on baitfish, water temperature and the thermocline. They can be hard to reach.
But as summer turns to fall, water temperatures begin to cool. You can sense it when overnight temperatures are not as warm or humid as they were just weeks earlier. Fog often greets anglers in the morning and dew is heavy on the grass at the boat landing as well as the window of your truck. Usually you can still fish in shorts and a T-shirt during the day, but mornings and evenings call for jeans and at least a hoodie or maybe even a jacket.
Often it’s a big August cold front that really gets things going. Water temperatures that had been in the mid to high 70s will fall to the high 60s seemingly overnight. It’s the beginning of the end of summer, and the muskies know it. Some say they all migrate into the shallows to feed and I have no way of proving that one way or the other, but I do know the anglers who troll over deep water struggle at this time. Those who watch the thermocline with their electronics will see it start to break down, but this pattern also occurs on waters that don’t stratify. Another factor on many waters is an algae bloom will develop. Maybe the muskies don’t all move shallow, but any that are still in deep water usually aren’t biting.
If I had to narrow this period down to a few weeks, I’d say the prime period is the third week of August until the third week of September on the lakes I fish in the northern tier of states and Ontario. Muskies don’t have calendars so they rely on water temperature, and I think the best temperature range for the most consistent fishing is from 65 degrees down to 58. I’m not the one who discovered that temperature range is best, but I’ve seen no reason to dispute it.
A final advantage to this pattern is you’ll see fewer anglers on the water, so there’s less competition for biting fish. Kids are in school so family vacations are over, and hunting seasons summon many. Resorts in many places will be closing down, further limiting opportunity.
So, where do the muskies go in late summer/early fall? If you’re thinking of trying this pattern this year for the first time, always remember it’s a shore-pounder’s dream. The shorelines of the main lake and large islands become my primary focus, as well as large bays along these shorelines. Small islands, mid-lake reefs and humps, and long points tend to be less productive. If the water you’re fishing is stained, think of fishing the zone of six feet and shallower, and if the water is clear you may reach out to 10 feet and in.
Muskies will use any still-green weeds, but this may change on a daily basis. Algae bloom often chokes out cabbage, and as the weeds decline (they’ll be slimy to the touch and turn very dark, almost black) the muskies that were there yesterday may be gone today. Coontail tends to remain green longer than cabbage, and the thickest beds usually draw the most and biggest muskies. A bay that contains green cabbage and a couple of coontail beds can be dynamite. The inside weed edge is often terrific — the best way to fish it is usually by positioning your boat between the shoreline and the weeds and casting out toward them.
Sand flats will hold fish as will bulrushes that line the shoreline. Look for depressions in the sand or intermixed in the rushes — these will collect sediment so they often look dark — to hold muskies. Scattered rocks and logs in the sand and rushes are even better — wave action will wash out a depression around them, which gives muskies cover.
By the way, rushes are not just a Minnesota pattern. I learned to fish rushes on Leech Lake more than 20 years ago and returned home to find Wisconsin muskies like them, too. The deeper the rushes, the better.
Shorelines containing broken rock can be tremendous. I don’t care if the muskies are feeding on crayfish, perch or smallmouth bass, I just know they use it and the more broken up the rocks the better. Some anglers call this “chunk rock.” Just like during other times of year, wave action is more important when fishing rocks than weeds, and a strong wind rolling into shallow rocks has produced some tremendous muskies for my friends and me.
Historically many of the biggest muskies that visit my boat all year will come during the pre-turnover period, so I’m of the “go big or go home” mentality when choosing baits. And there’s no need to bring anything that dives deeper than five or six feet. I fill my lure storage with big, double-bladed spinners, starting with a Mepps Double Musky Flashabou on the small side and bucktails with twin 12 or 13 blades on the big end. Topwaters are extremely important as are flat-sided minnowbaits. Bulrushes require big spinnerbaits with single, upward-riding hooks to snake your way through them.
Because you’ll be casting to shallow weeds, expect your bait to hang up on weeds from time to time. A hard snap of the rod tip will free a big bucktail from weeds, and this contact is often the trigger that will bring up a musky that’s buried in the vegetation. Don’t be surprised if a huge surface boil and hard strike follows your weed-removing rip.
While muskies are usually very aggressive during this time period, they can still be shut down by a big cold front. I battle that with 10- to 12-inch Suick Muskie Thrillers, Bobbie Baits and big gliders. I catch more on Suicks, but when muskies are buried in thick coontail the wide face of a Bobbie tends to keep it from penetrating the weeds as far, thus being a little better at keeping its hooks from fouling. Gliders get the nod when muskies won’t eat a diver. Because water may be darker or even completely green due to algae bloom, and/or because muskies tend to be buried in cover, any jerkbait I use will have a blaze orange belly so it gets noticed.
This color conversation carries to all baits and I generally favor brighter colors — firetiger, blaze orange and chartreuse — or ones that display a distinct profile, like black, white or the dark vertical bars of the perch pattern. Black, firetiger or blaze orange are my choices for topwaters, in that order.
Because you’ll often be fishing thick weeds, a hooked musky will often try to regain that advantage. While they tend to eat baits more aggressively and thus get more solidly hooked, I have still lost fish that have buried themselves in the weeds and shaken free — including one last fall that was the biggest I had hooked in three or four years. Expect to go toe-to-toe with them at least until you’ve extricated them from wherever they’re holding. I use all heavy to extra-heavy action rods and spool up with 100-pound test braided line. The latter is especially important when casting to shoreline rocks because a hooked big fish heading to deep water can do a lot of damage if the line drags along the edge of a boulder.
It may be hard for you to fish this pattern. Your kids are back in school and it can be difficult to find a place to stay. But if you can get on the water at this time, it’s usually worth it — big muskies are aggressive and easy to reach in shallow water. Try it, and you’ll understand why this is a pattern I look forward to fishing every year.
For more about Managing Editor Steve Heiting, visit
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