Unsuccessful autumn bass fishing elicits a common lament from hard-luck anglers at the Lake of the Ozarks. Whether they’re tournament veterans or weekend warriors, they blame the lake turnover for their unlucky days on the water.
During the summer, surface water is warm and light, while the lower layers are cooler and heavier. The top and bottom layers contain less oxygen than the middle section, so the fish tend to hold in the oxygen-rich middle.
In autumn, the surface water cools and sinks, mixing with the lower layers. The process causes currents, which mix the sinking surface water and the colder layers below. Wave action from fall winds result in the circulation of the various layers (turnover) and the mixing of the whole lake. By late fall the water has cooled off to 39 degrees from top to bottom. The change causes a good supply of oxygen at all levels of the lake, and the fish will tend to spread out and seek new habitat.
Professional anglers Guido Hibdon and Denny Brauer are unsure what happens to bass during the turnover on their home lake, but they agree that the fish are affected. “I think it almost affects them like a cold front situation; it disorients them a little bit about what they’re wanting to do,” Brauer says.
“I think they’re a little bit goofy about that time,” says Hibdon.
Before the turnover, fishing tends to improve with the cooling water conditions. During and after the turnover, however, fishing tapers off.
Hibdon and Brauer, both former BASS Masters Classic champions, agree that the average fisherman can use the turnover as a good excuse for a poor fishing trip, but they don’t have to.
“At times, it’s probably the No. 1 reason people don’t catch fish for a certain period of time,” Brauer says. “It’s not that they’re doing a whole lot wrong, it’s just that the fish aren’t biting very well at all. If they haven’t made adjustments, they’re not going to catch them.”
If anglers can make the proper adjustments, though, bass can be caught. “I think it’s always been a big myth that you couldn’t catch fish during a turnover,” Hibdon says. “It makes them tougher to catch and makes them hit differently, but you can still catch them.”
Hibdon cites his first pro tournament as an example of how fish can be taken while the water is changing. During the two-day tourney, Hibdon and his amateur partners concentrated on the upper end of the Lake of the Ozarks, which was turning over at the time. Hibdon found suspended fish in the upper end and hit the jackpot. He won the tournament by a 20-pound margin, and his partners finished first and second in the amateur division.
If an angler feels uncomfortable fishing in turnover conditions, he has some options. “The majority of the time I try to avoid the turnover,” Brauer says. “You can pull into one cove and it can be turning over, and you can run three or four miles down the lake and you do not have the turnover problem. Even if you’re locked into one cove, there’s going to be certain areas in that cove that the turnover isn’t going to affect as much.”
The back half of a cove will turn quicker, or it might be unaffected by the turnover if a creek is flowing into it. “If you’ve got good current, more than likely you’re not going to have turnover,” Brauer says. “Current is absolutely great for avoiding the turnover.”
Anglers can merely glance at the water to tell whether or not they’re fishing the dreaded condition. The affected area almost looks like sewer water with decaying material releasing from the bottom and floating to the top.
Hibdon says turnover water will have a different color (usually pea green) and “foamy stuff” from the rocks will be floating on the surface. “You can follow that right down the lake and get ahead of it and generally catch more fish than you would fishing right in the middle of it.”
The affected area will look like a watery graveyard–devoid of fish and fowl. “The area just seems dead,” Brauer says. “If you can find an area that’s got the water birds and shad, it’s a good indication that it hasn’t turned over yet.”
The length of time the turnover affects fishing at Lake of the Ozarks varies. “It can knock fish for a loop for two to three weeks,” Brauer says. “A real protected area can be real messed up for quite a while.” Severe cold weather, wind and current accelerate the turnover. Hibdon estimates that the turnover will normally run its course in five or six days on impoundments without fast-moving water.
While fishing in the turnover, try to find the most stable water, which is usually in the 1- to 2-foot range. “That little layer of water hasn’t really changed a whole lot,” Brauer says. “My advice is to get to the bank and beat the shoreline.” He concentrates on the shallow brush, which usually holds more active fish. “If the weather conditions have been bad, I’m going to get in tight to whatever cover I can find, whether it’s a shallow boat dock or lay-down tree.”
The turbid water caused by the turnover can actually work to the fisherman’s advantage in this situation. Limited visibility prevents bass from detecting anglers working closer to the bank.
Brauer avoids fishing weeds during the turnover. He says weeds start to die when a lake turns, and they will use oxygen. When the dying weeds deplete the oxygen in the area, the bass will seek other sanctuaries.
Once the pros find the active fish, they determine which lures and retrieves will work best. “As a rule, just slow down,” Hibdon advises.
Sometimes it takes 10 to 12 casts to the same brush pile before a bass will strike. Hibdon suggests fishing smaller baits, such as 1/8- or 1/4-ounce crankbaits and jigs. He also recommends using tube jigs.
Brauer’s lure choices depend on the weather. If the weather is stable, he will throw a 3/8-ounce chartreuse or white buzz bait and retrieve it slowly around stumps and lay-downs. In an area that receives heavy fishing pressure, he will switch to a 3/8-ounce buzz bait with a clacker because it produces more noise to agitate the fish.
“If you’re getting a few strikes on something or not a lot, or if you’re missing some fish, or if the fish aren’t really taking the bait, then you need to experiment with sound, size or color. If you’ve got two guys in the boat, one guy should be throwing something different than the other,” Brauer says.
When the weather turns nasty, Brauer switches to a blue or black 3/8-ounce Strike King jig and a black plastic chunk in clearer water, or a black-and-chartreuse or black with bright green combination in murkier water. He will flip the jig into the heaviest cover he can find.
His third option is to cast a 3/8-ounce chartreuse or white spinnerbait with gold blades and a 4-inch plastic trailer. He’ll slow roll the spinnerbait through the shallow cover.
When the turnover ends, don’t expect a fishing bonanza. Both pro anglers agree that fishing improves gradually after the turn. “I don’t think anyone can say, ‘Bang, the turnover’s over,'” Brauer says.
Whether the lake is just starting to turn or has already turned over, the two pros believe bass can still be caught. “I’m convinced that fish can be caught under any circumstances,” Brauer says. “There’s no such thing as a fish that cannot be caught. On some of them,you just run out of time.”
For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 152-page vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com. Copies of John Neporadny’s book, “THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide” are available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.