North American Fishing Guides

Understanding the Change of Season
Bill Vanderford


The path of the late-summer sun is beginning to drift more to the south, and the blazing heat of summer has begun to fade into the mellow gold of Autumn. This annual solar journey is accompanied by cool night-time breezes that dance across the surface of southern impoundments and trigger a transformation.

This change in water temperature at the surface forces the bass in most lakes and reservoirs to depart their summer dwellings in search of food enough to make it through the coming winter. At Lake Lanier, the cooling water also begins a cycle known as “Fall Turnover”.

Turnover is a period of turmoil. As the surface water cools, it becomes denser or heavier and begins to sink. The warmer, lighter water below is then forced to rise to the top where it is also cooled, and the process continues until summer’s thermally layered waters are basically homogenized throughout a reservoir. The metamorphosis also mixes the oxygen-rich water above the thermocline with the poorly oxygenated water in the colder depths, giving the lake a renewed capacity for life from top to bottom.

This process is considered by many anglers to be difficult to recognize, and an almost impossible time of year to fish. Although it is seen as a time of rejuvenation, biologists have done very little research on this period. Knowledgeable fishermen, however, use their understanding of this fall phenomenon to catch more fish. Recognition can be as simple as the use of one's senses of sight and smell.

"Usually a change of color in the water near the surface can be seen," revealed expert angler and aquatic researcher, Doug Hannon. "The water will have a brownish tint to it, and smell like rotten eggs or decaying vegetation as the turnover brings the dead water at the bottom of the lake to the surface."

Main stream reservoirs along major river systems normally possess lock and dam facilities, therefore, they have a higher percentage of flow, rarely fluctuate annually more than a few feet, and only experience turnover in the lower or deeper sections. Conversely, tributary lakes like Lanier that have hydroelectric dams usually maintain a lower flow rate, have higher fluctuations from summer to winter, and are generally affected throughout by fall turnover.

Deep clear lakes have their own distinct indicators that the lake is changing fast. A lot more surface activity is observed. Large groups of bass will drive schools of shad to the surface in open water areas, then explode the water as they devour as many as possible.

Producing angling successes during these fall changes requires detailed information. Big bass expert, Doug Hannon, has thoroughly researched the turnover cycle and its effect on bass populations. His scientific approach to the annual happening is rather simple, but has proven to be very rewarding.

"All the decay and poorly-oxygenated water that is being pushed upwards from the floor of the lake through the entire column of water sort of temporarily trashes the whole system," stated Hannon. "The key is to find good quality water.”

One of the easiest ways to locate good water is to go into a creek which has freshwater running into the lake. Also, larger creeks often contain independent water that doesn't turnover at the same time as that of the main body of the lake. Those places can be real magnets for fish.

When the oxygen level drops, both bass and shad must find oxygenated water immediately. Although not so obvious, their solution to the problem is to go directly to the nearest source, which is surface aeration from wind and waves.

"They'll get on windswept shorelines in fairly shallow cover," revealed Hannon. "The oxygen on those windward banks will stack up to five or six feet deep, while the leeward shoreline may only contain a foot of oxygenated water. I always try the sheltered water on the windward side, because it’s easier to fish, and the layers of oxygen being blown across the lake will stack up in those places as well."

Since baitfish, like shad, are even more susceptible to oxygen depletion than bass and tend to be blown with the wind, when numerous schools of them are found in the shallows, it’s a positive sign. This is a common occurrence at the back of a feeder stream.

"People think that the shad are going upstream to spawn in the fall," said Hannon. "But, they are actually going up there because of the good water quality.”

When catching congregated fish in these pockets of quality water, Hannon employs lures that run horizontally rather than ones that must be worked vertically or on the bottom.

"Smaller-sized crankbaits, Swirleybirds, small Blakemore Road Runners, or even topwater lures can work," said Hannon. "Most people don't believe it until they see it, but during the turnover, you'll often find concentrations of fish right on the bank in less than a foot of water."

When searching for surface schooling bass, keep a spinning reel handy that's filled to capacity with 8 pound test line, and a 1/4 ounce Swirleybird tied on the end of the line. This lure is about the same size as the shad being eaten, and is streamlined enough to throw a long distance.

It’s true, fall brings a time of turmoil, but it is also a time of renewal. Beauty can be found all around in the kaleidoscope of colored leaves and other changes in the flora and fauna. The fish must also adjust their habits to compensate for this upheaval in their environment. A lack of understanding of this annual phenomenon causes many in the angling fraternity to abandon the receding lake waters in favor of other pursuits. For those willing to learn, however, these keys should allow one to unlock the door and master fall bassin’!

Bill Vanderford has won numerous awards for his writing and photography, and has been inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Guide.
He can be reached at 770-289-1543, at JFish51@aol.com, or at his web site: www.fishinglanier.com

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