Zooplankton vertical migratory patterns are a classic example of optimal habitat choice. We hypothesize that zooplankton distribute themselves vertically in the water column according to an ideal free distribution (IFD) with costs such as to optimize their fitness. In lakes with a deep–water chlorophyll maximum, zooplankton are faced with a trade–off, either experiencing high food (high reproductive potential) but low temperature (slow development) in the hypolimnion or high temperature and low food in the epilimnion. Thus, in the absence of fish predation (e.g. at night) they should allocate the time spent in the different habitats according to fitness gain dependent on the temperature gradient and distribution of food. We tested this hypothesis with a Daphnia hyalina x galeata clone in large indoor columns (Plön Plankton Towers) and with a dynamic energy budget model. In the tower experiments, we simulated a deep-water algal maximum below the thermocline with epilimnetic/hypolimnetic temperature differences of 2, 5 and 10°C. Experimental data supported the model. We found a significantly larger proportion of daphniids in the hypolimnion when the temperature difference was smaller. Our results are consistent with the concept of IFD with costs originally developed for stream fishes. This concept can be applied to predict the vertical distribution of zooplankton in habitats where fish predation is of minor importance.