Pier and river anglers find salmon with CoastWatch

Fishing for Chinook salmon started slow this year, but the season could still close out with a bang. Online data can help small boat, pier, and river anglers up the odds.

Where would you fish?  This CoastWatch image shows an upwelling that brought 51.3-degree water to shore at Port Sheldon while South Haven remained in the high 60s.
Where would you fish? This CoastWatch image shows an upwelling that brought 51.3-degree water to shore at Port Sheldon while South Haven remained in the high 60s.

Last year’s salmon run went down as the run that wasn’t. Sure, there were some Chinook salmon to be caught along the Lake Michigan shore and in certain rivers, but returns were inconsistent. Many anglers were surprised to come home with the skunk after what should have been the perfect day on the pier or in their favorite river.

The good news is that this year’s run seems to be shaping up better than 2014. After a slow start to the big lake trolling season, Chinooks are now showing up in fair to good numbers off of Lake Michigan’s top ports. Surface temperatures are still in the high 60s to low 70s, which is keeping most of the mature “kings” offshore.

However, this could change at any moment. If you prefer to target salmon with jigging spoons from a small boat or fish from piers or rivers, you can up your odds by using satellite data that big lake trollers have been keying in on for 20 years.

In early September most mature Chinook salmon will still be chrome-colored and actively feeding. These fish will, for the most part, be found in or near cold water (55˚F or less). When the big lake “flips” and cold water wells up from the bottom it is time to grab the rods and head out fishing.

A cold north wind or a strong east wind can set up currents that lead to an upwelling, but watching the winds alone is not enough. Oftentimes a north or east wind will not be strong enough or last long enough to move warm water off of shore.

This is where CoastWatch can be a great asset to small boat, pier, and river anglers. CoastWatch provides charts based on satellite data, giving anglers a snapshot of surface temperatures around the entire lake. This is especially useful when winds create upwellings at some ports but not others. You can bet that the pier with 50-degree surface will outfish the pier with 75-degree surface water any day of the week!

One drawback of CoastWatch is that clouds interfere with the satellites’ ability to accurately read water temperature. Black areas of CoastWatch charts have no temperatures displayed and grey areas have temperature readings that should be interpreted with caution because of partial cloud cover. Readings in grey areas tend to be colder than true surface temperatures at this time of year.

When clouds make CoastWatch charts tough to interpret, anglers can use buoys in the Upper Great Lakes Observing System to find real-time water temperature data. Although the UGLOS buoys do not provide full lake coverage, they do provide surface temperatures at select locations near St. Joseph, South Haven, Port Sheldon, Ludington, and Petoskey. In addition to surface temperature, thermistor strings are now functioning at all locations except Ludington.

These thermistor strings record temperature at several different depths and give anglers an idea of where the thermocline is located. The thermocline is the border between warm surface water and the colder water below. In Lake Michigan, the depth of the thermocline often changes on an hourly basis depending on currents.

Anglers can use this information along with surface temperatures from CoastWatch to gain a better understanding of how wind and currents affect water temperatures and, ultimately, fishing success. Big lake anglers have been using CoastWatch for two decades, but September is the perfect time for small boat, pier, and river anglers to take advantage of all the Internet has to offer.

It might just turn your next trip into something to remember!

Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension developed CoastWatch in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Michigan State University's Agriculture and Natural Resources Computer Services and Institute of Water Research, and with the support and assistance of user groups such as the Michigan Charter Boat Association. The site is maintained by Michigan Sea Grant and the MSU Remote Sensing & GIS Research and Outreach Services.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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