Birds and mammals are usually the focus for wildlife watchers, but the fall salmon run provides spectacular fish-watching opportunities, too. Visit weirs and dams in west Michigan this fall or watch a new video to enjoy the spectacle.
By Daniel O’Keefe
Hunting and fishing get much of the attention when it comes to outdoor recreation, but a recent survey by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that more Americans engage in wildlife watching than fishing and hunting combined. The survey found that 17 million people traveled for bird watching in 2016, while 4.3 million traveled to watch fish.
Of course, birds are usually much easier to observe in their natural environment than fish – but fall in west Michigan offers a chance to watch salmon as they jump barriers and congregate in clear, shallow water to spawn. The large fish are often easy to see in clear water, but polarized sunglasses can be helpful to cut through glare on the surface.
Rivers of the northwestern Lower Peninsula provide excellent opportunities to view salmon due to high quality habitat and a combination of natural reproduction and stocking. Smaller natural runs can be found in creeks scattered around the state, and stocking supports large runs of salmon in some rivers where spawning habitat is lacking. Some of the best locations for watching salmon are closed to fishing during the salmon run because fish are so abundant and vulnerable to fishing or illegal snagging (be sure to check the latest version of Michigan Fishing Guide for current regulations if you plan to fish at any of the following locations).
During their upstream migration, salmon encounter obstacles both natural and man-made. Weirs are removable man-made barriers that serve to block the passage of fish upstream at certain times of the year. Michigan Department of Natural Resourcesoperates several weirs, and some of the best fish watching opportunities in the state can be found below weirs on the Little Manistee River east of Stronach, Platte River near Honor, and Boardman River in Traverse City. Check links for driving directions and details for each location or click here to learn more about how and why weirs are operated.
Dams and fish ladders
Dams provide great opportunities for fish watching because they are often located in urban environments and are easily accessible to large numbers of people. Fish Ladder Park in Grand Rapids is one of the best places to view salmon beginning around Labor Day. Visitors can see salmon jumping at Sixth Street Dam on the Grand River and ascending a fish ladder that allows salmon to work their way upstream one small step at a time. Brenke Fish Ladder in Lansing is another option for viewing coho salmon in the Grand River later in the season (October and November). Other dams like Tippy Dam near Wellston, Homestead Dam near Benzonia, and Hamlin Dam at Ludington State Park are farther off the beaten path but provide great places to watch the salmon run in a more natural setting.
Clear creeks and gravelly rivers
Many river systems host large salmon runs. The Pere Marquette River, Manistee River, Betsie River, and Platte River all offer a good combination of clear, shallow water and public land with forested trails ideal for exploring. Paddling a canoe or kayak on these scenic rivers is always a treat, but late summer and early fall offer the added bonus of salmon viewing.
These rivers are also popular with salmon fishermen during much of the season, so crowding can be an issue and fish may avoid shallow water when fishing pressure is heavy. However, many smaller streams are closed to fishing during the peak of salmon spawning activity. Over 1,400 Michigan streams are classified as Type 1 streams by the Michigan DNR. These small creeks are closed to fishing after September 30 each year, and this makes them ideal for watching salmon spawn. Salmon are less wary when they are not concerned about hooks, and Type 1 streams offer the chance to get up close to salmon as they spawn over gravel beds in clear, shallow water.
To find a likely spot near you, start with streams outlined in green on the map of trout streams in your area. Not all Type 1 streams support salmon runs, but most gravel-bottomed Type 1 streams will host at least small numbers of fish if no downstream dams block their progress upstream. Some of the best places to look are small creeks that flow into larger rivers that are popular with salmon anglers.
Videos and webcams
If you can’t get out on the water, you can still watch Michigan salmon on webcams or YouTube. The Center for Freshwater Research and Education at Lake Superior State Universityhas a webcam in the St. Mary’s River, where viewers can watch Atlantic salmon returning to their stocking site. Another webcam is located in the fish ladder at Berrien Springs. Funding for the purchase and installation of this camera was provided by Evoke kayaks, and a crowdfunding campaign will begin in mid-August 2018, to support operation of the Berrien Springs fishcam.
Michigan Sea Grant also recently released a YouTube video with scenes from the salmon run. The video features underwater footage of salmon in many of the locations mentioned in this article and provides science-based interpretation of salmon behavior during the spawning run.