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Weather to Stay Home or Go Fishing

What's the first place many Florida anglers go to start the day? The National Data Buoy Center.

Weather to Stay Home or Go Fishing

Accessing real-time buoy data aids in ensuring safe navigation and fishing amid the ever-changing marine weather encountered in Florida.

You’ve been planning this fishing trip for months. The rooms are booked, the boat is gassed up and the tackle is rigged. If only the weather would cooperate.

You’ve been obsessively checking all of your apps to ensure that it will. You look at wind speed and direction, you look at water temperature, you’re analyzing the tides. You hope, against all odds, that the days you called out of work will miraculously align with prime fishing conditions. We’ve all been there, sending up prayers to the weather gods and changing our plans accordingly.

Who are the weather gods though? Where does all of this information come from?

weather buoy
Check the Buoy Reports: For more information on the National Data Buoy Center, please visit: www.ndbc.noaa.gov.You may want to bookmark some of your favorite local data buoys or weather stations for instant reference.

Well, a few places, namely the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Sure, you might have heard of the National Weather Service or even the National Hurricane Center. But, have you heard of the National Data Buoy Center? A part of the Weather Service, this Buoy Center and its network operate hundreds of buoys and stations that collect real-time data for on-the-water conditions across most of the United States coastline. This data is dispersed by NOAA and gobbled up by so many of the weather apps out there—those that determine whether you stay, or whether you go fish.

It is sort of wild to think about how much we as anglers rely on accurate weather information. It wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t have these tools in the palm of our hand. Hurricane forecast models were first developed in the 1950s. Before that, we had the Coconut Model. Coconut moving? It’s windy. Coconut still? It’s calm. Coconut wet? It’s rainy. Coconut dry? It’s sunny. Coconut gone? Hurricane.

But the Coconut Model doesn’t tell us what the Buoy Center does. Those fine folks are out there tracking wind direction, speed and gust, they’re looking at air and water temperature, wave energy, water column height, atmospheric pressure, humidity, currents, precipitation, salinity, solar radiation and more. And those are the details that we need to decide where to fish and how to fish effectively.

For example, low pressure may tell us that fishing is slowing down and fish may be in deeper water or near cover. High pressure may suggest a calm day with better visibility. We use that fisherman’s barometer to decide what species we are targeting and what we tie at the end of our lines.

In fact, Episode 221 of the Florida Sportsman Action Spotter Podcast dug right into the meat of this issue by asking captains from around the state about their go-to weather apps. Captain Rick Ryals, the podcast host, put it best: “How’s our fishing? Well, it depends on how our weather is.” Here’s what captains from around the state are saying:

  • Captain Rick Ryals says, “I check the St. Augustine virtual buoy in my area and I check the Gray’s Reef buoy up to the north. Windfinder is number one for me and Fishweather is number two.”
  • Captain Ray Rosher of Miss Britt Sportfishing out of Miami says, “I depend mainly on Windfinder—I like it 36 hours out. It gives me a really good idea of what is coming…I tell my customers that I believe the wind, I’ll believe the temperature, the tides, the wave height…is it going to be too rough? I trust it for that.”
  • Captain Brandon Storin of Bean Sportfishing out of Islamorada says, “I use Windguru because you can custom set an area…I can drop a pin and see what the weather is like. I’m not looking at places where I live, but where I’m going to fish.”
  • Captain Tyler Massey of Pensacola Fishing Charters says, “You gotta use several things so you can get a good idea of what it is going to be like. If you look at one weather app you’re going to be disappointed most of the time. Windfinder is one that I find very useful…and the wind forecast is pretty accurate. Another one that I use is Buoyweather. It gives you wind speed and wave height at the buoy. Long range, that same app gives you the forecast on oil rigs.”
  • Captain Greg Stamper of Snook Stamp Charters out of Southwest Florida says, “Buoy? I’m a backcountry guy. I’m checking the palm trees and the flagpoles on my way to work.”
map of Florida weather buoys
Screenshot from the National Data Buoy Center website.
How Is This Data Collected?

The weather buoy network and the coastal marine stations were initially developed in the 1960s and early 1970s by the U.S. Coast Guard—eventually transitioning responsibility to NOAA. At their inception, the stations were supporting efforts like navigation of aircraft across the Gulf of Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the utility of these stations and buoys has changed over time—mostly in response to requirements from other federal agencies that have data needs for things like NASA shuttle launches or hurricane predictions.

Today, NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center operates a global network of coastal and deep ocean observation systems. The coastal weather buoy system consists of 104 buoys extending from the tropical Atlantic up to the Bering Sea in Alaska, all collecting real-time weather observations at the water’s surface. The Center also oversees 40 marine stations on the coast or near the coastline, operating from fixed structures like lighthouses.

Once collected, the data is then provided to the public via a global telecommunications system and all of the data is stored on the Buoy Center website. “We get about 6 to 8 million hits a day,” says Dr. William Burnett, Director of the National Data Buoy Center. And that doesn’t include the number of people accessing that data through third-party apps.

All this to say, some of the buoys and stations have been out there for several decades pumping out data for all of us—even up to 50 years.

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“Having data is important,” says Chip Kasper, meteorologist with the Florida Keys National Weather Service. “The most simple definition of a forecast is a diagnosis plus a trend. And that diagnosis requires raw data, it requires observations. Just like a doctor will check your vital signs—your breathing, blood pressure, body temperature—we’re assessing the atmosphere and ocean’s vital signs. And we do that through real data that is directly sensed by the stations like the ones we are talking about.”

ship in the ocean
Coast Guardsmen prepare for the deployment of a moored ocean buoy.

These stations typically consist of an anemometer to measure wind direction and speed, a thermometer to measure air temperature, and usually, there is a barometer of some kind to measure atmospheric pressure.

“A lot of boaters, anglers, and divers check these stations each and every morning. They’re looking at the palm trees and they check the forecast to decide whether they’re going to even go out that day or where they might want to go. These stations are a critical part of the forecast process from soup to nuts, from beginning to end,” says Kasper.

These sites give us point observations—on the water and in real time. They inform our fishing decisions, and they certainly inform whether or not we want to drive straight into a squall offshore. Florida Sportsman Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Weakley, weighed in on the importance of the relationship of wave size to interval, commenting that “A 3-foot wave at a 10-second interval isn’t uncomfortable at all. A 3-foot wave at a 4-second interval is terrible!”

weather tower
After two years of service, sensors at fixed weather stations and floating data buoys are replaced with recently calibrated instruments.

He’s not wrong. And, it is more than an issue of comfort.

“This is a safety issue,” says Captain Jon Paul Haydocy of Bank and Bight Charters out of Islamorada. “I captain a small vessel and I need to know whether it’s safe to take my clients out on the water in a certain location. Losing data points in the network means I have a less accurate picture of what’s going on out there.”

Station Decommissioning

With some of these stations aging, it is no surprise that the National Data Buoy Center is evaluating whether to replace or decommission the sites. In fact, two stations were decommissioned in the Florida Keys in early 2023—Pulaski Shoal and Molasses Reef. “We work with the Coast Guard to determine which platforms are sound or not,” says Dr. Burnett, “With the platforms being derelict, there was no way to replace the equipment safely.”

But, NOAA does its part to ensure that there are no lapses in the data being delivered. Before decommissioning a site, they determine whether or not there are nearby stations or monitoring sites that may mitigate the data being lost.

The Fowey Rocks coastal station in Miami, pictured on the left, has also been identified as derelict but has not been formally decommissioned yet. According to Dr. Burnett, NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard are evaluating whether or not the station can be repaired. If it can’t be repaired, a process would commence where members of the public can weigh in on the proposed decommissioning, and that informs the agency’s ultimate decision. “We evaluate our network every year to see what can be done more effectively,” says Dr. Burnett “We are doing everything we can to collect more observations—we know that’s what people want to see.”

lighthouse near Miami
A popular destination off Miami, the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse is facing the risk of decommissioning. The weather station associated with it has been offline since December 2022.
The Value of Data

For us anglers and boaters, point weather observations are important. We want to know if there’s a storm building and we want to know if winds are picking up in real time.

One aspect of this data network we might not regularly consider, however, is the value of data records. Many of these sites have been collecting data for decades, which not only informs weather forecasting but also holds long-term value for climate assessments.

“When a site like Pulaski Shoal or Molasses Reef is decommissioned, that record stops,” says Chip Kasper. “You lose the ability to look at long-term trends moving forward.”

After a shocking summer of heat waves that swept the state of Florida and with an El Niño weather pattern in place through the winter, scientists and researchers have been taking an even closer look at this data. Water temperature alone is proving to be a vital indicator for fish species’ survival thresholds and could influence where fish are breeding, feeding, and migrating.

Without a doubt, our angling community relies on this data in a variety of ways. Less is certainly not more when it comes to this monitoring information and NOAA agrees.

“The National Weather Service is committed to collecting high-quality marine observations,” says Dr. Burnett. “We want to work with industry and the blue economy because ocean observations across the globe need to increase. We understand angler and boater concerns and we are developing a strategy to get after increasing ocean observations. We are entering a golden age of more ocean observations and we want to be on the leading edge of that.”

So, the next time you’re sending up a prayer to the weather gods, maybe you’ll also consider a note of support to the National Data Buoy Center or your member of Congress. They can’t guarantee bluebird skies and calm seas, but they may be able to keep the buoys and weather stations up and running so that we can have better days on the water.


  • This article was featured in the April 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Subscribe now.



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