The superb saltwater fishing available along the Georgia coast has been largely overlooked by the nation's anglers. Yet at various times of the year, especially in early fall, this lightly-populated area offers outstanding marine angling for a wide variety of game fish.
King mackerel, cobia, bluefish, jack crevalle, black drum and other fish are in good supply in early fall. But the bulk of the Peach State's autumn anglers are after red drum, spotted seatrout and flounder — and they usually get all that they want.
From the town of St. Marys in southeast Georgia north to Savannah, inshore anglers will be reaping rich harvests of trout, reds and flounder in September, October and November. The fish are found in good numbers in virtually all tidal creeks, rivers, inlets, sounds, bays and throughout the entire Intracoastal Waterway.
Most fall-run seatrout average two pounds, though some to five pounds (so-called "gator trout") are caught periodically. Although the trout are not particularly big, they do school in large numbers. So once fish are located it's often possible to make hefty catches in short order. On many occasions, I have boated 50 trout or more in a leisurely couple hours of autumn fishing.
Seatrout fishing always has been good throughout the labyrinth of inshore creeks, rivers, sounds, bays and estuaries along the comparatively unpopulated Georgia Coast. But in recent years, the state's trout angling (as well as fishing for other inshore species) has been nothing short of remarkable. Most veteran trout fishermen and some marine biologists believe the boom to Georgia's trout fishing is the result of an inshore commercial shrimp trawling ban (some bait-shrimp trawling is allowed) that went into effect in 1977. The anglers and the scientists say that by protecting Georgia's inshore shrimp nursery grounds, the state's tidewaters are attracting, "holding," and nurturing more seatrout than ever before because shrimp are the preferred forage for trout, as well as redfish and many other inshore species. Moreover, inshore gill netting is unlawful in Georgia. So commercial netters don't cut into the state's bumper seatrout and other inshore fish populations — thereby leaving abundant fish for sportsmen.
From early fall to early winter, huge numbers of seatrout swarm into Georgia's coastal tidewaters. In the early fall, most fish are caught in the large rivers. Then as the weather and water cools in late fall and early winter, trout move farther inshore and eventually into the small tidewater feeder creeks. In the creeks, the fish concentrate in comparatively shallow areas; the water is usually clear, with natural foods at a minimum; the fish are aggressive, and they readily hit artificials. Jigs, sinking minnow-imitating plugs, and at times even surface lures, are death on trout.
Most fall-winter Georgia trout fishermen drift and cast lures, or if working a known trout hot spot they'll anchor and cast. Slow-trolling with jigs or deep-running plugs or spoons is smart for anglers unfamiliar with an area or when searching for schools of fish.
Deep holes in feeder creeks can have fall or winter trout stacked in them like plugs in a well-stocked tackle box. This is the time when huge catches of trout can be made. One October, for example, guide George Schauber of Savannah and two friends caught 131 seatrout in a single day while fishing the lower Ogeechee River, located just south of Savannah. Incidentally, there is no size or bag limit for Georgia seatrout, redfish or flounder, and saltwater anglers do not need fishing licenses.
Seatrout are notorious night feeders, yet comparatively few Georgia anglers try for them after the sun is down. Years ago, commercial hook-and-line fishermen caught almost all their trout at night. Most worked shallow sand flats with live shrimp and "popping corks."
I've enjoyed superb fall night trout fishing in Georgia with top-water plugs and fly rod streamers and popping bugs, and sometimes big trout were the result. Working tidal flats at night and casting top-water lures can bring heart-stopping strikes from trout, and often the fish caught are much larger than ones taken during the day. Night fishing also is excellent for huge flounder, and occasionally big reds are around. A good way of looking for productive sand flats for night fishing is to outboard along several such spots with a large, bright flood light. Look for small bait fish and shrimp in the shallows, particularly in the boat's wake. Where's there's bait, it's a good bet game fish are nearby.
Prime places to look for fall-run trout, as well as redfish and even flounder, include: submerged points of land; oyster shell bars around old sunken boats, barges, pilings, bulkheads and underwater islands, and along the edges of drop-offs of canals and channels. The mouths of brackish creeks that feed bigger bodies of water can be fantastic. Usually they're best during falling tides, and be sure to work the drop-offs that frequently are well out away from creek mouths.
One October afternoon, a companion and I caught 67 seatrout, weighing up to three pounds, along with several redfish and flounder, on live shrimp at the mouth of Cumberland Island's Christmas Creek. Christmas Creek feeds the ocean on the east side of South Georgia's Cumberland Island and it's a choice place for fall action. We were anchored in the ocean and floated live shrimp near the creek mouth during a falling tide.
As already indicated, Georgia seatrout are "object-oriented" game fish. They relate to structure much the way largemouth bass do in freshwater. Therefore, inshore anglers are wise to use depthfinders to locate trout hot spots much the way some largemouth bass fishermen do in reservoirs and lakes. Georgia trout, especially schools of big fish, almost always are found in or very close to deep water — except at night.
From late September through December — depending on the severity of the first few northeasters — huge schools of "bull" reds move into places such as Cumberland, Altamaha, Sapelo and Ossabaw Sounds. Most fish are taken by boaters, but surf fishermen working the sloughs along Jekyll, Saint Simons and other islands also score well on redfish. And these ocean-cruising fall-run fish are big. Ten pounders are common and every year a number of fish in the 30-to-40 pound class are taken. The biggest reds are caught close to the sea, generally around rock jetties at inlets and in the major sounds and lower river estuaries. Farther inshore, there are giant schools of smaller "rat reds" weighing two to five pounds.
Fishing for such small, good-eating redfish is as good in Georgia's tidewater bays, sounds, inlets, rivers and creeks as anywhere I know. These are the juvenile reds that move out of the tidewater nursery marshes and creeks and sometimes are available in enormous numbers, with schools often having far more fish than I can count. Sportsmen, incidentally, must show some restraint when a big school of small reds is located because it's sometimes possible to literally load the boat with them. Although redfish are in abundant supply, and they are indeed a prolific, fast-growing species, anglers should only keep as many fish as they can personally use.
While catching fall-winter Georgia redfish rarely is a problem, it's finding them that takes consummate skill. Reds are notorious roamers — here today, there tomorrow. For that reason trolling is one of the most successful methods to find and catch them. Trolled jigs, spoons and plugs all take autumn-run Georgia redfish, but lures must be fished deep, right along bottom.
Georgia "rat reds" can be caught at many of the same places where seatrout are found, with oyster shell beds especially productive. The shell beds are rich in small fish and tiny crabs — ideal redfish food. Not all oyster beds are good, so anglers must experiment and test different ones to locate the best. The choicest oyster bars normally drop off to a deep channel, river or hole. It's wise to look for oyster bars at extremely low tides so that during high tides you'll know exactly where the bars are and how to fish them. Some anglers mark such oyster bars at low tide with long wooden stakes so that during high tide it's a simple matter of finding them. Oyster bars that form a long shoal to deep water and have a grassy bank near shore are especially good for reds. The fish often move up the shell point and feed on hapless goodies around the flooded grass at high tide.
Tidal feeder creeks and saltwater run-outs from marshy areas exist all along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and in most bays and sounds in Georgia. Just as for trout, the mouths of such creeks are great places to take reds, and many aren't fished hard. A friend and I once checked out a small cut we'd never fished before that led to a huge, shallow bay off the ICW near the town of Darien. It was a dead-calm day and the tide was high and slack. What drew our attention to the bay were the many wakes from fish we could see humping up the water. We tried to get inside the bay for a go at the fish, but the bay was too shallow. So we anchored near the cut and waited for the tide to fall. When the tide was half out, the reds that were feeding in the bay poured out, too. By fishing jig-and-shrimp combinations and "Mirrolures" we caught about two dozen redfish to five pounds. We released another dozen smaller ones in the under two-pound class.
Anywhere in Georgia where there is strong tide flow — like the mouth of a back bay, channel or inlet — it's a good bet there's a red drum hot spot somewhere nearby. Swift tides gouge irregular trenches and holes in the bottom, and swirling waters confuse and toss around bait fish — such things draw reds. One of my favorite redfish spots is a submerged bar in Sapelo Sound near St. Catherines Island. The deep, dredged ICW is on one side of the bar, and it drops off into the South Newport River on the other side. I've caught reds there during all running tide stages, sometimes in the ICW, sometimes deep in the river, other times on top of the bar. It's one of those places that can give up autumn reds at anytime, to any bait or lure, worked almost anywhere, by anybody.
Georgia flounder don't school as tightly or in the same numbers as seatrout and red drum, but, generally, where there's one flounder there are more nearby. October and November are peak months for huge "door mats" — those giant-size flounder big enough to be used as tires on a Volkswagen. The bulk of my good Georgia flounder fishing has occurred during low tide phases, generally in areas where tides and rips are not very strong. Flounder are fond of large sand and mud flats that are adjacent to deep cuts, channels, rivers, open sounds and inlets. An ideal spot for flounder would be a three-to-five-foot deep sand flat in a broad cove off a large inlet. The cove would be even more desirable if a salt creek or two flowed in. Other good spots for flounder are protected mud bars (some of the best occur in the middle of sounds and river mouths), sandbars near ocean jetties, and around breakwaters and bulkheads.
Small live "mud minnows" (properly known as killifish or mummichog) about three inches long are the number-one flounder bait in coastal Georgia. Tiny mullet, menhaden and croakers also are good if mud minnows are unavailable. Live shrimp will take flounder, but they're a poor choice compared to small bait fish. The standard sliding-sinker flounder rig is ideal.
Live shrimp are, without question, the most effective trout and redfish natural bait. But small live "finger" mullet are excellent, too, and are particularly good for heavyweight redfish and thick-bodied trout. There are, of course, several good methods of fishing live shrimp for trout, but the standard way in Georgia is with a "float rig." A "float rig" is a simple sliding bobber set up that allows anglers to easily work baits at virtually any depth of water. Baits are fished from an anchored boat, while anglers "free-line" the baits and float rigs behind the boat with a running tide. This allows anglers to fish a lot of water from a single anchored position. It's a lot like trolling baits from an anchored boat.
Even anglers new to the Georgia Coast have little trouble catching seatrout, redfish and flounder during the peak of the fall-winter season. In addition, bluefish, weakfish, black drum, sheepshead and whiting normally are in good supply. And sometimes in early fall, jack crevalle, ladyfish and even tarpon can still be around to add spice to the fishing.
Boat and outboard motor rental marinas are scarce in Georgia, simply because there are comparatively few people who fish the vast inshore waters of the Peach State — which no doubt is much of the reason why the fishing is so good. There are, however, an ample number of fishing camps in major sounds, inlets and rivers. Because tides can vary as much as eight feet on Georgia's coast, boat ramps are scarce. But most fishing camps have boat hoists. If you bring your own skiff for inshore fishing be sure it has heavy-duty "boat hook rings" at both bow and stern for use with such hoists.
Georgia's Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division in Brunswick can be extremely helpful in advising first-time anglers where and how to catch coastal inshore fish.
The best places to headquarter for Georgia fishing are the major cities and towns along the coast, which all have excellent facilities that are reasonably priced, even "during the season" in the fall and winter months. The towns of St. Marys, Brunswick, Darien, St. Simons Island and Savannah all have outstanding motels and restaurants, and there is superb inshore action for all species mentioned very close to each city named.