Two Rivers For Coastal Angling

Two Rivers For Coastal Angling

Great fishing for a variety of saltwater species can be found where Georgia's rivers meet the sea. When it comes to red drum and speckled trout, the Altamaha and St. Marys are hard to beat! (May 2007)

Capt. King collects pogies for bait with his cast net in the inshore waters surrounding Cumberland Island.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Our state's coastal waters provide anglers with a tremendous variety of game fish, and the challenges of harvesting this wide array of species are many and exciting. Each of the areas where the great rivers of the Peach State empty into the Atlantic offers a unique sanctuary for popular species such as red drum, speckled trout and flounder.

Where these rivers meet the sea, marshes, inlets and feeder creeks edged with grassy banks harbor trout, along with oyster flats whose red drum are found "tailing" as they feed on shrimp and other crustaceans. Eddies formed by the rivers' flows meeting the incoming tides create ideal conditions for reds and trout to prey on baitfish disoriented by the clashing waters.

The inshore waters of the pair of great river mouths described below should, when fished with tactics designed for taking advantage of the conditions they offer, provide you springtime angling action as rich as the history of the seaports that sprang up along these rivers' edges.

Forming the border with Florida in the extreme southeast corner of Georgia is the St. Marys River, near the mouth of which lies the quaint seaport of St. Marys. At the midway point of our Atlantic coastline is the mouth of the largest of our state's flows, the Altamaha River, on whose banks Scottish settlers established the fishing village of Darien in the 1700s. Today both of those towns are jumping-off points for great fishing adventures.

ST. MARYS RIVER

The St. Marys River originates deep within the Okefenokee Swamp and then twists and turns along a 130-mile path to empty into Cumberland Sound. That point is just a few miles downstream of the historic town of St. Marys, is only 40 miles away from the river's origin as the crow flies.

Along its flow, this blackwater river forms the border between Georgia and Florida. During its race to the sea, the river changes character. From a narrow stream winding between banks of cypress trees backing snow-white sandbars, it widens in its middle section, bordered by bottomland swamps and sandy bluffs. Finally the St. Marys broadens to a full-fledged river at its mouth on Cumberland Sound.

Twice daily the tide flows inward and then rushes back out to where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. This tidal influence on the surrounding basin of marshes flushes out plenty of forage for red drum and speckled trout.

In these waters, Captain John King expertly guides clients to a variety of saltwater species. But year 'round, it's the action with reds and trout that sustains the fishery. Capt. King, who grew up fishing the waters surrounding St. Marys, turned his love for and knowledge of the area's angling into a profession.

Having met Capt. King at Lang's Marina on the old waterfront in St. Marys, our plan was for the fishing party to get into some big bull reds. Walking down the dock to the captain's boat, we passed beneath the shadow of the Cumberland Queen, the National Park Service ferry that shuttles passengers to and from Cumberland Island, which, besides being the largest of the Peach State's barrier islands, is also home to its namesake National Seashore.

Once on the water, Capt. King's first order of business was to provide plenty of live bait, preferably the pogies (the local name for menhaden) that big red drum prefer. As the captain explained, even though shrimp will catch the big reds, that bait often also attracts bait-stealers such as whiting and catfish, and using pogies eliminates that problem. In the deeper water where we were to target the bull reds, using the pogies even produces some larger seatrout.

The baitfish are located by looking for "working birds" -- gulls or terns diving onto the surface to feed on the small fish. In the absence of active birds, you can often still see the "busy water" that the schools of bait create as they swarm near the surface. With a little experience you can tell the difference between the popping that the shrimp make on the top and the wakes of the schools of minnows.

After a bit of scouting, with some hits and misses along the beach of southern Cumberland Island, our guide was able to use his cast net to fill the baitwell with pogies that were 2 to 4 inches long. It became quite evident to me that the persistence and aptitude Capt. King displayed with his cast net bode well for a successful day of saltwater fishing.

With the livewell full, we anchored along a jetty that jutted out along the north side of the mouth of the St. Marys. The tide was going out, and the conflict it created in colliding with the incoming waves caused whitecaps. The schools of baitfish trapped in the turmoil attracted the red drum.

Using heavyweight rods loaded with 50-pound braided line, we baited circle hooks with pogies, hooking the small fish just in front of the eye through its nostrils. Using the circle hook doesn't require setting the hook by jerking the rod upward. The fish hooks itself as it moves off with the bait. That makes the chances of the fish swallowing the hook much slimmer.

I lowered my bait into approximately 17 to 20 feet of water -- and within seconds the rod was bent in half! My first spottail of the day weighed over 20 pounds.

The location proved to be a good one. It didn't take us long to boat and release dozens of red drum ranging from 15 pounds upwards to more than 40 pounds. The biggest obstacle in the angling was that my arms were weary from holding the rod and reeling in the large number of big bull reds in such a short amount of time! Sheer excitement helped me to overcome that, along with a rod holder placed in the belt of my pants to support the butt of the rod while fighting the larger fish.

These fertile waters and associated marshes at the mouth of the St. Marys River provide ideal habitat for a number of other species, including seatrout and flounder. The beautiful unspoiled shores of Cumberland Island lie nearby as well, providing a great backdrop for the action. The island, which was once owned and occupied by the Andrew Carnegie family, is now a National Seashore, open to the public and home to wild horses that roam its beaches.

Long before the town of St. Marys was established in the late 1700s, the Guale, Timucuan, Creek, and Yamacraw Indians lived off the riches of the land and water. Once founded, the town became an important colonial se

aport for the state, hosting ships laden with cotton, hides, furs, dried meats and honey. The area later prospered from the lumber trade, shipbuilding, shrimping and fishing.

Today the town of St. Marys still maintains a quaint air reminiscent of its early years. Locals say: "You may leave St. Marys, but St. Marys will never leave you." If you're an angler, that saying's even truer.

ALTAMAHA RIVER

Situated almost midway on Georgia's coast is the quiet town of Darien, which sits atop the bluffs near the mouth of the mighty Altamaha River. The slow-moving waters of our state's largest river flow 137 miles from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers to the Atlantic Ocean, dumping 100,000 gallons of fresh water into Altamaha Sound every second. Unhampered by dams, the Altamaha basin encompasses 1.2 million acres as the river winds through 10 counties. Its watershed, one of the three largest basins on the Atlantic seaboard, drains approximately a quarter of the Peach State. It's no wonder that the marshes and sound at this great river's terminus attract shrimpers and fishermen alike.

The quiet fishing village of Darien today shows little physical evidence of its colorful history and periods of devastation. Indians had inhabited the area for centuries, but it was the Scots under James Oglethorpe who established the town of Darien. Prosperous plantations later sprang up, producing cotton and rice for world markets. The Altamaha provided a highway for rafts of oak, pine and cypress lumber to be floated down from the interior of the state.

Along the way the small town survived disastrous times, ravaged by fire in 1813 and a severe hurricane just a year later. In 1863, Darien suffered a worse fate at the hands of Union troops who burned nearly every building.

Fortunately, none of that affects the fisheries of the area today. Darien and nearby Two-Way Fish Camp now offer a gateway to this action.

Captain Mike Evans works out of Two-Way, which is at the south end of the bridge over the Altamaha near Darien. Capt. Evans has guided anglers on the inshore waters of the region for a number of years, taking advantage of knowledge he has gained from a professional life spent on these coastal waters. Mike Evans spent eight years as a marine patrol officer for the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and is now in his 20th year of teaching maritime law enforcement at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County.

On a recent trip with Capt. Evans we were a short run downstream from Two-Way, where the river fades into Altamaha Sound and then the Atlantic. The plan was to target seatrout and red drum in shallow water around Egg and Little Egg islands, small isles on the south side of the sound across from the Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Capt. Evans prefers fishing a moving tide. The most productive window is generally the last couple of hours of the outgoing tide and then the first part of the incoming water. With his boat anchored just along the break where the water dropped off a flat into depths of 10 feet or more, we were fishing towards the grassy banks of Little Egg Island. The trout were feeding on baitfish moving across a flat with the falling water.

We were using lightweight spinning gear with 20-pound-test line rigged with a live shrimp 3 to 4 feet below a popping cork. Capt. Evans suggested tossing the shrimp offering toward the grass, double-checking to see that the bait didn't hang up on the bottom. As long as the popping cork floated upright across the flat, the presentation was good.

After a few bumps on my line that and ended with no shrimp and no trout, the captain said that my bait was likely being stolen by "yellowtails," the local name for small silver perch that run about 6 to 9 inches in length and are considered a nuisance by many trout fishermen. On the other hand, a number of coastal anglers know how tasty yellowtails can be!

It was only a matter of minutes until the popping cork disappeared below the surface with a more pronounced tug of my line; I had my first trout of the day. From that point, the fish were cooperative, so after boating a few on live shrimp, we decided to switch to an artificial soft lure instead.

The choice was a Berkley Gulp in a shrimp pattern and natural shrimp color. These baits have a natural look to them, and are impregnated with scent that is released into the water. They worked just as well as do real shrimp, but offered a couple of advantages. A single bait held up to numerous takers without having to be replaced. Though the bait-stealing yellowtails hit it, they couldn't get it off the hook. According to Capt. Evans the Gulp often outfishes live bait.

For anglers, such as myself, who like to throw a fly to these inshore species, Capt. Evans' experienced boat handling and knowledge of the shallow waters are very useful. When the seatrout have revealed their presence by hitting the live shrimp or artificial lures, I like to toss a chartreuse Clouser Minnow -- and, often, the trout are greedy enough to accept. Fly-casters can also try pink-and-chartreuse, orange-and-brown or tan-and-white color combos of Clousers. Any brown or light-colored shrimp patterns may also work. Heavy monofilament weedguards help to keep the fly from hanging up near the spartina grass.

Plentiful in the creek channels and inlets of the Altamaha basin, red drum too are susceptible to fly-casting. Capt. Evans is always on the lookout for tailing red drum that feed on the bottom around oyster beds and grassy points. When they tip their heads down to forage on the bottom, their tails often stick up above the surface.

Sight-casting with a fly rod to these coppery spottails is especially fun. Again, Clouser Minnows -- especially orange or tan combos -- are good, but shrimp patterns or gold spoon flies also work. Don't be afraid to use a heavy tippet of 20-pound-test leader for reds. The stained waters of the Georgia coast don't require a lot of finesse in terminal tackle, and the heavier line aids in preventing cutoffs on the very sharp oyster shells when a hooked fish decides to make a run for it.

* * *

Springtime angling along the meandering inlets and golden grassy marshes of the Peach State's major river mouths is prime for catching your limit of saltwater fare. Speckled trout and red drum flourish in these fertile waters. It's a bonus that the area also offers such great scenery, and the opportunity to explore some of the picturesque villages of Georgia's Colonial Coast.

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