By Jimmy Jacobs
The waters around Georgia’s Golden Isles provide a sanctuary for a wide array of marine and bird life. Among these are both common species and ones that are much less often seen. Even the abundant species offer some surprises for folks not familiar with the region. For instance, the waters of St. Andrews Sound between Jekyll and Cumberland islands host one of the largest spawning grounds for sharks on the eastern seaboard. That’s why Atlantic sharpnose, lemon, bonnethead and a number of other members of this predatory family are so abundant in our waters.
Of particular note, however, are some of the far less common creatures that can be found around the isles. In the air, bald eagles soar over the creeks and marshes. Beneath the water, gentle manatees migrate along the shore in warmer months, while just offshore the endangered right whales have their traditional calving grounds.
But if you are in search of a truly rare critter, try finding a saltwater flyfisherman on the waters around Cumberland Island. Though the sport is one of the fastest-growing segments within fishing circles in the nation, that tidal wave of interest has not yet swept over the extreme South Georgia coast. And that is what makes Capt. Paul Proctor of Cabin Bluff such a rare Peach State bird!
Proctor grew up on the water, spending much of his younger years fishing and boating in the same areas he concentrates on today. But it was the discovery of fly-casting a couple of years back that prompted a career change on his part. Once he got a taste of chasing saltwater species with a long rod, he became so enmeshed in the sport that he started guiding. For the past two years he has been taking parties of anglers out of the Sea Island Corporation’s Lodge at Cabin Bluff. Additionally, he spends his free time either guiding other clients or fishing himself.
The captain admits that only about 15 percent of the folks fishing with him use fly rods, with the rest sticking with tried-and-true bait-fishing technique. But his passion for fly-fishing and his expertise in putting other fly-casters on fish set him apart. It was also that reputation which enticed Polly Dean and me to hook up with Capt. Paul to sample the waters around Cumberland for speckled trout.
Our trip originated at the dock in Crooked River State Park, obviously on the Crooked River, just north of St. Marys and the sprawling Naval Station Kings Bay. The base is home to a portion of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet.
From the ramp we ran down Crooked River and then turned south through Cumberland Sound. In the process we skirted east of Kings Bay, with its massive covered submarine pens. Along the way Capt. Proctor explained that an unusual hazard to watch for in these waters is one of the big subs putting to sea. The problem is not that vessel itself, but rather the fleet of patrol boats – sporting .50-caliber machineguns – that sweep ahead, broadcasting a warning over loudspeakers to all boaters to give the submarine a wide berth. Fortunately, we missed out on that sideshow during our trip.
The first stop of the day was a series of marsh grass beds in the extreme southern end of Cumberland Sound where it joins the St. Marys River. These grass stands go collectively by the name of Marsh Island, and judging from the number of other boats milling about bait-fishing, this is a hotspot for trout but not a secret.
Dropping his trolling motor, Capt. Proctor began working the boat northward along the shore, keeping us about a 50-foot cast from the marsh grass. It took but moments to begin appreciating a guide who is himself a fly-caster.
All along the Georgia coast, there are good guides who can put you on fish. On the other hand, those who have any experience with flyfishermen are few and far between. Their boats are usually not very conducive to fly-casting with regard to maneuvering, having a shallow draft, or being free of line-grabbing clutter.
Needless to say, paying attention to wind direction is also quite important in fly-casting, so the guide has to constantly position the boat for best results as well. That becomes particularly true when you have an angler in each end of the boat lashing the air with yards of fly line. On all of these accounts, Capt. Proctor acquitted himself and his equipment well.
Of course, anytime you take to Georgia’s coastal waters with a fly rod, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. For a long period, it was commonly thought that our water is too dark and stained to offer good fly-fishing prospects. Only in the last decade has that impression been seriously challenged. While the off-colored water makes putting the fly right on the fish more important, when you find the trout, they will readily attack a variety of streamers.
As we moved along Marsh Island, we were using 7- and 8-weight rods and reels with floating lines, but Capt. Proctor often fishes setups as light as 5 weight when targeting speckled trout. This shoreline is at its best when the tides are high, flooding back into the vegetation. Unlike red drum, trout do not push their way back into the grass, but cruise the edges, ambushing prey. For that reason, Capt. Proctor directed our casts as close to the stems as possible. We were also using tippets made of 10- to 15-pound test to withstand the abrasion resulting from a hooked fish getting into the grass. These heavier leaders do not spook the fish, since the line is not very visible in the dark waters found on the Peach State coast.
As far as how he picked the exact areas we should concentrate our casts on, there was an unseen factor. He was putting us on spots that held flooded shell beds, also known as oyster rakes. These are exposed at low tide, but were now up to a couple of feet under water. The combination of this hard bottom and the weed line made for excellent trout habitat.
Talking with Proctor about these oyster beds prompted a question that I have posed to many veteran anglers and coastal guides all along the Southeastern seaboard: What is it that makes one oyster bed hold fish regularly, while others that are seemingly identical rarely or never have predators hanging around them? His answer was the same one I have heard everywhere else. There simply is no rhyme or reason to it. Over a period of time, guides and frequent anglers simply learn which rakes to target – and which tide level is best for each – but there are no definitive factors that make those better for the fish than others.
The flies we were tossing to the gras
s line were standard patterns noted for attracting seatrout. Capt. Proctor’s favorite, and one he ties himself, is an unweighted Seaducer in a red-and-yellow color scheme. Other good choices are Clouser Minnows in pink-and-green or tan-and-white patterns.
From summer on into late fall, the places in which Capt. Proctor finds speckled trout are in the bays and sounds near the barrier islands. He does most of his fishing from the jetties at the mouth of the St. Marys River to St. Andrews Bay at the northern end of Cumberland Island. Though the trout hold in water up to about 5 feet deep during these seasons, he runs his flies only about a foot beneath the surface.
One surprising point that he did make is that he fly-casts for trout year ’round, even in the dead of winter. And if you get a break in the cold weather in the midst of that season, the fishing is often at its best. That is because the trout are concentrated. If they start feeding during a mild-weather snap, it is possible to catch a number of them at a single location. In the colder months, however, the trout do abandon the sounds, moving farther inland into tidal creeks and rivers.
Unfortunately, during our day on the water the fishing was proving quite slow, particularly evidenced by the fact that surrounding bait-anglers were doing a lot of lounging in their boats. The fish were simply not feeding, whether they were offered flies or live shrimp.
After Marsh Island we next tried running up in Beach Creek on the south end of Cumberland Island. This tidal stream backs into the isle all the way to the site of the ruins of the Carnegie family mansion, Dungeness. But we again drew a blank.
At this point, on a falling tide, Capt. Proctor led us to one last location. It was the mouth of a tiny, unnamed tidal creek emptying into the north fork of Crooked River. At first sight I was not impressed. Seatrout are noted for seeking clear water, which on the Georgia coast means water into which you can see 18 to 20 inches. The flow from this creek was just plain muddy.
The captain, however, explained that it was rushing out of the marsh over a shell bed that was 3 feet beneath the surface, but the water then dropped down to about 20 feet. With Polly on the front casting platform, I took up a station at the rear of the boat and we began working the flies through the flow.
Quickly I got that first familiar bump followed by the pressure of a fish on the line. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a silver perch, which is known locally as a yellowtail. These small bait-stealers are the bane of bait-fishermen because they are constantly nipping the legs and eyes off live shrimp. Obviously, they also will attack a streamer, especially if you let it hesitate at any point during the retrieve. I proved that by hooking a half dozen of the tiny warriors.
Meanwhile, on the front of the boat, Polly had discovered the key to the trout. She was letting her pink-and-green Clouser sink in the muddy flow before retrieving. As it tumbled over the drop in bottom contour, there were speckled trout waiting to inhale it. She quickly boated several of the spotted predators. Eventually, I even duplicated her tactic to put a trout in the boat as well.
Apparently, the muddy water from the creek was being pushed as a column near the surface over clearer water beneath. The trout were lying down there, picking off forage that was being delivered to them.
Our day of angling ended on an up note because Capt. Paul Proctor was familiar enough with the area to go against common knowledge. The spot where we caught the trout was definitely one that we would have bypassed without a second thought.
To check availability and rates or to book a day of guided light-tackle or fly-fishing for speckled trout around Cumberland Island with Capt. Paul Proctor, contact him at (912) 266-6683, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Arrangements can be made to begin the trip at either Crooked River State Park or the downtown St. Marys Public Boat Ramp.
For more information on The Lodge at Cabin Bluff, visit their Web site on the Internet, located at www.cabinbluff.com.
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