Here in Georgia we're really lucky in so many ways. We actually get to enjoy four real seasons of weather, each with its special gifts, be they the new growth and promise of spring or the harvest and morning crispness of autumn. After Thanksgiving we have, it seems, only a moment before we move into the Christmas season and the New Year.
There is always so much to do in December and January that many sportsmen and women put aside their hunting and fishing gear for a time, yet to do so means missing out on some of the most enjoyable game and fish pursuits of the year.
Here we want to look at a variety of the open opportunities scattered around Georgia on the public lands available to all of us, from the mountains of our north to our eastern seacoast to the river swamps and lakes of our deep south.
We'll look first at the hunting, starting in the mountains of Game Region 2 in the northeastern corner of the state.
Most of Georgia's deer hunters have "put the season to bed" by December, venison already in the freezer for the months ahead. But for those diehard hunters who relish the hunt and love the stark beauty of steep mountains in winter, Warwoman Wildlife Management Area has an answer to "what now?"
There are two late hunts offered, December 7-10 and January 4-7. The game species available on these are deer (buck only), bears, and wild hogs. Like other mountain WMAs, deer are not as abundant as they are down south, but due to the remote and rugged terrain, bucks tend to grow older and sport larger antlers.
Bears don't really hibernate in the South as they do in colder climates, and they appear even after a snow. I have seen tracks in fresh snow more than once.
Warwoman has had hogs for years in numbers that have allowed late season hunting.
In addition to the beauty of the mountains themselves, there is always the element of surprise looking over your shoulder when hunting the dense cover of mountain laurel. The sound you hear moving your way could be deer, bear or hog, and whatever it is, if you're hunting in laurel, it'll be close!
The Warwoman WMA is located on 15,800 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Rabun County. From Clayton, take U.S. Highway 441 north and turn right on Warwoman Road. Go 3.5 miles to Finney Creek Road and turn left to go 0.2 miles to the checking station.
Senior Wildlife Biologist Kevin Lowery oversees the Warwoman WMA. He said there are about 58 acres of food plots scattered over the area, averaging about an acre apiece. Most are planted on a three-year rotation, with the dominant sowing being a clover mix.
The major access roads are along the creek drainages of Sarahs and Tuckaluge creeks.
"Hunt up high," Lowery suggested, "and get well off the road."
Hunt for remaining mast on the high places off the west side of the Hale Ridge Road. East of the road is national forest land outside the refuge.
Lowery also said that the December hunt would be less crowded, since by January the WMA hunt is "the only game in town." That's because the regular northern zone season ends on Jan. 1.
This is a rugged area, and not for the faint of heart. Success seldom comes easily here, but is all the sweeter when it does. Try the December hunt for the very best in the experience of a solitary winter mountain hunt.
HORSE CREEK WMA
Located in Telfair County, in the heart of Game Region 6, Horse Creek WMA is 8,100 acres of chiefly pine upland and hardwood river bottoms along the north side of a big bend in the Ocmulgee River.
I've had some good, successful hunts here over the years. This is river swamp country at its best, and it's always good to check on the water levels before going. There is a decent road system in the WMA that is good for 2-WD vehicles "most of the time."
There's a firearms hunt for deer of either sex and hogs on December 8-10, and an archery hunt for the same species from January 1-15.
Greg Waters, the Region 6 senior wildlife biologist with responsibility for Horse Creek, said that all the season's hunts together averaged out to a 16 percent success ratio last year, which is pretty good.
Around 15 to 25 acres of food plots are scattered through the area.
One question this year will be how much effect the legalization of baiting in the Southern Zone will have in drawing game off the WMAs onto near-by private land. Hogs will likely be more affected than deer.
This January archery hunt is a good one for bow hunters who want a late-season experience that offers both deep swamp and pine upland hunting in a unique and interesting WMA.
To get to Horse Creek WMA, go to Jacksonville, then take State Route 117 east for 6 miles, and turn right at the WMA sign. At the information board, turn right and follow the road to the check station.
For our third winter hunt we'll look at the 6,400-acre Clybel WMA at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Middle Georgia. This site in Game Region 4 is ideal for breaking out the shotguns for a late-season dove hunt.
Clybel almost always has a great hunt, with a quota of 200 hunters, early on when the young birds are vulnerable. But late in the season you're looking at mature, hunt-wise birds that usually fly high with a winter wind behind them. This time of the season really separates the men from the boys. The WMA is open for doves November 25 to December 6, December 11 through 14, and December 19 thru the end of dove season on January 7.
Charlie Killmaster, the senior wildlife biologist for Region 4, gave us a few tips for enjoying the late-season hunts at Clybel.
"These birds offer more exciting shooting. There's not as much food left in the plantings, which are chiefly millet, but the birds really hit the patches of pokeweed that are plentiful in our power line cuts at this time of year.
"A dog is a real help now," he continued, "both for finding down birds in the thick ground cover of power cuts and for stirring up the feeding doves and getting them in the air. There's a good WMA power cut just of SR 11."
Clybel WMA is reached from Mansfield by taking SR 11 south for 5.7 miles to Shepherd Road. Then go left 1.1 miles to the check station on the right.
We've looked at some hunting options, now let's look at a variety of opportunities for the Georgia anglers in winter.
The Toccoa River in the northwestern Game Region 1 is one of the South's most outstanding trout streams. A unique aspect of this fishery is that in winter it offers a delayed-harvest section above Blue Ridge Lake for catch and release fishing, and a section of tailwater fishing below the dam open, where fishermen can keep their the catch.
The delayed harvest section of the Toccoa extends from just upstream of the Sandy Bottom canoe launch area to just above the Shallowford Bridge. It is clearly marked for the fishermen. Much of this section is wader friendly, but a canoe or kayak will allow better coverage of the area.
This portion of the stream is heavily stocked and some large trout are present for quality fishing.
Fisheries Biologist John Darmer said the good news for this winter was about back to normal after a drawdown to repair the dam. Around 13,000 trout had been stocked below the dam, including some really large brood fish, to make up for losses during the repair period.
Darmer also offered some advice on the fishing. On the upper river, in the delayed harvest section, the winter fish tend to be in the deep holes, where the key is using weight and fishing deep.
"The tailwaters are regulated at the dam." he said, "and the water downstream is shallower and warmer so that on a pleasant winter day fish near the surface and even try dry flies."
There are good lower river wading spots at Tammen Park, Curtis Switch, and Horseshoe Bend Park. The float from the dam down to Curtis Switch makes a good day trip, but you always need to check on the water-release schedule before hitting the stream. The rapid change in flow and depth can make any tailwater fishing dangerous.
A good contact for river conditions is Unicoi Outfitters in Blue Ridge. Their telephone number is (706) 632-1880. These folks offer guided float trips, any equipment you might need, and the best up-to-the-minute advice on current fishing as well as directions to the various access points on the river.
Spud Woodward, the Director of the Coastal Resources Division for the Department of Natural Resources, suggested light tackle fishing for redfish as a winter option. These fish are in the 20- to 30-inch range and found in the shallow water around the coastal Golden Isles. This is stalking and sight-casting action on the tidal flats, much like the bonefishing in south Florida.
In January the migrating bottlenose dolphins push the reds into the shallow water to escape, and they are visible to fishermen. A careful approach and light presentation with an 8-weight fly rod or medium spinning rig is more effective than heavy tackle under these conditions. Woodward also says he has had good success with the current crop of scented, biodegradable lures like the Berkley Gulp!.
To get in on this action, one recommended area is the shallow areas inland of Jekyll Island. Basically, you're seeking the tidal flats that offer refuge for your quarry at this time of year. If you bring your own boat, there's a public launching ramp at the Mackay River on the Torras Causeway leading out to St. Simons Island. Also nearby you can charter a guide at the Morning Star Marina at Golden Isles at the east end of the causeway. Call Capt. Mark Noble at (912) 638-7673.
Last, but certainly not the least of our half-dozen winter excursions, let's look at Lake Seminole, long heralded as a top winter bass fishing spot. Seminole is large, shallow, weedy, and full of fish.
Rob Weller is the regional supervisor for fisheries in southwest Georgia. He is enthusiastic about winter action at Seminole.
"The lake is especially good at this time because the hydrilla that clogs so much of the water dries out some now and the flows pick up, lanes clear, and December and January are pre-spawn months when the bass are feeding heavily.
"Another plus is that it's not so hot and sticky — no bugs, and just some beautiful, warm winter days, even in January," he continued. "There are a lot of good-sized bass here, and our fish are exceptionally fat and healthy."
Weller suggested fishing the edges of the remaining hydrilla cover, and the patches of standing timber, where there are some deeper spots.
"The fish are still pretty deep," he said, then recommended, "almost any soft plastic baits. These fish aren't pushovers, but they hit better here than in many lakes."
Access to Seminole is easy. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Web site includes maps of the lake, with boat ramp and campground information.
Wingate's Lodge on the Flint River arm of the lake is a good starting point, with full facilities and all the current fishing information you can use. Check out their Web site at http://wingateslodge.com/.
Also, Seminole State Park on the Spring Creek arm off SR 253 has nice cabins, boat launching facilities, and other amenities.
SUMMING IT UP
So there you have it — a winter adventure in six of the seven Game Regions of Georgia. No matter where you live, at least one of these options is close by.