Though it couldn’t have been more than 20 miles from Savannah via U.S. Highway 80 to Tybee Island, the long ride down the palm-lined, two-lane road in the old ’48 Nash coupe seemed to take forever. Nevertheless, I was only 10 years old at the time, and the expectation of possibly hooking a huge “bull” channel bass was almost too much to fathom.
I had viewed, with admiration, some of the gigantic reddish tinted fish that my father and his friends had often brought home to eat. Their tales of battles with these finny adversaries in the pounding surf along the sandbars adjacent to Tybee had long been fodder for daydreams, and my excitement was running high!
The tide was going out fast by the time Dad parked the car near the southern tip of Tybee Island, and despite the poor visibility of predawn, I could make out a long strip of sand beginning to emerge from the pounding waves. To locals, this phantom piece of land that appeared and then disappeared with each tide was known as Pelican Island.
Because of swirling tides that passed around it when exposed, it had a history of producing great catches of huge “bull bass” on the outgoing or ebb tides, but Pelican Island had a nasty side too. The swiftness of the incoming tide formed fast currents that cut in behind those who stayed too long, and that earned this narrow spit of sand its reputation as a killer. Dad and his fishing friends were aware of this sandbar’s dangerous side, however, and used the tide tables to carefully plan each trip.
Since time was of the essence, Dad soon had the hooks baited with cut mullet, made a long cast out into the churning surf and handed me one of the heavy baitcasting outfits to mind. In less than a minute, I felt something pulling the big sinker and bait across the sandy bottom, so with my best baseball swing, I set the hook!
At 10 years old, I probably. didn’t weigh 60 pounds, and Dad had set the drag too tight. Even with my heels dug into the sand, the monster on the other end of my line was slowly pulling me toward the water’s edge. Luckily Dad got there in time and held the rod until he could back off on the drag. From then on, I played “tug-of-war” with that big channel bass for the next half-hour. I was totally exhausted when Dad helped me drag the 30-pounder up onto Pelican Island, but a boy’s dream of landing a trophy fish had been realized.
Though the road to Tybee has widened, the storms and tides have shifted the sands of Pelican Island somewhat and the Savannah area has grown tremendously since my childhood, one can still “have a shot” at a big channel bass from the southeast end of Tybee Island. With better casting reels and the popular “fish finder rig”, which consists of a 4 ounce egg-type, sliding sinker, followed by a barrel swivel, 3 feet of leader material and a #4/0 circle hook at the end, channel bass, croakers, spots, whiting and numerous other tasty saltwater species can be caught with finger mullet or shrimp from these briny waters near Savannah!
According to Capt. Judy Helmey, who is one of the most famous anglers and a lifelong resident of Savannah, Tybee Island is still one of the best places for fishermen without a boat to “wet a hook”. A virtual smorgasbord of excellent eating and fighting fish inhabit the other fertile waters of Savannah’s tidal rivers, creeks and beaches as well.
Other than the channel bass, one of the best eating and hardest fighting of Savannah’s fish is the sheepshead. These fish look and fight much like sunfish, but the big difference is that sheepshead of 3 to 5 pounds are common.
Finding a concentration of sheepshead is relatively easy. Rocks, pilings, jetties, or other structures with shell growth draw sheepshead like magnets. In the Savannah area, old bridge stubs, docks, and jetties abound.
One of the best things about fishing for sheepshead is that the bait is free. Sheepshead love to eat fiddler crabs, and anyone can catch them. A walk along any big sand flat with a plastic bucket as the tide is coming in should produce plenty of fiddlers for bait. The best ones are the lighter colored sand fiddlers or “china-backs” as the locals call them. Be careful, however, as the males have one large claw that can give a good pinch.
Usually 50 to 100 of the little crabs are enough for a family sheepshead trip, and keeping them alive only requires a little grass and water in the bottom of the bucket. It is also important to keep them cool and shaded if the weather is very warm.
Light to medium spinning or baitcasting outfits with 10 to 12 pound-test monofilament line makes a good sheepshead rig. Just slide a 1/4 to 2 ounce egg sinker (depending on the tide flow) on the line, and tie on a barrel swivel below the sinker. Then using 20 pound-test leader material, tie an 8 to 12 inch piece to the swivel with a small # I bait hook at the other end. The fiddler can then be hooked in any manner that will secure it to the hook.
Lower the rig down next to the structure until it hits the bottom, then reel it up 6 to 12 inches. Since the sheepshead is a master at stealing fiddler crabs off the hook, it requires more concentration to catch them than for other coastal fish. Hold the line with the index finger and slowly move it up and down 12 to 18 inches. If nothing feels different, then move it over or to another place, but if a slight tug is felt, set the hook sharply. Anytime the rig comes up without the bait, it’s a guaranteed sign that one of those “saltwater convicts” is present.
Like most intercoastal saltwater fish, however, the sheepshead is greatly affected by the tides. The best times for action are just prior to the low tide and as the tide is on the rise.
Probably the best eating fish available to shore fishermen in the Savannah area is the flounder. With both eyes on the same side of its head, the flounder has an odd appearance. Nevertheless, local fishermen may give friends and neighbors fillets from trout or redfish, but never from a flounder.
Flounder are found around structures near inlets to creeks, rivers, or bays, but are often caught while surf fishing from beaches. The flounder like the sheepshead has a preference for a bait that is both plentiful and free.
Mummichogs or mud minnows are easily caught by placing a small galvanized-metal minnow trap in one of the many tidal creeks on the outgoing tide. The trap should be baited with a crushed blue crab, some old shrimp heads, or a can of cat food with holes punched in it. Minnow traps are available from most hardware and sporting goods stores.
Many knowledgeable anglers prefer a sliding float rig like the one used for spotted sea trout. Instead of fishing the bait off the bottom as is done for trout, however, it should be allowed to bump the bottom for flounder. The float can be adjusted to allow the sinker to bounce along the bottom trailed by a 2 to 6 inch mud minnow hooked through the lips with a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook on an 18 to 24 inch leader.
Always fish the downstream side of the current. Just drop the rig straight down into the water and allow the minnow to bounce slowly away with the current. If nothing happens in 20 to 30 yards, reel it up and drop it over a few feet for another drift. This action is similar to fan casting a point for largemouth bass. Flounder usually wait in ambush slightly buried in the mud or sand and will Inhale the minnow as it drifts by. The visual indication is that the float will stop or jerk and slowly disappear. When this happens, count to ten and take up the slack.
Another rig that produces many flounder is very similar to the “Do-Nothing” worm rig for bass. Use a 1 to 2 ounce sliding sinker above a bead and barrel swivel. Tie 18 to 24 inches of leader below the swivel and hook a mud minnow through the lips with a 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook that is tied to the end of the leader. Carefully make a long cast with the rig, then drag it slowly along the bottom like it was a “Do-Nothing” worm. When a flounder tugs, begin to reel.
Because of the needle sharp teeth, never try to lift a flounder out of the water or the line will be cut. Always use a net, get help, or walk the fish to the nearest shoreline and beach it.
Numerous accessible areas near Savannah are prime spots to catch flounder without hiring a charter boat. The best sources of up-to-date fishing information are the Georgia DNR Coastal Resources Office in Brunswick, Georgia, (912) 264-7218, or Capt. Judy Helmey on Wilmington Island, (912) 897-4921.