MARCH STRIPER FROM LANIERFor those who love fishing rivers, this is the beginning of a memorable spring season! Stripers and white bass are in the beginning stages of their annual spawning migration up into the Chattahoochee and Chestatee Rivers above Lake Lanier,  the walleyes are already on their spawning run, crappie are moving shallow, and a “Chattahoochee Grand Slam” (a shoal bass, largemouth bass, and a spotted bass on the same day) is now possible in the upper reaches of the lake above Belton Bridge.

A few days of extra-warm weather has triggered the mating instinct in the white bass and striped bass, and the run is on in the northernmost waters of the Chattahoochee and Chestatee Rivers. The excitement began as soon as the temperature crept above the 50 degree mark, and all the muddy water from recent rains had cleared.

Many of the migrating white bass and stripers travel up into the Chestatee River as far as the shoals above Highway 400 or on the Chattahoochee River to the rocky runs above Belton Bridge. Without proper knowledge or the right type of boat, however,  anglers often find themselves in life threatening situations in the upper rivers. Therefore, so that my clients can sample the great white bass and striper fishing, the walleye spawn, and have a chance at the “Slam” in these areas in safety, I use a specially-designed, jet-powered, aluminum river boat.
Though not in as large numbers, white bass and striped bass are also found in areas south of the river shoals where they are more accessible to conventional craft.  These fish seem to prefer sandy flats near the moving water of one of the main river channels.

The area from White Sulphur Access Point north to Lula Bridge on the Chattahoochee and from Wilkie Bridge to just north of Lumpkin County Park on the Chestatee side is excellent.  Especially productive spots are the mouth of Yellow Creek and the big bend in the river near Lumpkin County Park.
Casting the edge of these flats with my 1/8th or 1/4 ounce Swirleybirds,  Blakemore Roadrunners, or 1/8th ounce jig and curlytail grubs can be effective as a means of locating the schools. White or chartreuse are always excellent color choices.
Other white bass and stripers make their spawning runs into major tributaries around the lake. Flowery Branch, Bald Ridge, Six-Mile, Four-Mile, and Flat Creeks are good spawning areas for these fish.

The striped bass and their cousins, the white bass, are headed north again, and for those lucky enough to locate a large school of either species, it can be an explosive experience. Also, a chance at catching a “Chattahoochee Grand Slam” is possible for the next two months. So, if you need more information, guide service, or Swirleybird spinners, check www.georgiafishing.com.

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The bright-eyed and exited young boy watched as his dad battled a small bass then lifted it into the boat. Since the fish certainly wasn’t a “lunker”, the father decided to teach his young son about “catch and release”. As soon as the bass quit flopping around at the end of the line, the older angler grasped the fish around its mid-section, carefully removed the hooks, and pitched the bass back into the water.

PROPERLY_HANDLING_A_BASSThe youngster seemed disappointed and somewhat puzzled by this action, so the father explained, “Son, that bass was pretty small, and it’s a lot better to release him now so that he can grow up. We might even catch him again when he’s a lot bigger.”

Having appeared to satisfy the boy, the father was sure that he had done the proper thing by teaching his son about “catch-and-release”, but was he correct? The answer is definitely ……….NO!

What the father didn’t know about fish probably contributed to the eventual death of the one he caught. Considering the rough handling the small fish received before being released, it would have been more humane to have kept the bass to eat.

Though many anglers seem to view the fish’s scales as some sort of armor coating, what they don’t realize is that the actual protective barrier is an almost invisible screen of slime on the exterior of the scales. This slime shield is the equivalent of the skin on human bodies. Without this mucus coating, the fish will die.

Since the father in the opening scenario had grasped the small bass around the midsection, he had certainly removed or damaged much of the fish’s slime coat. So, rather than doing a good deed, he had actually sentenced the bass to a slow death by infection, which happens consistently during most bass tournaments.
The proper way to handle a bass or other fish with fine teeth is by firmly grasping the lower jaw. This can be greatly enhanced by placing the thumb slightly into the mouth, pointing the index finger of the same hand upwards under the jaw and forcing the fish’s jaw downward. When done properly, this practically paralyzes the fish and allows easy handling or hook removal.

Handling a fish in this manner eliminates trying to hold a slimy, squirming fish by the body. It also takes away the possibility of damaging the mucus or squeezing the fish enough to hurt it internally.

Some dangers, however, are always present when holding a bass by the lower lip, especially if it has a crankbait with several treble hooks hanging from the lure. Extreme care must be exercised when attempting to grasp a hooked fish. First wait until the fish has ceased to fight, then insert the thumb into its mouth on the opposite side from the lure.

Other practices that are detrimental to fish would have to include nylon or wire nets. These tend to scrape off the fish’s protective coating as well. Soft rubber nets may not be as strong or last as long, but they are are much better for the fish.

Though fish fight valiantly and appear to be strong and hardy creatures, a slight action like rubbing one’s hand down its side might spell death. “Catch-and-release” is great, but sentencing a fish to a slow death by mishandling is inhumane!

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“Out of the hills of Habersham, down through the valleys of Hall, I hurry amain to reach the plain, run the rapid and leap the fall, split at the rock and together again, accept my bed, or narrow or wide, and flee from folly on every side, with a lover’s pain to attain the plain, far from the hills of Habersham, far from the valleys of Hall.”

Though I was in my preteens before I ever saw the Peach State’s most magnificent river, my Mother taught me that first verse of Sidney Lanier’s famous poem, “Song of the Chattahoochee”, before I reached my sixth birthday. Since then, however, I have had the pleasure of sampling the potpourri of fabulous fishing opportunities while visually feasting on some of Georgia’s finest vistas from the hills north of Helen to Lake Seminole, where the Chattahoochee joins the Flint to become the Apalachicola River prior to pouring its fertile waters into the Gulf of Mexico. With the beginning of trout season this month, some basic knowledge of the upper Chattahoochee River seems to be an appropriate subject.

KAYAK_ON_UPPER_HOOCHThe first trickle of a stream that biologists consider the extreme headwaters of the Chattahoochee actually begins in Union County. Other small streams like Henson Creek have their beginnings in adjacent Towns County, and much of the trout-rich upper Chattahoochee River is in White County. Therefore, despite the beautiful words, Sidney Lanier left out much of this famous river at the start of his poem.

Though only accessible to the toughest of the trout fishing clan because of the remoteness of the area, the upper Chattahoochee and Henson Creek are still home to some of the last native eastern brook trout in the southeast. Though they seem to be thriving in these creeks that are hidden by undergrowth, they can’t stand much fishing pressure.

Farther down, one can catch both stocked and native rainbow trout in Low Gap and Jasus Creeks. Also, Spoilcane Creek runs down from the vicinity of Unicoi Gap alongside Highway 75 north of Robertstown. It can be seen from the highway, and is easy for anyone to fish. Certain sections, however, run through private property, so check before wetting a hook.

Most of the mainstream of the upper Chattahoochee River is in the WMA and can be accessed from Forest Service Road 52. This section has both wild trout and stocked rainbows, browns, and brooks during the season.

From the Highway 75 Alternate Bridge at Robertstown south through the town of Helen, one can now catch stocked trout year-round. This is an especially popular and scenic stretch of the river, and can be extremely busy with canoe or tube traffic at times. Nevertheless, it is a good place for Dad to fish while the wife and kids enjoy the carnival atmosphere and great shopping in the Alpine village of Helen.

Actually catching the small trout from the farthest upper sections of the Chattahoochee and its tiny tributaries is very difficult because of the size of these waters and the undergrowth. Nevertheless, if one is willing to get on your knees at times, and present diminutive, #16 dry or wet flies in almost cane pole-fashion, wild brook and rainbow trout can be caught. Farther down in parts of the WMA, more normal casting is possible, and from Robertstown through the town of Helen, the fishin’ is easy for even a novice fly caster.

Fishing is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the falls and store at historic Nora Mills. Also, the river from below Nora Mills down to the Highway 255 bridge along the White/Habersham County line has poor public access, and private landowners often take offense to trout fishermen or whitewater enthusiasts that come in contact with their property. Therefore, it is not recommended trying to fish this stretch of the Chattahoochee River.

By putting in at the Highway 255 bridge, however, one can float a beautiful section of the Chattahoochee that meanders through long quiet stretches that are only broken by occasional rapids. This section of the river from Highway 255 down to Highway 115 bridge is about five miles long and can be navigated by most any experienced person with a canoe, kayak, rubber raft or float tube.

The only dangerous spot is the Smith Island Rapid, which is about three miles into the float. It is a Class II rapid that is usually run by staying left for the first two ledge series, then moving right for the bottom chute, which empties into a picturesque pool with a grotto-like setting. If the water level is above three feet, the right side of the island is also navigatable, but be sure to maintain a route that is right of center.

Larger flies, streamers, small spinners or the smallest floating or sinking injured minnow lures are best on this first fishable section of the Chattahoochee below Helen. One can usually catch a few of the small stocked trout, but will occasionally hook a trophy-sized rainbow or brown trout.

TROUT_FROM_UPPER_HOOCHAnother five mile float is also possible from the Highway 115 bridge downstream to the Highway 384 bridge. This section, however, should not be attempted unless one possesses excellent whitewater skills. The Class II and III rapids during the first mile at Buck Island Shoals, at Three Ledges during the third mile and the tricky falls in the Horseshoe Rapid in the fourth mile are a test for even the most experienced. Nevertheless, if one has the experience, this section of the Chattahoochee River is both scenic and very productive at times, but a little knowledge of these rough spots is helpful.

During the first half mile downstream from the Highway 115 bridge, several small rapids must be navigated followed by a ninety degree left-hand bend, then the river starts to become much steeper in its descent into Buck Island Shoals. This is a very long combination ledge and shoal series that is quite technical at low water and very testy at high water. One should attempt the initial drops on the far left side and remain there until past the first couple of tiny islands, then cut back toward the main channel so that the middle section of this shoal is run right of center. Buck Island will be on the left, and at high water this stretch can be run on the left side of that island.

After clearing Buck Island, a short, calm section is encountered followed by another long, technical section with granite outcrops on the bottom right. If the water is low through here, one has to carefully traverse the far right side and be watchful for a partially submerged rock below the bottom ledge that is known for flipping boats over. When the water is high, all three sections of the Buck Island Shoals become one very long rapid with big waves, fast water, and tricky crosscurrents, and can generally be floated by maintaining a line right of center throughout the section.

As one drifts through a long Class I shoal during the third mile of this float, outcrops of granite on the right side will signal the first drop of the Three Ledges. It should be run to the left of a long, hot dog-shaped rock, then steer back to the right prior to reaching the second ledge, which requires a S-turn through some low, broken ledges during the descent. After this second ledge, maintain a line right of center for a short distance then work back toward the left before attacking the third ledge, which is a three foot drop that extends the width of the river. The best place to go over this small falls is just to the left of the hump in the center. If one ventures too far to the left, then you add to the coloring of “Rainbow Rock”, which got its name from the many colors of ABS canoes that have landed on this rock over the years.

The last rapid in this float is the Class III Horseshoe Rapid and may be the toughest for most people to negotiate. Just after entering the fourth mile of this float, one passes through a rocky little Class I shoal followed by a sharp left-hand bend in the river. As the river starts to straighten out here, many people are fooled by the quick drop of the False Horseshoe Rapid, which looks like the entrance to the much tougher rapid waiting about a quarter of a mile farther downriver.

If the water is normal to slightly higher than normal, one can stay more to the left of center and miss the higher, tricky center section of the Horseshoe Rapid. During low water, however, you must start right of center, enter angled to the left, then make a hard right to keep from becoming a statistic on the rocks below.
If you survive Horseshoe Rapid, the river is immediately joined by the Soque River coming in from the left side. From here down to the old iron bridge just north of the Highway 384 Duncan Bridge, which is the best place to take out, is an easy float.

Though extremely exciting to navigate, the section down from Highway 115 contains plenty of choice hiding places for big trout. These fish will hit streamers, spinners, small crankbaits and floating or sinking injured minnow lures.

From the Duncan Bridge all the way to Lula Bridge is another all day float, which has been handled by many novice boaters. A few rough shoals are encountered, but none that are too dangerous for anyone using good common sense.

Trout from Upper HoochTrout on this section of the river are few and far between, but when caught, they usually exceed seventeen inches in length. Instead of the trout, however, many fat, acrobatic shoal bass are caught with Swirleybird spinners.

Despite the fact that trout thrive in both the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers above Lake Lanier, none seem to venture down into the lake naturally. The few trout that are caught in Lake Lanier today are commercially-raised rainbows that have been released by striper fishermen using them for bait. Until 1987, however, trout were stocked in Lake Lanier annually, but due to changing water conditions, different angling interests, the addition of striped bass, and the cost of the stocking program, it was ended.

Nevertheless, great trout fishing still exists from below Buford Dam to the mouth of Peachtree Creek in northwest Atlanta. Much of this section of the river maintains a healthy population of resident brown and rainbow trout, but the Georgia DNR also stocks heavily during the trout season from April through October.
Though many of the shallower, shoal sections of this lower part of the Chattahoochee can be waded, float tubes, rubber rafts, or smaller boats seem to be more popular for most trout fishermen. Just pick a section of the river that is not too long, get a buddy to put his car at one end of the float and yours at the other. Check the power generation schedules at Buford Dam and Morgan Falls Dam, if applicable.

Though more dangerous for waders, power generation is accompanied by a rapid rise in the water level and a tremendous increase in the speed of the river’s flow. A recording of the intended power generation schedule at Buford Dam is available by calling (770) 945-1466.

Warmer days often find trout anglers traveling to faraway destinations to find better fishing. The beauty that Sidney Lanier described in his poem so long ago, however, is still within easy reach for any angler. The river is always cool and comfortable, and the trout fishing is usually much better than that found in some “greener pastures”!

Excellent additional information is available in the book, “Trout Fishing in North Georgia”, which is available from: Jimmy Jacobs, 810 Wendy Hill Road, 22G, Smyrna, GA, 30080. Also helpful is the book, “Secrets to Fishing Lake Lanier”, which is available postpaid for $13 from: Fishing Book, PO Box 1222, Lawrenceville, GA, 30046.

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loDNR_BIOLOGISTS_SAMPLE_FISHCatching, cooking, and eating fish can be a wonderful experience, but due to pollution being added to our waters daily, one must become educated as to which ones are safe. Therefore, it is quite important to keep abreast of the latest findings of the diligent biologists of the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD).

Additional lakes and river segments are continually being added to the list of sites that have fish consumption guidelines in Georgia. The primary contaminant found in fish from listed waterways is mercury, and guidelines range from no restrictions to a restriction of one meal per month, depending on the size and species of the fish.
Following the introduction of fish consumption guidelines in 1995, a five year rotating schedule to track trends in fish contaminant levels was begun. Priority for testing fish was based on rivers and streams downstream of urban and/or industrial areas as well as areas frequented by a large number of anglers.

Each year, WRD fisheries biologists provide fish from waterways throughout the state to the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for contaminant testing. Each year, the EPD tests more waterways, which leads to new fish consumption advisories.

Though mercury is found in low concentrations in many species of fish throughout the country, the level set for mercury by the EPA is extremely low. Since the EPA lowered the level for mercury in 1995, fish consumption guidelines for mercury have been added to waterways where they were not needed under earlier testing levels. In the past, fish consumption guidelines in Georgia were driven primarily by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and chlordane. Both of these contaminants were traced to industrial materials in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which have since been banned. Their levels are slowly decreasing in the fish that are tested. The source of mercury is much harder to trace.

loLANDING_A_LANIER_STRIPERLanding a Lanier StriperMercury is a naturally occurring metal that recycles between land, water, and air, and is also produced from municipal and industrial sources and from fossil fuels. Unlike many contaminants that can be traced to industrial and municipal discharges, agricultural practices, and storm water runoff, mercury contamination is related to global atmospheric transport. In this way, mercury found in fish in this state could be a byproduct, not only from fossil fuel use and industrial activities in Georgia, but also from these kinds of causes initiated far beyond the state’s borders.

Global atmospheric transport is a difficult concept for most people to understand, but citizens need to realize that industrial activities in other states, or even on other continents can, in fact, impact them in their own backyards. Georgia is not the only state that has increased fish consumption guidelines driven by mercury levels. Florida has also found high levels of mercury in fish in the Everglades that has lead to strict fish consumption guidelines in that state.

A variety of different fish species are tested each year for 43 separate contaminants, including metals, organic chemicals, and pesticides. The only three contaminants that show up in significant levels are PCB’s, chlordane, and mercury.

Fish consumption guidelines are designed to protect public health and provide the public with more useful information on eating fish from Georgia waters. It is important to keep in mind that these guidelines are based on eating fish with similar contamination from the same waterway over a period of 30 years or more. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children may wish to limit fish consumption to a greater extent than the level listed in the fish consumption guidelines.

One can view the fish consumption guidelines in the Freshwater and Saltwater Sport Fishing Regulations, which can be found at all WRD offices and wherever fishing licenses are sold, or contact the Wildlife Resources Division at (770) 918-6418.

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CATFISH_FROM_ALTAMAHA_RIVERThough its bewhiskered countenance is not one of the most beautiful sights, the catfish is certainly one of the most prolific and largest of fishes in Georgian waters. Despite its homely appearance, “Old Whiskers” is an excellent adversary on a rod and reel, and very tasty when fried golden-brown in a hot cast iron skillet. Nevertheless, according to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, too few anglers in our state are taking advantage of the great numbers of big catfish that abound in the Peach State.

The Altamaha River has become known as one of the premier flathead catfish rivers in the southeast. Although flathead catfish or “Appaloosa’s” are thriving in the river, fishing pressure remains low. On an average day trip, one can land 10 to 20 catfish that average 3 to 25 pounds, and 30 to 50 pound flatheads are not uncommon.

The better fishing for these huge cats occurs in deep holes located along the channel side of the river. An electronic sonar unit is useful in locating these places, but almost any local tackle store can tell you where to find the flatheads.

When using sporting tackle, a minimum of 30 pound test line is recommended because of the large size the flatheads attain and the abundant snags in the river. Live baits are the most popular way to attract these huge catfish. Some favorites are are large worms (Louisiana pinks), shiners, and bream.

Set lines or limb lines are also a popular and effective way to harvest the big flatheads. Since flatheads are more active at night and depth is not critical, most anglers fish limb lines overnight using hand-sized bream.

Catfishing Near Old SternwheelThough flatheads are prevalent throughout the river, the river near Jesup, Georgia, which is in Wayne County, is usually the best. The Wayne County area also boasts three of the best Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) in our state (Little Satilla, Rayonier, and Sansavilla) for hunting trophy deer, wild hogs, and other small game.

CATFISHING_NEAR_OLD_STERNWHEELJaycees Landing near Jesup, Georgia has a good boat ramp and everything needed for a successful fishing or hunting trip. Home of Altamaha River Expeditions, it offers hunting and fishing guide service, canoe and kayak rentals, camping, on-river housing rentals, and license sales. They can be contacted at (912) 427-6570, (912) 588-9222, or at their web site: www.altamahariverexpeditions.com

The Jesup area also offers numerous historical sites and many unique eateries. Special needs and excellent information are always available from the friendly folks at the Jesup-Wayne County Tourism Board by calling toll-free (888) 224-5983.

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One of the proudest moments in my life was when I was the first Southern fishing guide to be inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame at Hayward, Wisconsin as a “Legendary Guide” in 1993! Instead of having me travel to Hayward at that time, however, the Hall of Fame sent one of their directors and a good friend of mine, Larry Columbo, to the awards banquet of the Red Man All American Bass Championship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. During the ceremonies that evening, Larry made a special presentation of my plaque in front of a packed house of my fishing peers. It was an unforgettable experience.

The idea of developing an attraction and museum to collect, preserve, and display artifacts of the sport of fresh water fishing, recognize famous anglers, and keep world record catches was explored initially by Hall of Fame Founder, Bob Kutz and his wife Fannie in 1960. Thanks to donations by individuals and a long-range program started by the Jim Beam whiskey distillers of Chicago and Kentucky to raise the necessary funds, the National Fresh Water Hall of Fame became a reality in 1970.

Today, the Hall of Fame sits on six, city-donated, beautifully landscaped acres of land strategically located in the heavily traveled vacation area of Hayward, Wisconsin. It annually attracts more than 100,000 visitors through its gateway building to view the inner part of the Hall.

Of course, the highlight of any visit, especially with the younger set, is a landmark “Shrine to Anglers”, which is a structure one-half a city block long and four and one-half stories tall. Concrete, steel, and fiberglass were used to hand-sculpture the likeness of a huge leaping muskie. After climbing the stairs into the belly of the big fish, one can enjoy the museum or climb the inside stairs to its gaping jaw, which is an observation platform that can accommodate up to twenty persons.

Across an open grassy area known as the “Sea of Fishes” that contains numerous, large fiberglass reproductions of popular fresh water gamefish is another four-building museum complex that houses thousands of antique lures, rods, reels, outboard motors, and mounted record fish. The museum also has a video theater that constantly shows educational and instructional films. Additionally, one can browse through the many pictures of those of us who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame over the years. Thank goodness that they don’t update the photos……..I looked much younger in 1993!

For more information about the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, contact them at: Box 33, Hall of Fame Drive, Hayward, WI 54843. Visiting the Hall of Fame or the gorgeous area that surrounds Hayward would be a memorable experience for anyone who loves fishing and the outdoors.

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It was one of those unforgettable days along the Georgia Coast with light winds and heavenly blue skies that becomes an indelible memory. The visiting angler sat back on the bench seat of the small boat and watched as Paul Proctor, an excellent Camden County angler, picked his way over the shallow sand bars as he headed southward from the northern point of Cumberland Island towards the entrance to Christmas Creek. Off to his right, he couldn’t help but watch the fluid movements of several wild horses running along the white, sandy beach with a freedom that they have enjoyed on this beautiful island for more than two-hundred years. It is simply one of many natural wonders that are seen daily on the over twenty miles of Cumberland Island’s Atlantic beaches.

The incoming tide was flowing swiftly over the intricate underwater patterns of shifting sands at the mouth of the creek, so Proctor had to carefully navigate the currents until he located the perfect spot to drop his anchor. It was a tiny channel that dropped to about 8 feet, and was completely surrounded by waters that were no more than one or two feet in depth.

More than forty years of fishing and navigating these waters had taught Paul Proctor the art of perfectly placing the anchor so that when the boat drifted back with the current, he would be in the exact position for catching sharks. The time had come to forget the scenery for awhile and produce some exciting action!

Proctor’s rigs looked more like heavy bass rod and reels than shark tackle. The rods were medium-heavy, about seven feet in length, and the small baitcasting reels were filled to capacity with fourteen pound test monofilament. He had tied a 12-inch steel leader to the end of the mono, and clipped a 4/0 circle hook at the end of the steel leader. With a sharp pocket knife, Paul cut off a 6-inch strip of meat from a dead mullet. He ran the point of the hook through the flesh twice, and made a long cast back into the churning water before setting the butt of the rod in a holder near the stern of the boat.

In less than a minute, the rod was doubled and the reel screamed as line sang through the eyes of the rod! Proctor quickly pulled the rod from the holder as an over four foot long blacktip shark exploded the water and catapulted more than six feet into the air nearly twenty yards behind the boat! The battle that ensued lasted about fifteen minutes before the beautifully marked blacktip was brought to the boat and gingerly released.

During the next couple of hours of incoming tide, Proctor landed and released more than twenty sharks and a few other species. Most of these sharks were blacktips, but a few bonnetheads and sand sharks were included in the mix.

Many beach lovers might be surprised at the number of sharks caught in this place, but records show that the area around Cumberland Island contains the largest population of sharks on the eastern Atlantic shore. Also, a depression known as the “Eighty Foot Hole”, just off the northern tip of Cumberland Island, has some of the largest sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite these numbers of sharks, attacks from these huge predators are minimal.

Fishing these waters can be difficult because of the distances involved or the lack of boating facilities nearby. Probably the best way to reach the ocean-side of Cumberland is by boat from Jekyll Island, but that still requires traveling across a large expanse of open water at the mouth of St. Andrews Sound. Daily ferry boats bring visitors to Cumberland Island from the docks in St. Marys, Georgia, and if one packs light, they can hike to the ocean-side beach to fish. Nevertheless, any trip to this Peach State paradise is worth the effort. The shark fishing is fantastic, and the natural beauty is always breathtaking!

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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.

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Though local Charlestonians don’t seem to take notice, most visiting fishermen are moved when fishing near the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. The old town of Charleston, Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and Castle Pinckney are always visible, and they are so entwined in the history of our nation. Also, this old harbor is an excellent place to fish!

FISHING_NEAR_FT._sumterGreat record keeping and management by folks like South Carolina Marine Biologist, Robert Wiggers, have brought the redfish population near Charleston Harbor back in record numbers. In fact, it is quite common for good local anglers or experienced inshore fishing guides like native Charlestonian, Capt. Legare Leland, to catch more than a dozen 10 to 20 pound redfish per trip.

Capt. Leland is a descendant of a French family that has farmed the Lowcountry for more than a hundred years, and he has fished these waters all of his life. His methods are often slightly different than those of other local fishermen, but highly successful. Though he is an accomplished fly caster, and extremely adept with other artificial lure methods, Capt. Leland always adapts his approach to the skills and needs of his current fishing party. Therefore, when called upon, he uses live bait techniques that are more suited to family fishing, and his results are still very good. He is available for full or half day trips, night or day, by calling 843-810-0495.

Despite the extremely hot weather this summer, cool breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, great fishing, and the charm of Charleston are enough to draw any fisherman to this beautiful and historic place. It’s hard to beat catching big redfish in the shadow of Fort Sumter!

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CAPT._leland_and_redfishCapt. Legare Leland switched off the big outboard and allowed the sleek Action Craft flats boat to slide its bow up into the grassy flat just off the Intercoastal Waterway a few miles north of Charleston Harbor on the South Carolina Coast. He quickly shoved his maneuvering pole a couple of feet deep into the mixture of sand and mud and tied the boat to it.

“We’re still about fifteen minutes until the tide will be over the grass enough to bring the redfish in to feed,” stated Capt. Leland. “We’ll prepare the fly rods, and put on our wading shoes while we wait.”

Though the anticipation of sight-fishing for big redfish in less than knee deep water made one’s heart pound, the tide continued to rise and the time passed quickly. As the warm salty water became more than ankle deep, Capt. Leland began a slow, methodical trek across the grassy flat looking for the glint of a moving tail in the afternoon sun.

No more than fifty yards into the flat, Capt. Leland stopped suddenly and pointed at something about ten yards directly in front of him. At first glance, most novice anglers would have missed the slight movement of grass and water, but on closer inspection, a tiny, triangular tip of a tail could be seen as its movement reflected rays of sunlight. It was a big, tailing redfish feeding on fiddler crabs.

Having grown up a descendant of French farmers that date back more than a hundred years in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Legare Leland has spent much of his young life outwitting redfish, and his expertise was instantly apparent. He deftly false casted the long fly line until he had just enough to allow the crab-looking fly to softly touch down right in front of the tailing red. One twitch of the lure, and the calm water exploded as the nearly ten pound channel bass exploded on the fly. Leland’s next ten minutes were spent with a doubled rod as he stumbled through the water and grass until he wore the young redfish down enough to carefully remove the hook and release him to fight another day. It was an exciting experience, but only the first of more than a dozen such occurrences that afternoon.

CAPT._leland_stalking_redfishThis thrilling type of sight fishing usually begins in August and reaches its peak during September and October, but even an excellent fisherman will need a good guide to fish these waters. Capt. Legare Leland is considered to be one of the best when it comes to producing big redfish on a fly. He is available for full or half day trips, night or day, by calling 843-810-0495 or going to his web site at: headshakercharters.com.

Also, an excellent place to stay in the Mt. Pleasant area and near the fishing action is the Long Point Inn. This gorgeous bed and breakfast is on a tidal creek, serves excellent gourmet breakfasts, and is perfectly located. For information or reservations at the Long Point Inn, call 843-849-1884.

It’s true that one might catch larger numbers of redfish with live bait from a boat in the Charleston area at certain times. Nothing, however, comes close to the excitement of stalking these big reds in the flooded grass at high tide!

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