Alapaha River Bottom Fishing
This technique will work on any south Georgia stream this month.
If you are looking for an outdoor activity to get you feeling truly immersed into the autumn season, try your luck in wetting a line in the scenic, dark waters of the often-overlooked Alapaha River of south Georgia. What do you want to fish for? You name it. The fish diversity is quite impressive. Pretty much, if a south Georgia river has it, then the Alapaha will give it to you. The secluded, timeless beauty is a bonus.
The Alapaha River originates in Dooly County where its tea-colored, tannic water flows south through Crisp, Wilcox, Turner, Ben Hill, Irwin, Tift, Berrien, Atkinson, Lanier, Lowndes and Echols counties before emptying into the Suwannee River in north Florida. Of course, the farther south it goes, the wider it becomes. However, there is excellent fishing on nearly every part.
Few people know this river better than my neighbor, Danny Tucker. He grew up on this amazing river, literally. It’s where he learned to swim, ski and fish. It’s where he learned to hang limb-lines for big catfish, to tightline on bottom for fat redbreasts, to pop corks with jigs for specks (crappie) and to pull big bass from around the abundant cypress knees.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Danny said. “My parents brought me down here when I was still in diapers, and I learned the river. I learned all about it, just like my granddaddy. I come from a long line of river runners. Guess you could say it’s just in my blood.”
This river fluctuates in water level maybe more than any body of freshwater I know, but I look at this natural characteristic as an advantage. Because it is always changing, a fisherman should never get bored.
“You fish for what’s biting when the water is right for it,” said Danny.
Sounds simple, but there is such an art to his statement. I asked him recently, “What do you fish for this time of year?” His answer was matter of fact: “Depends on the water level.”
So, here it is… a chilly, fall Saturday morning at the peaceful Alapaha River. My father-in-law and I drive down under the Highway 82 bridge just 1 mile east of the small town of Alapaha in Berrien County. The locals know this spot as Sheboggy Bridge.
One look at the bank with the tangled roots jutting out into the dark water, the stout cypress trees above and the clean, white sandy slopes and a person can forget about civilization. Are you stressed with life right now? Is the workload piling up on you? Need to unwind? Well, this is the place for you.
We met Danny, and he quickly put my father-in-law and me on a crash course on how to fish the river when it’s low in the fall of the year.
“The water is pretty low right now,” Danny said. “But that’s ok. We can catch all the fish we need to right here along the bank by the bridge. You don’t have to have a boat to catch fish.”
We begin unloading my truck with fishing supplies, and Danny lays out the initial plan.
“Let’s start by throwing some jigs and Beetle Spins. I want to see if we can catch some specks.”
I tie on a black Beetle Spin; my father-in-law has a white Beetle Spin, and Danny has a black jig with a chartreuse tail suspended 3 feet below a cork. Second cast, my father-in-law hooks a nice crappie. That fish sets the tone. We catch several crappie, bream, bass and one big mudfish using these lures. Danny lands the most crappie with his cork and black/chartreuse jig; his method involves popping the cork with firm jerks of his rod to create commotion on the water’s surface while the jig dances erratically a few feet below.
“It helps to have others fishing with me. We can try different things. You don’t know ’til you throw,” said Danny.
About 30 minutes after arriving, the sun begins to rise, and the bite slows down, which prompts Danny to switch to his proven tactic on the river, especially when the water level is low.
“If the fish won’t come to the top, you gotta go down to the bottom,” he said. “You need to find a deep hole for this technique.”
The rod he chooses has a medium action with a spinning reel containing 12-lb. test line.
“Ok, I’m going to show you a little trick,” he said. “This is how you catch fish on the bottom.”
He proceeds to show me just how it is done. First, thread a 1/8-oz. bullet weight onto the line, followed by a red bead. Then crimp a size 5 split-shot weight 4 or 5 inches up the line, which prevents the bullet weight and bead from sliding to the hook. Tie on a size 5 or 6 aberdeen hook, and now it is time to grab the worms.
I take off the lid to the styrofoam bucket housing the plentiful earthworms that Danny raises himself. As I confidently choose a plump one, I look over to see Danny shaking his head.
“No, no, no. Don’t be stingy with the worms. That’s why I started raising my own… so I have more than enough. Go ahead and put a blossom on there.”
“A blossom?” I ask, confused.
“Yeah, boy. A blossom. That’s what I call a big wad of worms. It needs to look like Medusa’s head,” he said.
Once his hook is loaded to maximum capacity with who knows how many worms, he casts his line out in the middle of the river and lets his bait sink to the bottom. He reels a few times to take in the slack. In less than a minute, Danny forcefully sets the hook and works a chunky butter catfish to the surface.
“This is a mighty good-eatin’ fish right here,” he said.
On the stringer it goes.
My first cast out, I get hung on a log almost instantly, while Danny cranks in another catfish, this time a speckled cat.
“How are you not getting hung up?” I asked.
See, I’m typically a cork guy. Although I grew up with a rod and reel in my hands, I am unfamiliar with bottom fishing in a river.
“First of all, I use 12-lb. test line and these soft aberdeen hooks that will bend,” said Danny. “When I do get hung up, I tighten the drag and pull slowly. The hooks usually bend and turn loose before the line breaks. Then I just bend the hook back with a pair of pliers. And don’t ever reel it or bump it along the bottom. Just let it sit there. Otherwise, you will snag every stump out there. If you have to reel in, do it quickly to get the hook off the bottom. Another thing, keep the line pretty tight. That way you can feel the fish strike, and you will be ready to snatch. You gotta be quick! That’s the art of tightline fishing.”
After tying on another rig, I cast out right by Danny’s line.
“I hope you don’t mind if I steal your spot,” I said.
We both feel hard hits, and he sets the hook fast to fight a solid warmouth to the bank. I miss mine.
“You have to be quicker than that, boy!”
Gradually, I begin to get the hang of it and catch a few good bream and two nice channel catfish.
“Why do you need that red bead on the line if it just sits on the bottom?” I ask, staring at the bead while I bait another “blossom” of worms on my hook.
“For the flash as it falls,” Danny said. “Notice that a lot of fish bite as soon as the bait gets to the bottom. I think the fish see the sparkle of red as it goes down. Also, the bead and weight can hit together and make a clicking sound, which attracts some fish.”
“By the end of the morning, we had caught quite a diversity of good-eating fish. On our stringer included largemouth bass, specks, bluegill, redbreast, shellcracker, stumpknocker, warmouth, butter catfish, speckled catfish and channel catfish. Although it was the biggest, the mudfish did not make the cut for a future fish fry.
So, as you can see, even when the water level is low, you can still catch all the fish you want to. In fact, for variety of species, the lower levels might make fishing easier in a sense because all the fish go to the deep holes. Danny was right when he said we didn’t even need a boat.
“I’ve sat right here by the bridge more times than I can count, watching all the boats go by me,” Danny says. “People in those boats tell me I ought to cover more water to catch more fish,” he laughs and continues, “but I usually have more fish in the cooler I’m sitting on than all the boats have combined. Most people are just in too much of a hurry these days. They should be more patient, especially when it comes to fishing. A lot of folks will ride right past the best spots even though a honey hole can be right under their noses.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Danny admits that he loves to fish from a boat, too, but prefers to fish at a much slower pace to truly find the most fish.
“Don’t be afraid to anchor or tie up to a limb when you are fishing from a boat. These fish love to stick to particular holes,” Danny said. “But you better look good in the tree branches before you tie up to one. You might just get some unwanted company. Those big river wasps will light you up!”
If you choose to fish from a boat, a kayak would be a wise decision this time of year to allow navigation through the shallow areas and around fallen trees. Please do not fish from any bank without permission from the landowner. If in doubt, don’t get out of the boat to avoid trespassing issues.
Even though there are plenty of ways to catch fall fish on the Alapaha River, these techniques mentioned here are surely proven and time tested by a man whose life is totally influenced by this body of water. And it is not just in the Alapaha River that these tricks work. Like Danny says, “Son, you can fish in any river in south Georgia like this. I call it the basics of south Georgia bottom fishing.”
Just like that, in one good morning of fishing on the Alapaha River, I am a converted bottom fisherman. It is a technique that anyone can learn. My main piece of advice is to be quick on the hookset. If you can do this and follow Danny’s other tips, you will likely leave the river with a stringer full of good-eating fish
I encourage people to enter any big fish for a potential Alapaha River record. The only two fish recorded for this river on GON’s Lake & River Records are a largemouth bass and a bowfin (mudfish). This leaves the door wide open for entries. Good luck with the bowfin record. One of my outdoor heroes holds that spot with an impressive 9-lb., 0.32-oz. fish. Truth be told though, I would love to see that one stand!