Altamaha River Cats Around The Clock

Daryl Gay | June 1, 2021

“Vast” is the word that comes to mind as the 90-horse Yamaha glides its attached Ranger up the mighty Altamaha River. It is, in fact, quite a bit mightier at the moment than I was hoping for. Weather is notorious for refusing to cooperate with magazine deadlines, and instead of water levels in the desired 7-foot range, what I was seeing was 9-plus, heavy tides—yes, tides—and winds from the east gusting at over 25 miles an hour.

Oh well, catfish gotta eat sometime!

And when I wanted to find out just when and where, there was no better source than Jesup’s Danny Ammons. Besides being one of the nicest folks on the planet, the guy is a veritable walking encyclopedia when it comes to anything that swims in the Altamaha, a river that is essentially its own ecosystem. It is roughly 137 miles long from its beginnings near Hazlehurst where the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers come together. I’ve spent a lifetime fishing those two, but the Alt is a whole different ballgame—especially below Jesup.

Our goal is to educate you what to look for in June and throughout the summer, should you happen to want a mess of fine-eating catfish from down this way, taking into consideration a variety of starting points; daylight or dark; and small mess or gigantic mess.

Let’s get to it.

Danny Ammons at home on the dock at Altamaha Regional Park with a stringer of cats caught in the toughest of conditions.

The Wayne County Catfish Tournament, the first week of this month, is a big deal in and around Jesup, and Danny and a group of other locals were instrumental in hatching the idea—simply because they wanted to reduce the river’s population of flathead catfish. Flatheads are your basic panfish vacuum cleaners, decidedly deadly on the redbreast population. Danny was among several who began swapping the state record for flatheads on rod and reel when he boated a 58-lb., 7-oz. big ugly. The current record is a pair of 83-pounders—both from the Altamaha.

If you want basic fishing such as is found on Georgia’s other rivers, the key is to stay above a cutoff roughly in the area of Miller’s Lake, 2 miles north of the Williamsburg public boat ramp at Sansavilla WMA. This is where the tidal influence runs out of steam. Launching at Jaycee Landing at Jesup, or points north of there, will take all the guessing out.

Ammons put in over 38 years at the Rayonier plant in Jesup and has fished the Altamaha well over 40.

“You don’t have to worry about tide at all up here, but it’s not nearly as much water as you’ll find on down to where it empties into the Intracoastal Waterway. It gets bigger and bigger, with fingers of creeks and little rivers coming in all the way down. In the daytime, you can catch fish just about all day, but I’d say focus on the first and last three hours. When it gets hot, catfish get a little harder to catch, then they start moving and feeding again as it begins to cool.

“It’s a lot like deer hunting: I always like to get between where a big buck’s sleeping and where he’s eating,” said Ammons.

What you’re looking for when hunting cats is some type of drop-off or structure change providing an ambush point.

“The mouth of Hughes Old River where it empties into the Altamaha is deep and has a big sandbar, everything they like. Where Lake Bluff empties in is a really good spot for flatheads, and Big Water and Oak Round is good all along that stretch. Cutbait is fine for blues or channels, panfish for flatheads.”

At night, the cats come alive, on either pole or limb-lines. You bait a set of lines, then pick a spot to fish with rod and reel until it’s time to go check them. Ammons has caught cats up to 75 pounds on limb lines, and recalls one night of setting 10 lines then emptying them of over 250 pounds of catfish! The smallest was 23.

After retiring, Danny and his wife Betty moved downstream to Altamaha Regional Park; he can walk to the bank of the river in 30 seconds. It’s somewhere very near halfway between Jesup and Brunswick, where the Altamaha empties into the Atlantic. Figure roughly 20 miles each way. This area is where we spent our day—vastly different fishing from the area upstream.

Again, it’s the tide. There was one instance on a broad section—400 yards wide—when the tide was running north, the river flowing south and the wind howling out of the east. The Ranger swirled on its anchor, but we hauled three cats aboard in short order. Danny has a little bass fisherman in him: if we don’t get bit within 10 minutes, there’s always another spot to check!

“Catfish are pretty stationary unless the tide is moving one way or the other,” he said. “Everything from Altamaha Park down to the coast is tide-influenced. When it starts moving, dead water comes alive.”

If you’re considering a first-time trip this way, it’s important to get the lay of the land. Literally. Because it changes moment by moment. Come in at high tide and the Altamaha looks like a lake; and it can be hiding a lot of nasty stuff just under the surface. Grab a laptop, go to Google Earth and look the area over. You can get an image of the spots we’re about to mention that will help when you’re on the water. That, however, is from above; concern yourself with what will be below. And remember that a river has channels; keep the boat in them.

“If you’re going to check the area to pre-fish for a tournament, it’s best to come in low water so you’ll know where you can run and where you can’t. I’ve seen four bass boats at a time stuck on top of the mud when people from out of town come in for a tournament. The tide has mud banks covered so that they look just like a lake, but the water’s not 2 feet deep.”

Night fishing follows the same rules as the upstream game; it’s getting around that’s different. And there’s a whole lot more area to get around in below the park. Creeks, cuts, smaller rivers, you name it, we hopped around trying to get out of the wind and beat the rolling tide.

Danny had fished for seatrout recently and froze the leftover bait shrimp to cut into chunks for cats. That’s what we used to boat a fine stringer of assorted blues, channels and white catfish. The big boys didn’t cooperate—except, of course, for one that I managed to break off in a submerged treetop. But without Danny, I wouldn’t have known where to start. One telling stat concerning conditions is that we saw only three boats on the river for the day!

Old frozen shrimp that has thawed has a special appeal to catfish.

Tackle and technique are basic. Closed face, open face, spinning… doesn’t matter as long as it’s loaded with good line. I like 14-lb., with a 12-inch leader of up to 20-lb. under a 1-oz. barrel sinker. Always use a red bead to keep the sinker from bouncing into and weakening the knot. Tie on a swivel, add your leader on the bottom, hook up a piece of cutbait and drop the conglomeration into the river. Months-old frozen shrimp emit an aroma very seductive to catfish.

“Flatheads, especially, can take a lot of salt, and you can catch them all the way down to the Intracoastal, into the Butler River and even to Cathead Creek, near Darien,” Danny related. “The Butler flows under I-95, but it’s very shallow and really tricky to run unless you are aware of what the tide is doing. You might go in on high tide to fish, then can’t get back out because there’s no water.

“Ease along and look for spots where there’s an eddy, or cover such as trees. A good depthfinder will show you cuts and drop-offs where catfish love to stage. I catch fish in Lewis and Cathead creeks, the south Altamaha, Butler and Champney rivers, all the way from home to the ocean. The closer you get to the salt, the more you run into mostly white cats, but they’re some of the best eating fish in the water. They’re not going to get real big like a flathead or a blue, but they’re a lot of fun.

“To show you how fishing goes, several years ago I set up on an eddy in the east end of Lewis Creek, fishing with rod and reel, and caught 13 fish that totaled nearly 150 pounds. Strangely enough, I’ve never caught them there again.”

Defining what, when, where and why a switch flips is what separates fishing from catching. The learning process makes for a rewarding past time, and there’s a lot to learn down this way. But there are tons of catfish waiting to help you get started.

Catifish Meat Trips

If you don’t care so much about targeting big catfish but are more interested in a cooler lid that won’t hardly shut, the below text is for you. GON emailed all six WRD Fisheries offices around the state asking them for the No. 1 picks in their regions for best places to load a cooler with good eating-size cats. Below is what they had to say.

Region 1, Armuchee: The below report was sent in by WRD Fisheries Biologist Jackson Sibley.

Rocky Mountain Public Fishing Area (PFA) near Rome is one of the state’s best-kept secrets for the broad array of fishing opportunities offered in its 559 acres of water. Until recently it may have been easy to overlook Rocky’s healthy catfish population, but sequential record-setting catches from across the area’s three lakes have triggered a surge in catfishing interest at the PFA.

In December 2020, angler Jessie Brock happened upon a 12-lb., 15-oz. channel catfish while bass fishing, a new record for Rocky. About a month later, Marshall Leath hooked into a 15-lb., 13-oz. cat, besting the previous record by nearly 3 pounds. As if two records in a year weren’t enough, angler Chad Teems landed a monster 20-lb., 5-oz. catfish in Heath Lake on May 1, now the largest channel cat record among Georgia’s 11 PFAs.

The PFA is periodically stocked with smaller channel catfish. These fish can be found lake-wide but are likely to be shallow in the morning and push to deeper water as temperatures rise in the afternoon.

Longtime Rocky angler Don Murdock says cutbait, especially bream, is his go-to. He recommends a 4-inch piece of scaled bream fillet fished on a bare hook with mono or fluoro leader. Rip-rap seems to be the preferred habitat, so jetties, rocky banks and submerged rockpiles are most likely to produce.

For technique, “fish the fillet slow,” Don said, “giving a slight twitch like you would with a plastic worm, and hold on!” Although cats can be caught year-round at the PFA, he says June and July are the best months to pursue them.

PFA Manager Dennis Shiley prefers a float rig to target Rocky’s catfish. He fishes chicken livers or shrimp under a party balloon, which he says provides the flexibility to change fishing depth with ease. He tends to keep his bait suspended about a foot off the bottom and starts fishing in about 4 feet of water. He says East Antioch’s vast rocky habitat holds many fish, although he often sees anglers catching cats off the rip-rap banks across from the campground in West Antioch.

Rocky Mountain PFA is open sunrise to sunset 365 days a year and offers bank and boat access.

Region 2, Gainesville: The below report was sent in by WRD Region 2 Supervisor Anthony Rabern.

The best bet for catfish in northeast Georgia is Lake Lanier. Channel catfish are the most abundant among these whiskered-species, but anglers occasionally hook into a flathead catfish and on rare occasion a blue catfish. An overlooked location in the lake is the Chattahoochee River. Channel catfish are fairly common in the deeper pools around blowdowns where minnows typically hang out.

Moving farther downstream, the area around Don Carter State Park is another place for catfish anglers to target. Anglers should target the outside bends of the river channel. If structure is present in the form of rocky bluffs or blowdowns, then make sure to drop a minnow, nightcrawler, chicken liver or your favorite PowerBait to the bottom and wait for a bite.

Region 3, Fort Valley: The below report was sent in by WRD Fisheries Region 3 Supervisor Steve Schleiger.

Our choice for catfish in Region 3 is Lake Oconee. Expect good numbers of smaller to medium-sized channel catfish, but the catfish population continues to be dominated by blue catfish. Blue catfish in the 15- to 25-lb. range are very common; however, fish in the 35- to 45-lb. range also are available. Over the past several years, many fish over the 40-lb. mark have been caught. Flathead catfish populations continue to be stable, and numbers of 10- to 15-lb. fish are common, with some over 40 pounds.

Live shad or bluegill and cutbait are best bets for blue and flathead catfish. Summer months may be the best time to cast a line. Also try nightcrawlers or cutbait fished on the bottom.

As a rule, the species and size of catfish dictate the fishing line used. If targeting channel catfish, fisheries biologists recommend 8- to 14-lb. test line and medium-sized hooks (No. 2 to 1/0) under a bobber or fished on the bottom.

For anglers trying to land a large flathead, heavy tackle is a must— large spinning or casting tackle with at least 20- to 50-lb. test line, large hooks (3/0 to 7/0) and heavy weights.

Best baits for channel catfish are worms, liver, live minnows, cutbait and stink bait. Good flathead baits are live goldfish, bream and shiners.

In general, anglers should target rocky shorelines, rip-rap areas and points. When fishing rivers during the day, anglers should look to deep holes containing rocky or woody cover. During dusk, dawn and at night, anglers should concentrate on shallow sandbars and shoals nearby the deep holes fished during the day, as catfish frequently move shallow to feed during low-light conditions.

While catfish can be caught year-round, the peak bite typically is from early spring through the peak of summer.

Region 4, Waycross: The below report was sent in by WRD Fisheries Biologist III Don Harrison.

Paradise PFA is a great place for anglers to target catfish. The area has more than 500 acres of waters, including nine lakes with boat ramps. The area also provides excellent bank access on many of the lakes for anglers who do not own a boat, and there are fishing piers in lakes Patrick and Horseshoe 3. The piers in Lake Patrick are also equipped with Hydro Glow lights for night fishing. Security lighting is also provided near the boat ramps for anglers interested in night fishing, which is a great option during the hot summer months for anglers wanting to escape the heat and still catch some fish.

Several of the lakes receive annual stockings of 6- to 8-inch channel catfish to enhance angler success. In all, more than 13,000 channel catfish are stocked every year. In addition to channel catfish, some of the lakes also possess healthy populations of brown bullheads that anglers may want to target.

Some of the better options for channel catfish are lakes Horseshoe 1, Horseshoe 2, Horseshoe 4, Tacklebuster and Lake Patrick. It is not uncommon for anglers to tie up with a larger channel catfish in Lake Patrick. For brown bullheads, anglers should target lakes Bobben, Beaver and Paradise. Most anglers find fishing chicken livers or mullet guts on the bottom to be a successful method to hook up with catfish.

Region 5, Albany: The below report was sent in by WRD Fisheries Region 5 Supervisor Rob Weller.

Region 5 has numerous places to catch good numbers of channel catfish. Using pool noodles (jugs) on Lake George (Eufaula) is popular and productive. The tailrace below George is a great place to catch a mess of catfish. Also, in and around the numerous shoals of the Flint River are great places to catch catfish.

However, if I had to pick the most consistent spot to fill a cooler with eating-size catfish, it would be Lake Blackshear. Almost any time of year channel catfish can be caught on the flats adjacent to the main channel. Any catfish bait fished on the bottom in 10 to 15 feet of water will produce. Most anglers prefer worms or chicken liver. Fishing at night or early morning will provide the most consistent action, but catfish can be caught any time of day.

The boat ramps at Georgia Veterans State Park provide easy access to the main lake both above and below the Highway 280 bridge where numerous flats containing abundant channel cats can be found.

Region 6, Richmond Hill: The below report was sent in by WRD Senior Fisheries Biologist Joel Fleming.

Although there are a lot of places in our coastal region to catch good numbers of catfish, I would like to highlight the opportunities that are available at Evans County Public Fishing Area (ECPFA).

Lake Longleaf is an 8-acre impoundment at ECPFA that offers excellent catfishing and is very accessible to everyone, with or without a boat. This pond has been intensively managed for channel catfish for nearly a decade. This management includes numerous stockings of fingerling and catchable-sized catfish each year, removing predatory fish in the pond allowing for growth and survival of smaller fish and feeding the fish in the system on a regular basis.

In addition to the healthy catfish population, the ample bank access, the boat ramp/dock and the new fishing pier allow easy access for families and groups of all ages. While visiting the pond, anglers can also enjoy the convenience of the recently updated bathroom facilities and the picnic pavilion and grill, with all facilities offering ADA accessibility. Also, for those who may want to fish for a couple of days in a row, come check out the newly constructed camping facility on the PFA, which offers full RV hook-up sites, tent camping and full restroom facilities.

Many anglers typically focus their efforts for the channel catfish in the mornings and late afternoons. However, we do get a lot of more ambitious anglers who fish throughout the night, as ECPFA is open 24/7.

Chicken livers and worms are the bait of choice for most anglers, but fish will bite a variety of baits. Most fish being caught are between 1 and 2 pounds, but fish heavier than 5 pounds are not a rarity.

ECPFA is located between Claxton and Pembroke and is within a short drive from the Savannah area. We invite all anglers to come check out the PFA for a safe, easy-access family fishing experience!

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