Altamaha River Limb-Line Cats

For four generations, the Barwick Family has been catching and giving on this south Georgia river.

Daryl Gay | August 31, 2023

David Barwick knows what he’s doing when it comes to being successful running limb-lines on the Altamaha River. A good chunk of why he’s good at what he does is because he is a fourth-generation fisherman on the south Georgia river.

The world moved slower a hundred years ago in south Georgia. Life was simpler; but, truly, times were hard. There was little industry. No “town” jobs to speak of in a spot as sparse as Soperton. Willie T. Barwick was struggling just to get by in the year 1920, at wit’s end.

That’s when he heard from his father, Nathan. Likely by letter, probably in pencil: Come on down to Jesup; you can make a living off this river.

That would be the mighty Altamaha, and it proved the saving of Willie T. Barwick. These days, over a hundred years and three generations later, the name and the tradition live on in the person of Jesup veterinarian Dr. David Barwick. His life story is inextricably woven into the swamps and waters of the Altamaha, even as those of Nathan, Willie T. and David’s dad, Wallace “Gator” Barwick. I fished with David. Met his family. Went through books of old photos. And this doesn’t happen very often, but before we hit the water, give me a minute to introduce the guy.

After well over 30 years with GON, I’ve met and been out with literally hundreds with at least some interest in the outdoors. Although I can’t readily recall any culls in the bunch, you just never know with folks. But when I pulled into David Barwick’s yard—less than 2 miles from the mouth of Penholoway Creek—and saw him manhandling a cooler, somehow things were suddenly and certainly all good. Hunting and fishing and writing  are what I do and what I am. The DNA of deer and bear and redfish and bass is roaming around in my cells. I’ve met very, very few who can even understand that heritage, much less begin to plumb its depths.

David does. And shares it. As he says, he’s the only one of Willie T’s 11 grandchildren who hunts and fishes. Ironically, the numbers and situation are exactly the same in the family of Henry Grady Hooks—my granddaddy: 11 grandchildren and I’m the only one…  Guess David and I got it all— and are blessed because of it.

The day before I met him in Jesup, David had set out 45 hooks after catching his own bream for bait. The Altamaha had come up on a quick rise due to a flurry of storms, but that’s at least better than falling out. A slow rise is best, but deadlines being what they are, we take what we can get. He may be a doc and as comfortable as an old shoe, but the part about David that I like best is that he’s a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to this river. As we ease along, he’s constantly relating anecdotes about this slough or that cut or yonder bank. Even certain trees.

“I was privileged, being raised on this river, to see a lot of things that are gone now,” he related. “My daddy saw more than I did and his daddy more than him. When granddaddy got down here, what he did was catfish and shad fish, among other things. He didn’t have an outboard motor; he paddled a cypress boat built in the 1920s, if you can imagine what that was like. And I mean he paddled a circuit, miles and miles up Penholoway and into sections of the big river and back.”

Willie T. Barwick was a big man, as I saw in David’s photos. Decked out in overalls and no shirt, his bearded face sported the same smile you see these days on his grandson. And he seldom wore shoes.

“Granddaddy went into one of the stores once and asked the owner if he carried men’s shoes,” David laughed. “The clerk assured him that he did, indeed, and asked what size. 14EEE was the answer, and the guy told him he certainly didn’t have any that big. Granddaddy told him, ‘Well, I asked you if you carried men’s shoes…’”

Back in those early years of the 20th century, much of the land along the Altamaha was controlled by timber companies, which leased hunting rights to clubs. Each club would have its own ranger, patrolling for trespassers or poachers. On one occasion, a set of footprints was found by a member, who immediately called in the ranger.

“Well,” he remarked, “looking at those toe tracks I’d say we got either Willie T. Barwick or Sasquatch. And Willie T. is a member!”

We cruise up Penholoway in a 14-foot jonboat, its 15-horse Yamaha—classic two-stroke, thank you very much—veritably purring so as not to mar the morning. The creek is like a cathedral, and no one speaks as we take it all in. We’re out on Monday, Aug. 7; we would see neither boat nor fisherman throughout. I’m up front to handle lines and play with any piscatorial participants. Old buddy Larry Mullis resides in the center seat, and his task will be to hold any catchees down in the boat bottom and prevent over-the-side gymnastics that might reunite them with the Altamaha. Also, to roll up lines as I detach them; we do NOT leave lines hanging. David runs the motor from the back, the better to be able to see and laugh at us both.

As mentioned, we have 45 hooks to check. Here’s what they look like and how they got here…

“I’ll use from No. 36 to 60 line, with 36 to 48 being my favorite,” David says. (This No. 36 is a braided green nylon twine with a minimum breaking strength of 320 pounds. On several occasions with the hook hung on limbs or logs, we had to tie to the back of the boat and pull it loose with the outboard…)

“The sinkers are anywhere from 8 to 16 ounces. You match the weight to the water; with a low, smooth river, you don’t need as much weight; when it’s coming up, go heavier. I like about 2 feet of line below the sinkers. The swivel is a 4/0 or bigger with a 14/0 long-shank circle hook. That hook gets right in the corner of the mouth, where you want it. I’ll hook the bream right above the vent, through its belly. Most folks hook it through the back, but this way makes it swim different and seems to attract the predators. You learn from experience where to hang your hooks to catch fish, what kind of limbs to tie to, what breaks and what doesn’t. I don’t flag or mark my lines; I’ve been fishing here long enough to know where I put them.”

David hooks a big bream right above the vent, through its belly. He said most folks hook it through the back, but this way makes the bait swim different and seems to attract the predators.

As far as baiting the hooks, David’s reasoning is simple: “In my experience, catfish like to eat what’s swimming along beside them. Some people like to use goldfish, and that’s OK. Fishermen will also catch small butter cats and hook them through the lips as bait, and I’ve tried that. But they seem to prefer scale fish by far. Shiners are also used, but I don’t care for them. Big baits catch big fish; a 5-lb. cat will go on by a hand-size bream. My biggest fish so far was 63 pounds on a bream, and that fish was skinny and poor.

“So I take a fiberglass pole, catch the baitfish and put them in a live box that’s in the river. They’ll live for several days in there, and while they’re in there, I’ll go ahead and hang my lines. There’s not time to do it all at once and keep the bait alive.”

The mis-introduction of the flathead catfish into the Altamaha has been well documented, and that’s what we’re fishing for. The more we can take out, the better it will be for any species of bream in these waters—or anything else the flathead can vacuum.

“August and September are really good flathead months because the water tends to go down and they congregate in deep holes. I’ll fish for channel cats sometimes, but they’re mostly cold-water, winter fish. They like cut shad, but they will eat live bait at times in the summer. But you don’t catch 20- to 30-lb. channel cats anymore.”

The thrill of bush-hooking, or limb-lining, of this sort is that you just… never… know. There may be a 10-lb. flathead down there. Or an 80-pounder.

The green lines that we’re running are well-camouflaged in the willows and other overhanging limbs, as well as tied underneath the water on submerged logs. The river’s rise has buried them up to 6 inches, and if David hadn’t known exactly where they were, we’d never have tracked a few of them down.

Remember that 2 feet of line beneath the sinkers? There’s a good reason for that.

“The flathead never stops eating,” David relates. “They are voracious fish, literal eating machines. Everybody knows about the decimation of the redbreast in the Altamaha, and that’s because the redbreast like to hang out in the hard, sandy bottom in running water—and that’s exactly where the flatheads hang out. A lot of times an old flathead will be at about that 2-foot depth and they’ll grab the bait there. They may just lay right there, completely satisfied and not even realizing they’re stuck with a hook. You pull up to what looks like an empty line and go to tugging on it and he’ll go crazy. That’s a lot of fun when the water starts flying.”

It didn’t take long for me to able to attest to that. I do express my sincere appreciation to Mr. Barwick for spraying down a couple of very large and overhanging red wasp nests while he was tying lines, and you can count on the fact that I kept a sharp eye out for slimy crawling stuff as I was pushed into the foliage.

My back and shoulders got a good workout on the day, as did Larry’s feet and David’s net arm. The very first fish hauled aboard was in the high teens, and things got better from there. Complacent though he may be at first, once he feels something hauling on that hook in his jaw, a flathead catfish can turn things on in a large hurry. It’s not a question of grabbing the line and inviting him over the side; he’s using every inch of that boat-paddle tail and lithe body to remain in his own zip code. Best you can do is nurse him to the net and hope it holds.

Too, he may suddenly decide to take up basket weaving and wrap that line in, out, under and through every piece of wood—as in sunken treetop—he can reach. While you’re feeling your way down every inch of twine, he’s steady thrashing and pumping on the other end.

As the Altamaha’s waters rose beforehand, they took limbs of various sizes along downstream. Several of these got hung up in the lines, negating any chance of a flathead bite. Too, a few of the baitfish were a little on the skinny size and not to David’s liking, but you use what you catch. And then there are those hooks that are pulled up simply empty: no bait, no flathead…

You just KNOW that was the 70-pounder; maybe even 80. How did he ever manage to get off? Well, that’s one of the things that brings you back next week!

The big bait/big fish mantra works. Even with all that water and the crud riding it, we had 10 fish that were a minimum of 200 pounds. We didn’t care to weigh any of them, being satisfied with simply ridding the river of the critters. The four on the stringer pictured were all that David and Larry wanted to lift, trust me.

I’ve gone through this process in a somewhat comprehensive manner, mainly so that you can see how simple it really is. This ain’t rebuilding a carburetor! You’ve read the how-to from David Barwick, who is one of the best flathead fisherman I know when it comes to these methods.

And this is what he has to say: “There’s some know-how and a learning curve, of course, but anybody can do what we did this morning. You can take a simple pole and catch a bream that’s too small to eat and turn it into a 40-lb. catfish. I can go out and set hooks and catch 300 pounds of fish, and so can others. But I don’t do this just for myself. What’s the point?”

Just in case you want to know…

“This river has been such a blessing to so many people over the years. It got my granddaddy through the Great Depression when there seemed to be no other way. He fished for catfish, shad and sturgeon; hunted and trapped all along the banks and in the swamps; and rafted timber all the way from Boyles Island to Darien. The Altamaha gave him his living, just as his daddy told him it would.

“I remember riding with my dad, and if I saw it once I saw it a hundred times. He’d say, ‘I’ve got to stop by Miz So and So’s and drop her off a mess of fish.’ He was forever looking after widows and others who needed a little help with a mess of cleaned fish. That’s the way it was back then, and that’s the way I was raised. A lot of these fish I catch provide fish frys for churches or go to others in the same situation daddy talked about. The river keeps giving, and always will. I like to take out people who have never seen the true beauty of the Altamaha. It’s a thrill to run lines with a child who had no idea that fish even got that big, or certainly not that they were in this river. And I’ll tell you this: I’ve never had anybody out who told me they couldn’t wait to get off the Altamaha.”

These broad, gorgeous waters continue to flow from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers in Charlotteville, on down to the salt at Darien. It will always be so. And the Barwick tradition?

“My two sons don’t love the hunting and fishing like I do, but my son-in-law and grandson do. I have two grandsons, a year old and a year-and-a-half old. Papa’s intent is to ruin them as much as I can on the Altamaha.”

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.