Altamaha Sound Seatrout
Captain Wendell Harper details how to catch late summer seatrout in Georgia's inshore waters.
As an outdoorsman, one of the most appealing things to me about outdoor activities is the beauty of nature. While the sport of fishing itself has its obvious rewards, the experience is greatly enhanced by the sheer splendor of the environment. There are many beautiful locations around the state of Georgia, but one of the best is the marsh along the Georgia Coast. This area of wetlands and barrier islands between Brunswick and Savannah is largely undisturbed and looks much like it has for hundreds of years. To see a shrimp boat in the Altamaha Sound at sunrise with a flock of diving birds working the water behind it is a treat that is worth the drive all by itself.
The marshlands also provide some excellent fishing. These waters teem with baitfish, attracting fish several steps up the food chain. Spotted seatrout and redfish are pretty much year-round residents of the inshore waters, as are flounder and black drum. Sharks are also permanent residents, and even the mighty tarpon makes an appearance during the summer months.
I recently fished the marsh near Darien with Wendell Harper of Brunswick. My wife Phyllis and I met Wendell on a Tuesday morning at the Two-Way Fish Camp on US Hwy 17 between Brunswick and Darien. Our target was seatrout, more commonly called speckled trout or just specks. We were fortunate to have Wendell take us out. The 49-year-old has been fishing this area all of his life and has been guiding parties in these waters for about 25 years, and a great deal of that as a full-time occupation. As we pulled out of the marina at around 6:30 a.m., Wendell told us that we would be fishing several spots throughout the day.
“The most significant factor in fishing the marsh is tide,” said Wendell. “The fish relate to bottom structure and current because both of these determine what the baitfish will be doing.”
Over the years Wendell has found numerous locations that hold fish and mapped those locations to the most productive tide at the spot. In planning a day on the water he times his arrival at spots to coincide with the most productive water level for that area. After about a 15-minute ride we pulled up on a spot at the edge of the main sound basin. Wendell set about positioning the boat properly and ensuring a good set of the anchor.
“It is very important to have the boat well positioned,” said Wendell. “The current here is quite strong, and if your boat isn’t in the right spot, you’ll have a hard time getting your bait to the fish.”
Also, with the strength of the current, it is extremely important to make sure that the anchor is well set and that you let out a good deal of rope. If your boat breaks free in this current, you can be aground before you know it and that can be a very messy proposition. If you don’t know about boat handling and anchoring, it is highly recommended that you go with someone who does and learn the basics before venturing out on your own.
Once we had the boat in place, we began getting the rigs ready. We were fishing with seven-foot, light-action spinning and baitcasting outfits spooled with 15- or 17-lb. test Berkley Big Game line. With so many sharp shells in the area, it is important to use a line that is abrasion resistant. The terminal tackle consisted of a six- or seven-inch float, a 1/2-oz. sinker, a No. 7 barrel swivel and a 10-lb. test leader of about 18 inches with a 3/0 aberdeen hook. Wendell puts a 45-degree bend in the hook about halfway down the shaft. He feels that the offset helps ensure that the hook sets in the fish more easily. The hooks were baited with live shrimp hooked under the horn between the eyes and the black spot and set a foot off the bottom.
Having the leader a lighter test than the main line is a precaution for when your rig hangs in the oyster shells — and it will. The lighter leader will generally break first, and you’ll only lose your hook. This will save you both a lot of time in retying multiple knots and money in lost sinkers, swivels, and floats. It wasn’t necessary to make a long cast, we just dropped the rigs over the side and let them drift out with the current. That is the main reason that boat positioning is so important. If you have to make a long cast to the spot, the bait usually doesn’t stay in the strike zone for very long. A bad cast often results with a snag in the prolific oyster beds and a lost rig.
As we let the baits free-spool away from the boat, the long floats bobbed in the current. The tide was heading out and beginning to rip around the edge of a barely-visible oyster bed about 30 feet from the boat. From our position, the baits skimmed along the edge of the bed just over the top of the shelf. The technique was uncomplicated and easy to master. Simply drop the bait into the water, or make a very short cast, and let the float drift in the current. The line is allowed to spool out freely, so there is no pressure on the float. It is best to keep the rod tip low and follow the progress of the float with it. That way the line will go out more easily, and you’ll be ready for a quick strike once the float disappears. Oh yeah, make sure you remember to engage the reel before you make a hookset or you’ll be rewarded with a snarl of line rather than a fish. Once the fish is on, keep the rod tip high and keep pressure on the fish to keep it away from the shells.
On our very first drift one of the floats went out of sight and headed for the bottom. Wendell set the hook quickly and fought a nice trout of about three pounds back to the boat. Although these fish aren’t known to be big fighters, with the swift current helping them they put up a pretty good struggle.
After about an hour on this spot Wendell suggested that we move to another location. The tide had dropped considerably and the top of the oyster bed that was barely visible when we arrived was now about three feet out of the water. The current had slowed and was beginning to turn and would soon be heading in just as fast as it had gone out. We had boated 10 nice trout on the spot (very slow action according to Harper) and had released all but two.
Heading slowly over a shallow bar and into a deeper channel, we then swung back into a winding creek off the main basin. After a short ride we pulled up on a spot that looked very similar to the last one. There was an exposed oyster bed with an adjacent shelf about three to four feet deep dropping off to about 25 feet under the boat. The current was already beginning to run in pretty sharply by the time we got the boat situated.
We made short casts and let the baits drift along the shelf with the current. The three floats disappeared almost simultaneously, and we had a triple hook-up. Shortly, there were three fat trout swung over the side and into the boat. From then on it was almost automatic. If you didn’t get a strike within 30 seconds as the float bobbed away from the boat, it was time to reel up and check the bait.
We also tried artificial baits with equal success. A 1/4-oz. lead-head jig tipped with a plastic grub (color didn’t seem to matter) was rewarded with a strike on virtually every cast. The water was clearly thick with trout and catching them was pretty easy.
In all we boated around 45 trout as near as we could count. We released all but about a dozen which were headed for the frying pan. This was really fun fishing.
In fact, if you are looking for a good spot for a family fishing outing this would be an excellent choice. The technique isn’t difficult to master, and the action is consistent enough to keep even the most casual angler interested.
If you are planning a trip, Wendell suggests that it is a good idea to plan around the moon phase if you can. The best phases are the quarter moons, according to Wendell.
“On the full and new moons the tide fluctuations are at their greatest, sometimes over eight feet,” says Wendell. “This results in extremely strong currents often accompanied by muddy water. The fishing just isn’t as good under those conditions.”
For the first-time visitor to the area who wants to go out on their own, Wendell suggests that you spend a little time scouting before you head out to fish. It is best to look at the areas you want to fish at or near low tide, so you can get a feel for the structure that is present (bottom contours, shell beds, etc.) At high tide the marsh looks pretty uniform, miles and miles of grass cut by winding creeks. But fish relate to the structure, and the bottom contour is very important. Wendell says that he almost always fishes in less than 20 feet of water. The best spots are those where the deep water comes up fairly abruptly to shelves or flats next to oyster beds. Other productive spots include creek mouths and creek-channel edges. Fish as close to the edges of the drops as possible, keeping the bait a foot or less off the bottom. Of course you’ll need to adjust your depth periodically as the tide moves in or out.
If you choose to fish natural bait, live shrimp is the bait of choice and it is important for it to be lively. You’ll need a good number of shrimp, probably at least six dozen because they go pretty quickly. Of course that will depend on how long you plan to fish and how many anglers are in the boat. A good aerated livewell is also recommended to keep the bait fresh.
Artificial baits can also be very productive, as we found out. Wendell suggests a lead-head jig head and grub, or a Rat-L-Trap (chrome/blue or chrome/black 1/2-oz.) fished just over the shell beds. You should keep the rod tip high and bait moving to avoid hang-ups. This time of year topwater baits such as the Zara Spook, Chug Bug, or Pop-R can also provide a great deal of action. Twitching these baits over the shell beds at high water can produce some explosive strikes.
One thing that you will notice if you clean any of these fish is that this time of year the females are full of roe. Wendell said that the trout spawn in these waters starting in early May and continue throughout the summer as late as early September. If you catch any really large females during this time, it is a good idea to release them. We released a fish that was just over 25 inches and fat with roe. There is no slot limit for trout like there is for redfish. Anything over 13 inches is legal, but Wendell still suggests that you release the extremely large females to help ensure that the healthy genes are passed along to the fry. Take a picture like we did and let the big ones go during the spawn.
I would, however, recommend that you keep some of your catch for eating. These trout provide excellent table fare. Wendell cut a few fillets for us, and the good folks at Mudcat Charlie’s Restaurant at Two-Way Fish Camp cooked them up for our lunch. They provided some really good eating for three hungry anglers.
So whether you are looking to challenge the marsh with artificial baits or would just like to find a place for a family outing where you are almost guaranteed to catch a mess of fish regardless of your skill level, the Altamaha Sound and surrounding marsh is an excellent choice. Two-Way Fish Camp is a great base location, and Capt. Wendell Harper can put you on some fish and show you the ropes.
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