Altamaha’s Bull Bream & Giant Shellcrackers
Some of the best bream fishing in years will happen this month.
If you have ever pitched a cricket to a blowdown tree with a bream buster, reared back, and listened to the line singing as it cut back and forth through the water, then you need to perk up. Some of the finest panfishing that Georgia has ever seen is getting ready to bust wide open on the Altamaha River this spring.
To set the stage, Don Harrison, senior fisheries biologist out of the Waycross Fisheries office, reported that bluegill populations are at an all-time high.
“During our electrofishing on the Altamaha last fall, we collected the most bluegills per hour of electrofishing that we have ever collected since monitoring began in 1987. And, with the high water we have had all winter and so far this spring, the fish have survived well and have continued to fatten up,” he said.
As with other floodplain-driven systems, panfish survival is high, and growth is extraordinary with the additional nutrient inputs that high water brings.
Don continued, “During a late 1990s study on the Ocmulgee River (a tributary to the Altamaha), bluegills grew to more than 6 inches their first year when the water was in the floodplain much of the year.”
The conditions we have had over the last couple of years will push bluegill growth to the absolute limit. What that means for those of us who fish the mighty Altamaha River is that we had better be ready to go when the conditions get right this spring and early summer.
I was able to sample some of that fantastic panfishing last fall during the brief stint when the river was down and fishable. During the entire spring and summer of 2013, the river was flooded and essentially unfishable. About Labor Day the river dropped out, and the bite continued through October and November. On my first trip of the fall to a Wayne County ramp, my son Timothy and I spent time attacking sandbars with swords (sticks and a Boga Grip, which by the way does not operate after an 8-year old stabs a sandbar with it) and doing a little fishing on a Saturday morning.
We cast to the mouths of oxbow lakes with crankbaits for bass and pitched lures and red wiggler worms to heavy shoreline cover for a couple hours and managed five largemouth bass and 14 big bluegills. Timothy reeled in our biggest bass, an 18-incher that inhaled a Rapala crankbait. He also had about all he could handle with several 10-inch bluegills on his light-action spincasting outfit. The first few pitches with a black-yellow Satilla Spin fooled a few giant bluegills, then we pitched red-wiggler worms to fool several more fish from that same spot. The bass went back in the river, while the bluegills headed home with us in preparation for their playing the main role in a fish taco supper the next evening. That trip whetted my appetite for more.
Exactly a week later my father Herb and I put in at the same landing, planning to fling artificials at them. We headed a couple miles downstream and worked our way back upstream, casting at all the good-looking blowdown trees in eddies, mouths of oxbows and any other current break we thought would hold fish. We used several different colors and sizes of Satilla Spin spinnerbaits before settling on 1/16-oz black-yellow as the color of the day. That model caught fish at least 10 to one over all the other colors and sizes we tried. That particular day, the fish were primarily holding on blowdown trees in slack water. One of my bluegills was as big of a bluegill as I have ever caught—almost 1 1/2 pounds—and some beautiful pound-plus crappie also inhaled the bladed lure.
Toward the end of the day, we worked our way up to the hotspot from the previous trip and managed a couple big bluegills from the tangle of vines. Our last detail of the day was to anchor up at the mouth of an oxbow and fish worms on the bottom to try to catch some big shellcrackers. We only managed one, but it was a string-stretcher at a little heavier than a pound. Although we only fished about four hours in the evening, we had a blast catching 21 bluegills, eight redbreasts and a shellcracker. After that trip, I was hooked!
Just three short days later, Dr. Mike VanDenAvyle, my major professor while I was in Athens, was coming in to town to catch some seatrout and redfish. With a 20 knot wind forecast, and a short description of our prior trip, we were heading back to the Altamaha. I was excited at the promise of fishing an entire day for the ’gills and not just a few hours.
We launched at the same ramp as earlier trips and ran upstream to start our search in a few new areas that I had noticed. With high anticipation we brought out our ultralight spinning rods and started flinging the miniscule spinnerbaits. We fished a few promising looking blowdown trees in slack water without a bite. Surprised, we moved up to the same grapevine tangles that had been so productive over the last couple of trips, and again, nothing. But, upstream of the vines we started to pick up several big bluegills around some flooded willow trees. Black-yellow 1/8-oz. Satilla Spins were working best, although we tried other colors and sizes. We headed up to what I thought was my newfound shellcracker hole and zeroed with worms on the bottom, but we caught five nice largemouth bass to just over 2 pounds by flinging the spinnerbait to logs and roots in the mouth of the oxbow.
We discussed running to the blowdown-strewn slack water where my father and I caught jaw-dropping bluegills and nice crappie just a few days prior, and after just a few words we were motoring downstream. The conditions looked exactly like the previous trip, so I was making sure the net was readily available as I idled into position and deployed the trolling motor. My anticipation never materialized, as we worked several colors and sizes of spinnerbaits through the tangle of trees. After about an hour of baffling fishing, we were scratching our heads. I thought I had it all figured out, but the fish were laughing at us.
We decided to go back to the area where we had caught them a few hours before to determine if the poor bite was the location or if the fish had simply shut down. On the way back upstream, I noticed a willow-strewn bank and on a whim decided to pull in and check out whether this set of willows might hold fish. We agreed to fish it just a few minutes to check it, and what a good decision that was.
Almost immediately, we started hammering nice redbreasts and bluegill, with an occasional other species. It was quickly apparent that the fish were holding on the shallow willow trees and not the deeper outside bend trees on that day.
A little way up the bank, Mike switched to a 2-inch motor oil curly tail grub and caught a redbreast on the first cast. He stayed with it, catching an occasional fish until he could not stand all the hang-ups, and he switched back to the spinnerbait. We tried several Satilla Spin colors and sizes and found that black-yellow 1/8-oz. was the most effective. A crawfish colored (brown-yellow-orange) version was a distant second, producing about a dozen fish. We fished every stretch of willow trees from there to the ramp and caught enough that we did not make it back up to our morning “honey-hole.” Our tally for the day was 36 bluegills to a pound, 14 redbreasts to 10 inches, 14 largemouth bass to 2 pounds, a dozen spotted sunfish and a chain pickerel.
We relived one of my best days fishing on the Altamaha all the way back to the house. What started as a tough bite improved significantly as we dialed in the need to fish around the willows. Figuring out the key pieces of the puzzle is much of the fun of fishing, in my mind.
I was already scheming my next trip when the rains came, and the bite skidded to a screeching halt. The river has been in the floodplain ever since, and the fish have been growing in both numbers and size.
Spinning gear is my favorite for flinging lightweight spinnerbaits because of its accuracy with light lures and good drag system. On the Altamaha when fishing in close-quarters underneath the willow limbs, I like to use a tough rod, like my 5-foot ultralight Ugly Stik GL2 rod. The tip does not just pop off like a graphite rod would if you slam a hookset against a limb. I pair it with a Pflueger President 6920X reel and spool with 8-lb. test Spiderwire braided line. I usually use a 2-foot-long fluorocarbon leader between my braided line and lure. The extra power of braided line is beneficial when fishing around heavy cover with light tackle, but the no-stretch property has a tendency to make you set the hook too quickly. I have found that the most effective hookset with braided line and a Satilla Spin is to simply reel into the fish and then sweep the rod to move the fish away from cover.
I have manufactured the Satilla Spin spinnerbaits for several years. The beauty of fishing this tiny spinnerbait is that it comes through cover great without hanging up, and you do not have to add a trailer for it to be effective. Tie it on, cast it out, reel it in, and catch fish after fish. What sets it apart is the ball bearing swivel, 2X strong Gamakatsu hook, and attention to detail, such as 3-dimensional eyes that are epoxy-glued in place. Of course, that is not the only lure that will fool Altamaha panfish.
Other effective artificials include Beetle Spins, Mepps spinners, 2-inch curly tail grubs, Rebel crayfish crankbaits and even tiny Rapala floating minnow plugs. The best color Satilla Spins for us last fall were far and away black-yellow and crawfish, but other traditional colors include red-white, white-red dot, black-chartreuse and fire tiger. The 1/16-oz. size worked best in shallow or slack water, while the 1/8-oz. version was best in swifter areas or when we needed to get it down deeper.
Bait fishing also works great for panfish, and the typical worms and crickets pitched with bream busters or spincast outfits will probably land many more panfish this spring than artificials, but I typically catch larger fish with artificials than with bait. Early in the season, putting a worm or cricket on the bottom is the way to go, but by May, the fish should be active. The most effective bait rig this month will likely be a peg float, small split shot and a No. 4 or 6 aberdeen hook. I like threading a couple red-wiggler worms on the hook to give more action, but a piece of pink worm works well, also. Pitch your bait in the same places I described above for artificials, and hang on.
I did not specifically mention the name of the landing we used not to be secretive, but because the landing makes no difference. There will be awesome panfishing up and down the Altamaha this spring if the river levels are right. The hot bite will even extend up into the tributaries of the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers. I expect the bite to pick up once the river level at the Doctortown (Jesup) gage drops below about 7 feet. The best fishing will likely be when it gets below 5 feet. Last fall, our trips were in the 3 to 3.5 feet range. At lower levels, the water is usually a little clearer, and the fish have a larger strike zone. At the time of writing this, the Doctortown gage on the Altamaha is 11.7 feet and rising. It should be dropping by the first of May if we do not get any more rain. For more information on fishing the Altamaha and to download a map of boating access points, visit www.gofishgeorgia.com/Fishing/Altamaha.
The Altamaha River is known for its majestic cypress trees, expansive floodplain, numerous backwaters and excellent fishing. If the water levels cooperate this spring, it will be known for its record-breaking bluegills. If you happen to catch a bluegill larger than the GON river record of 1-lb., 5.7-ozs., then keep the fish on ice, take it to a certified scale to be weighed, and fill out an angler award application available at www.gofishgeorgia.com/Fishing/AnglerAwards. I will be surprised if river records are not broken on several different rivers this spring, so get your panfishing gear ready, and watch that river gage.
Satilla Spins are available at Googe’s Bait and Tackle Store in Hazlehurst; (912) 375-5546. You can also find them at Jaycees Landing Bait and Tackle in Jesup; (912) 588-9222.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bert is a freelance writer from Waycross. He has also been making quality lures (both freshwater and saltwater) under the name Bert’s Jigs & Things since 1987. Give him a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at [email protected].
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